Under the Dome Interview with Dr. Susan Schneider


Summer 2018 has brought sweltering heat to much of the Northern Hemisphere, highlighting the growing concern that much of the scientific community has expressed regarding our shifting global climate. With these problems feeling ever more tangible and present, the need for UtD research and contributions is more dire than ever. I recently had the great privilege to sit down with Dr. Susan Schneider to talk sustainability, dissemination (including her book The Science of Consequences: How They Affect Genes, Change the Brain, and Impact Our World), and potential solutions for our growing planetary crisis. Dr. Schneider has been a long-time advocate for the movement towards global sustainability and ecological responsibility, currently serving as a Senior Scientist for the non-profit Root Solutions, co-founder of the San Joaquin County Climate Action Coalition, and Visiting Scholar at the University of the Pacific. Most recently, through her work at Root Solutions, she gave two webinars on behavioral sustainability for the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education (AASHE). By employing collaborative efforts and clever application of behavior analytic principles, Dr. Schneider believes the behavioral science community—and our everyday sustainability warriors—can make a meaningful impact in this critical line of work.

We’re pleased to bring you the third installment of our UtD interview series—enjoy!


Gelino: You entered into behavior analysis with a background in engineering and a range of experiences relatively unique with respect to members of the field. Can you tell us a bit more about your transition into behavioral science and the factors that influenced that decision? Generally speaking, how did you discover the field and what were the decisions that surrounded that entry?

Schneider: Thanks . . . it’s been an adventure.  In my high school, seniors could take a college-credit course in psychology. We had to choose a book from a list for a book report, but my local library only had two books on the list. One was Eric Berne’s Games People Play, and if I had chosen that we wouldn’t be having this interview. Instead, I read B.F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity. I was so impressed by it that I actually wrote Dr. Skinner. I realized then how scientific psychology could be, and how beneficial the many applications of that particular behavioral science. It was very exciting. Skinner consistently responded to people who wrote him, I found out later, as I’m sure other readers of this blog can testify.  He wrote me a very nice, substantive letter, and we ended up. corresponding a bit. When I was in engineering school in Chicago, we met when he was in town for one of the very early ABAI conferences (Midwestern ABA, back then). After a stint in the Peace Corps (Fiji), I decided to go into behavior analysis because so many issues —environmental, social justice, etc.—depended upon behavior, and I had this familiarity with the basics of Skinner’s work. I did not anticipate the long stretch of my career in basic research, but quantitative analysis was attractive because of my engineering background, and I’ve always been interested in nature-nurture relations.  (Who isn’t, I guess?)

Gelino: Over the course of your career, you’ve demonstrated interest in a broad range of topics including choice, genetics and developmental psychobiology, and sustainability and ecological responsibility. How do you see these interests fitting into the greater purview of behavior analysis, or more specifically an under the dome approach to behavioral science?

Schneider: Our science applies very broadly (as Skinner saw and wrote about), and a lot of early behavior analysts worked in a variety of areas.  I think we need to continue pursuing the full range of where our principles apply, very broadly indeed. It’s almost harder to think of an area where our principles don’t apply.

My career has allowed me to explore several areas and that has been a great boon. We know so much more now about all of the interacting nature-nurture variables and how very complex and flexible those relationships are. To see how important operant principles are in this larger system, and help get that recognized, and to see geneticists, epigeneticists, and of course neuroscientists acknowledging that we have something to offer has been a rewarding part of my career.

Gelino: As mentioned previously, during your early experiences in engineering you had a desire to move towards more renewable energy. What sparked that initial interest to pursue more ecologically responsible ways of living?

Schneider: In part, it was the zeitgeist, the spirit of the time—environmental issues were really coming to the fore in the 1970s when I was making decisions about what to major in at college. It was clear there were a lot of environmental problems. This was before global warming was really an issue, although lately that’s been my focus.  I’ve been an environmental activist my whole life, and hold several community leadership positions at the moment.  Naturally, I bring behavior analysis into the local talks I give on climate change.

Gelino: What kind of impact do you think behavioral science can make with respect to renewable energies? That transition has obviously been logistically difficult, so how might behavior analysis help ease it?

Schneider: Behavioral science includes a lot of specialty areas, and this transition is such a critical challenge that we need to be working with people in these related areas—indeed, any kind of good science needs to have a place at the table. What our science can contribute is important: among other things, just basics like schedules of reinforcement. Many in mainstream sustainability have limited familiarity with learning principles and behavior analysis. They’re not incorporating some of our principles in the ways that they could to help make their interventions more effective. Maintenance is another good example, because obviously you can’t just run your intervention, drop it, and expect that any behavior change you’ve achieved is going to continue. Many in mainstream sustainability are aware of that, but we have been able to develop some useful methods for maintenance. The many areas where we can contribute include our small n designs, because mainstream sustainability-and-behavior experts often rely on correlational methods or between-group experimental designs. Our experimental designs could really fill a niche for some research questions. Many additional behavior analysis principles could potentially be useful. I presented on that topic recently at a mainstream sustainability conference, and I’m currently writing that up.

Gelino: One of the problems with respect to sustainability and climate change is the tendency for individuals in the greater population to depend on technology as a solution rather than developing new sustainable habits. You’ve taken steps toward disseminating behavioral science, but how do you think we can encourage individuals to start framing this as a behavioral problem rather than one of failing technology?

Schneider:  Climate change is a delay discounting problem, of course, caused by human behavior, and behavior clearly needs to be part of the solution mix along with technology. While we are seeing some global warming effects in the United States and internationally, by and large most Americans still aren’t affected directly. It also doesn’t help that many of these effects are probabilistic. And there are still climate change deniers out there. The book Merchants of Doubt documented the deliberate corporate spread of climate change misinformation (which has had an impact on a number of people in the US, unfortunately). Obviously people don’t want to give up reinforcing lifestyles, despite the negative impact on the environment.  Behavioral scientists have developed many ways of supporting greener choices, going back to two early-1980s landmark books by behavior analysts: Geller, Winett, & Everett’s Preserving the Environment and Cone & Hayes’s Environmental Problems/Behavioral Solutions.

Gelino: With respect to the path your career has taken thus far, what lessons have you learned that might have benefitted your early work and/or decision making, and what advice might you provide for individuals looking to get involved in under the dome-type work?

Schneider: I think interdisciplinary work is extremely important and we need more of it. With respect to a mainstream area like sustainability, everyone can get involved at some level, of course. Try and stay informed; good e-newsletters are World Resources Institute and Yale Climate Connections. Everyone can disseminate information, be good role models, and join environmental groups. Even perhaps try to get involved in policy since that has such a large influence. And, of course, vote.

But individual efforts can only do so much, so ideally we collaborate. As a behavior analyst in sustainability, I try to stay informed about other contributing disciplines. There is a substantial literature within our field, but it’s important to read in the mainstream as well. Even better, if you’re early-career, get a credential of some sort in the under-the-dome field. (In sustainability, my colleague, behavior analyst Angela Sanguinetti, has a PhD in environmental psychology.) Try to publish in mainstream journals. Join professional/scientific associations in other fields. Being a member of the American Psychological Association’s Division 34 (Environmental Psychology) helped get me my position with the sustainability nonprofit Root Solutions. It also helps to present at mainstream conferences. (Only a handful of behavior analysts usually attend the mainstream sustainability meetings, so we could use some more support!) All these kinds of connections foster mutual understanding and collaboration.

In sustainability, gamification is one area where behavior analysis does have a presence. The most popular blog post from my book website was on schedules of reinforcement in video game design, citing a 2001 article in a video game design journal. A recent book on gamification has a chapter on schedules of reinforcement. The authors recognize the importance of applying behavior analytic principles in gamifying health, education, and, more recently, sustainability.

Within ABAI, I recommend joining the special interest group Behaviorists for Social Responsibility (which I have been part of since before I even entered graduate school at the University of Kansas). Its journal Behavior and Social Issues has been an outlet for behavior analytic work in sustainability.

Gelino: With respect to the collaborations that have so much potential to make a difference, can you provide some advice or guidance in terms of setting up such a partnership, what resources to draw upon, and/or how to identify interested parties?

Schneider: There are certainly barriers—theory, methodology, terminology, etc.—but the benefits are huge. We have to be willing to compromise and try to understand the other field. Be careful not to use too much jargon, but instead employ terminology that can translate. For example, “generalization” has been rebranded as “spillover” in mainstream sustainability. Individuals seeking literature on “spillover” are not going to find the literature on generalization. In that case each term is readily understandable, but other terms do not translate as well – in either direction. (A colleague suggested including these other terms as keywords in our journal articles, so they would show up in others’ searches.)

How can we find collaborators? Sometimes they’re working at the same institution, or we find them through publications or conferences. Some behavior analysts have been doing exemplary interdisciplinary work for many years: applied behavior analysts and speech language pathologists, for example. Developmental psychobiology is another example, one of many.

Gelino: Apart from your book, how might blog readers be able to stay up to date with your work? Do you have recommended readings for those interested, both pertaining to your work and to the greater field?

Schneider: I have a public annotated list of about 40 books related to sustainability and climate change. Anyone who wants to go into sustainability has lots of resources. As recent examples, I can recommend Hawken’s climate change blockbuster Drawdown, Goodell’s The Water Will Come, Owen’s Green Metropolis, Dieter Helm’s books, and Bourne’s The End of Plenty. And, being a booklover, can I recommend two other nonfiction choices?: Adam Hochschild’s powerful and well-researched Bury the Chains and To End All Wars. So many books, so little time.

I keep my book website updated with my upcoming talks. I haven’t been keeping up my blog for some time, but previous posts may be of interest, and they include a couple on sustainability. I post occasionally on sustainability on my LinkedIn profile.

Recommended Scholarship:

Schneider, S. M. (2012). The science of consequences: How they affect genes, change the brain, and impact our world. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.

Schneider, S. M. (2007). The tangled tale of genes and environment: Moore’s The dependent gene: The fallacy of “nature vs. nurture.” The Behavior Analyst, 30, 91-105.

Schneider, S. M. (2003). Evolution, behavior principles, and developmental systems: A review of Gottlieb’s Synthesizing nature-nurture: Prenatal roots of instinctive behavior. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 79, 137-152.