CONNECTIONS (#6 of 6): An Aerial View




This series of posts has emphasized the importance of building broad behavioral repertoires. According to my Pasteurian hypothesis, disciplines are better off when their members have a bit of the generalist in them. And generalist chops come from diverse learning experiences… which is more or less the opposite of the hyper-specialization that graduate training promotes.

The more you know, the likelier it is that something you know will prove relevant to some new problem that plops into your lap. That’s the what. The why has to do with stimulus relations. Learning experiences build them, and the bigger they are the greater the benefits. As stimulus classes get more elaborate, the number of connections that exist between bits of knowledge (just saying “stimulus relations” here. btw), and the greater the potential for “insight” in the form of derived stimulus relations.

Consequently, as explained in the book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, “Generalists… [are] more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their specialized peers can’t see.”

The Secret Sauce Remains All Too Secret

You’d think, in a discipline devoted to behavior, this would be old news. But in point of fact we have been slow to embrace science and technology focused on stimulus relations. Just about anyone who has tried to publish in this area has had the frustrating experience of reviewers recommending rejection on the grounds that “this is too complicated” and “I don’t understand it.” And it took more than 50 years following the first stimulus equivalence studies for stimulus relations to be considered must-have content for practitioners-in-training.

To be sure, there has been progress in recent years. Stimulus relations work appears more often in our journals than ever before, and apparently more practitioners are getting the message. According to a 2023 study by Malkin and colleagues, about 3/4 of behavior analysts report having some training on stimulus equivalence — although if behavior analysis textbooks are any indication, “some” means “very little.” As far as I’m aware, 2020’s 3rd Edition “White Book” (Applied Behavior Analysis, by Cooper et al.) was the first textbook to include a chapter-length treatment of what now amounts to a massive stimulus relations literature (actually, it has two such chapters). It’s telling that only about 1 in 7 Malkin respondents reported any training on Relational Frame Theory, the dominant theoretical account of stimulus relations and the impetus for the majority of today’s research.

If the career development of behavior analysts tends to result in hyper-specialization, maybe that’s because, collectively, what we’ve learned about behavior is too simple and linear. If you don’t value intellectual breadth (as a stimulus-relations perspective should lead you to), you’re not going to create a training program that builds it, and you’re not going to seek out diverse learning experiences.

Raise Your Relational IQ!

There is, to be sure, an awful lot to learn about relational repertoires, if you’re going to become expert in them. But if you want a simple reason to exercise your own relational repertoire, check out this article:

Beck, C., et al. (2023). A Systematic review of the impact of derived relational responding technology in raising intelligence scores. The Psychological Record, 73, 339–361.

Take-home message: Relational repertoires make you smarter.

The article reviews a small but growing number of studies suggesting that training on carefully-selected stimulus relations can raise scores on intelligence tests (for short, IQ). The studies have used two commercial products, the SMART Training and PEAK Relational Training systems. [I’m not affiliated with either and, while I’m not promoting them in a business sense, they both tackle something that’s extremely important and thus merits your attention.] Although there are conceptual and practical loose ends in the literature, the preponderance of evidence shows that relational training raises IQ.

I get it: If you’re steeped in traditions of behavioral measurement, you may be asking, “So what?” We’ve been taught that hypothetical constructs like “intelligence” are conceptually bankrupt. But that’s the wrong battle to fight for present purposes. At a behavioral level, people whose repertoires are rich and flexible tend to score well on IQ tests. Relational training yields repertoires that are rich and flexible. Hence, consider the raising of IQ scores to be a big-picture marker of something valuable happening at the behavioral level.

By the way, forty-ish years ago, Ivar Lovaas understood this point well. The genius of his seminal 1987 clinical trial of behavioral autism treatment is not the specifics of the treatment — lots of people were doing similar things at the time — but rather the fact that Lovaas emphasized two big-picture endpoints that are “not behavioral” per se but nevertheless make a clear statement about a person’s overall behavioral repertoire: IQ and grade-level placement in school. I challenge anyone to make the case that IQ score can go up and school placement can improve without something very cool, and very general, happening systematically at the behavioral level.

It’s Not Rocket Science, Though Chatting Up a Rocket Scientist Would Be One Way to Start 😉

Here’s the great part. In order to build your own rich and flexible repertoire, you don’t have to master the massive stimulus relations literature, or understand the theoretical and methodological foundations of “intelligence,” or anything of the sort. You just have to get busy diversifying your learning experiences. There are many ways to do so, but allow me to suggest a starting point. Next time you’re at a conference, try attending some sessions that have no (obvious) connection to your interests. Talk to people who do very different things than you (Postscript). Maybe pick up a book you wouldn’t otherwise read. And when you get back home, be sure share some of the “random” stuff you learned with other people (because having to “perform” stimulus relations helps to promote the emergence of novel responses). You never know what this can lead to (see Postscript).

For Further Reading

Dixon, M. R., Whiting, S. W., Rowsey, K., & Belisle, J. (2014). Assessing the relationship between intelligence and the PEAK relational training system. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders8, 1208-1213.

Hayes, J., & Stewart, I. (2016). Comparing the effects of derived relational training and computer coding on intellectual potential in school‐age children. British Journal of Educational Psychology86, 397-411.

Roche, B., Cummins, J., Cassidy, S., Dillon, A., Moore, L. and Grey, I. (2023). The effect of SMART relational skills training on intelligence quotients: Controlling for individual differences in attentional skills and baseline IQ. Journal of Contextual Behavioral Science28, 185-197.

Postscript: An Example of the Value of “Useless” Knowledge

This story is condensed from a fun little book called The Undaunted Psychologist: Adventures in Research.

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Developmentalist Tiffany Fields was interested in the well-being of premature infants. At the time, the prevailing theory was babies born prematurely should be disturbed as little as possible. It had been shown, decades previously, that touching them resulted in increased heart rate and respiration, which was taken as a sign of stress, perhaps due to an immature nervous system. Thus the standard practice was to isolate premies in a tented chamber and touch them as little as possible.

One day, at a professional meeting, Fields found herself at a lunch table with a researcher who studied rats — specifically why rat mothers lick rat babies (which all rat moms do, a lot). This was, most decidedly, not an experience Fields would have sought out. The researcher droned on and on, and on, and on. When Fields was just about ready to go face down in her linguini, the researcher mentioned in passing that licking resulted in increased heart rate and respiration. Fields realized that since all rat moms lick their babies, this could not be something detrimental, that is, a “stress response.” Further digging suggested that the physical contact of licking might actually spur developmental growth, and eventually Fields devised a program of systematic touching for human premies. Research showed that premies treated this way grow faster, meet developmental milestones sooner, and end up better in just about every measurable way than peer who are “tented.”

Adapted from a post originally published September 30, 2023.