european association for behaviour analysis
Mon, Jan 18, 2021

EABA has a successful program of regular conferences to share and discuss the findings of research in behaviour analysis and thanks to the stalwart efforts of Erik Arntzen and colleagues there is a European Journal of Behavior Analysis. Some individual countries have their own professional behavioural groupings, most affiliated to EABA, but the majority of behavioural groups are small, isolated communities who struggle to have any impact on government policy relative to the impact of other organisations in their own country. During the current pandemic, I see this so clearly when I listen to discussions on the radio and TV about how to influence people to change their behaviour so as to reduce the transmission of the virus. Often, coercion emerges as the only tool that is considered and the mere thought of providing positive consequences for changing behaviour never enters the discussion. The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis has numerous examples of community interventions from public postings of behaviour change to token economies that might be employed (see also, Biglan, 2020). But behaviour analysts do not have a voice at the table where interventions based on these findings could have been explored. At the other end of the spectrum is an interesting example where our voice is not heard. It concerns a movement within Volkswagen that has done some wonderful work in using positive consequences for influencing behaviour. They call it ‘Fun Theory’ (https://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=fun+theory) and in my discussion with Simon Higby who inspired this movement, I learned that he had never heard of behaviour analysis, let alone EABA.

All behaviour analysts I know are passionate about their science, and for those who are isolated this passion takes its toll in many ways. They need support, they need ……. What do they need and how can we help them? These are precisely the kinds of questions EABA has been addressing over the years. In my opinion, though, there is a need for more consideration of how particular kinds of obstacles impede our goals in promoting behaviour analysis.

I have covered similar issues in other publications (Keenan, Presti, & Dillenburger, 2019; Keenan, 2016) and in discussions with colleagues over the years. The basic point I make is captured by Figure 1. This is an SD that I designed to help me focus on the question of how we teach our science.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The Operant Chamber is an example par excellence of the sorts of equipment a science develops when investigating issues that arise in the study of natural phenomena. A bubble chamber used by Physicists might be considered as comparable. Both chambers are used for identifying and tracking streams of ‘change’ that emerge under the influence of environmental influences. The operant chamber allows us to monitor the dynamic behavioural system that crystalises out when a biological system is exposed to environmental constraints in the guise of schedules of reinforcement. Our teaching material then showcases the findings and the degree of control that is achievable. The lessons have been profound on many levels and the research strategies employed have taught us the value of the experimental analysis of behaviour in identifying functional relations that are central to epistemological issues association with the definition of an explanation for what is observed in the chamber (Morse & Kelleher, 1970, 1977; Tagliabue, Sandaker, &  Ree, 2017; Thyer, 2009; Zeiler, 1984).

If you are a teacher or a student who has never had the luxury of working with a real pigeon or a rat, not a digital avatar, then you are in somewhat of a pickle when it comes to inspiring others about the intricacies and value of studying schedules of reinforcement. For a rat in the chamber, great care is taken in arranging a full-on multimedia experience that includes direct acting contingencies. For many students in the chamber, though, seeing Figure 2 is often as good as it gets when it comes to learning about schedules of reinforcement. Students are then required to memorise the distinction between similar pictures of the various schedules. If they are really ‘lucky’, their teacher might have uncovered sample video clips of real animals performing on schedules, but that can be like watching paint dry.

Cumulative Responses

Figure 2. A cumulative record of performance on a Fixed-interval schedule.

What is disconcerting about the scenario above is that most people would agree that it is an unsatisfactory situation in which teachers find themselves. Furthermore, we know comparable problems exist regarding the availability of resources in other areas of experimental research. The absence of a carefully deigned laboratory manual for running a wide range of practical classes would be a major concern for any science. But it can seem at times that for those who have the luxury of conducting research in the experimental analysis of behaviour, addressing the absence of a publicly available laboratory manual isn’t high on the list of priorities. Understandably, locked in their own professional contingencies, they are not exposed to the frustrations of teaching without appropriate resources. Without wishing to labour this point, where, for example, does one go to find guidelines and software from the burgeoning area of research in equivalence/relational responding? How does one run a practical on this topic without the appropriate software, or even with the software? When it comes to schedules of reinforcement, how does one run a practical for social science students? These kinds of questions indicate that there is an opportunity for EABA members to take a lead in generating and/or sharing resources to produce the kinds of practical classes that address teacher needs in a variety of contexts. This is especially the case in countries that are only just becoming familiar with behaviour analysis and where there are few translations of basic texts.

If there were 100 students in the chamber in Figure 1, how many would end up getting excited about behaviour analysis when a teacher has limited resources with which to engage them? Of course, it is impossible to say, but the value of the question is the way it focuses attention on the definition and management of appropriate contingencies within the chamber. In the context of philosophical and applied issues, that presents a formidable challenge for the design of practical classes (Jason, 1984). The digital age has seen an explosion of video material for showing examples of procedures used in Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA). This material supplements the guidance provided by written text. But to go a step further, you would need the guidance of an experienced practitioner. Video, text, and supervision are powerful ingredients for designing and running the necessary practicals to teach about ABA. Journal articles showcasing the latest research may be inspiring, but we should not forget that what they advertise may remain painfully aspirational for those who can only function like window shoppers who do not have the resources to gain access to what is on offer.

The obstacles to accessing ABA services across Europe are well documented (Keenan et al., 2014; Kelly, Martin, Dillenburger, Kelly, & Miller, 2018). Ironically, those teachers who swim against the stream to make the most of what they can do in the world of Figure 1 then find that their students are unable to secure employment to practice what they have learned. Often this is because government policy in their own countries has not been sufficiently informed by the kind of social movement that produced the dramatic legislative changes with regards to ABA-based interventions that occurred in the States. Parents of children with autism in the USA were important stakeholders who fought for the social change needed to secure the uptake of behaviour analysis. Working together, academics, practitioners, and parents created something that could not be produced by any of them alone. That is a huge lesson for EABA. In each of our countries within Europe, behaviour analysts can point to the evidence base for the effectiveness of ABA, or to the misrepresentation of ABA (Keenan & Dillenburger, 2018; UK-SBA & Chiesa, 2020). Practitioner behaviour analysts can open up private practices and provide material that may be useful in tribunals (Keenan & Dillenburger, 2020), but it will still be the case that those at the forefront of the drive to insist that services be made available are parents of children with autism. When parents become students of our science, they fight for our science when they fight for their children to have access to it, and by virtue of their fight they populate and help finance our courses with students who may want to work with their children. An article in a recent EABA Newsletter (Gandalovicova, 2016) describes the heroic achievements of one mum whose battle with authorities resulted in government funding for training in ABA in the Czech Republic. Could we do more to offer other parents the same level of support they indirectly give to academics whilst enduring the stresses they expose themselves to in dealing with other professionals who block access to ABA services? APBA, for example, allows non-profit stakeholder advocacy organisations to be Affiliates of APBA if their mission is consistent with those of APBA, and APBA has collaborated closely with stakeholder organisations like Autism Speaks and the Council of Autism Service Providers (Gina Green, personal communication). To date, EABA has been silent on the possibility of fully engaging with stakeholders. I believe it is time for change. Why wait (Baer, 1973)? We need to be more strategic, however, in how we plan for change based on the challenges faced by each country. A simple step, for example, might be to invite policy makers, media, or key stakeholders in any area, not just autism, to keynote presentations at our conferences. Ironically, the recent changes announced by the BACB in Dec 2019 have forced many Europeans to reflect on their relative inaction with respect to the recognition of their profession within many countries in Europe. That may have been the spark we needed to ignite a new sense of determination as we move forward together.


Baer, D.M. (1973). The control of the developmental process: Why wait? In J.R. Nesselroade, & H.W. Reese. Lifespan developmental psychology. (p. 185-193). New York: Academic Press.

Biglan, A. (2020). Rebooting Capitalism: How behavioral science can forge a society that works for everyone. Eugene, OR: Values to Action. https://valuestoaction.com/reboot/

Gandalovicova, J. (2016). The Arrival of ABA in the Czech Republic. EABA Newsletter, December.

Jason, L. A. (1984). Developing undergraduates’ skills in behavioral interventions. Journal of Community Psychology, 12, 130-139.

Keenan, M. (2016). The scientific image in behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 39, 7–8. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40614-016-0059-4

Keenan, M. & Dillenburger, K. (2018).  How ‘Fake News’ affects autism policy. Societies, 8, 29; doi:10.3390/soc8020029

Keenan, M. & Dillenburger, K. (2020). Drama in the courtroom: Defending the rights of children diagnosed with autism. The barrister. Retrieved, Nov. 2020, from http://www.barristermagazine.com/drama-in-the-courtroom-defending-the-rights-of-children-diagnosed-with-autism/

Keenan, M., Dillenburger, K., Röttgers, H.-R., Dounavi, K., Jónsdóttir, S. L., Moderato, P., … Roll-Pettersson, L. (2014). Autism and ABA: The gulf between North America and Europe. Review Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 2(2), 167–183. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40489-014-0045-2

Keenan, M., Presti, G., & Dillenburger, K. (2019). Technology and behaviour analysis in Higher Education. European Journal of Behavior Analysis, 21(1), 26–54. https://doi.org/10.1080/15021149.2019.1651569

Kelly, M., Martin, N., Dillenburger, K., Kelly, A., & Miller, M. M. (2018). Spreading the news: History, successes, challenges and the ethics of effective dissemination. Behavior Analysis in Practice. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40617-018-0238-8

Morse, W. H., and Kelleher, R. T., 1970, Schedules as fundamental determinants of behavior, in: The Theory of Reinforcement Schedules (W. N. Schoenfeld, ed.), pp. 139–185, Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York.

Morse, W. H., & Kelleher, R. T. (1977). Determinants of reinforcement and punishment. In W. K. Honig, & J. E. R. Staddon (Eds.), Handbook of operant behavior(pp.174–200). Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

Tagliabue, M., Sandaker, I., &  Ree, G. (2017). The value of contingencies and schedules of reinforcement: Fundamentals of behavior analysis contributing to the efficacy of behavioral business research. Journal of Behavioral Economics for Policy, 1, 33-39.

Thyer, B. (2009). Epistemology: a Behavior Analytic Perspective. Humana Mente, 3 (11), 45-63.

UK-SBA, & Chiesa, M. (2020). UK-Society for Behaviour Analysis Position Paper: Behaviour analysis, autism, and learning disability. Fact and fiction. Retrieved November 22, 2020, from shorturl.at/bgFOQ

Zeiler, M. D. (1984). The sleeping giant: Reinforcement schedules. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 42, 485-493.


My comments above have not referenced philosophical issues at the heart of behaviour analysis. This does not mean I regard them as being less important than the other issues I covered. On the contrary, but in my opinion the way in which they are covered in a course often depends on having someone with extensive training in philosophical issues, and there aren't that many with these credentials. The solution generally is to point students to texts written by leaders in the field. Again, though, and with all due respect to the authors, these texts can be daunting for students who have never before explored philosophy. The goal for the teacher, then, is to design exercises to help generate the behaviour of asking questions about how we think about behaviour and to show how these questions can be addressed. Recently, I shared a website co-developed with Karola Dillenburger (https://www.behaviouranalysis.eu.com) where you will find examples of the ways we tried to design exercises addressing dualism, mentalism, and the analysis of private events. What we did was take advantage of the power of the discriminative control afforded by a digital environment to engage directly with the learner. We tried to provoke mistakes by the learner so that we would have some behaviour with which to work. In the images below, I show how a similar tactic can be employed in a classroom practical when used in conjunction with the shaping game (Keenan & Dillenburger, 2000). Figure 3 is what I call a conceptual canvas for the practical.

Conceptual Canvas

Figure 3. A conceptual canvas for the shaping game.

The figure shows a person in the centre who has just participated in the shaping game. The blue line represents time and from it hang red pegs to represent the delivery of reinforcers during the shaping, while the white rectangles indicate specific SDs that were incorporated into the exercise. Figure 4 represents a snapshot during the exercise where one of the SDs, a chair, was encountered by the participant. There were two target behaviours for the shaping when I created these images for teaching, but only the first one only is discussed here; it was to pick up a duster placed on the ledge of the white board shown in Figure 4.

Usually what happens is that the participant initially positions him/herself next to the chair. This is followed by a full sit down as shown in Figure 5.

Participant encounters

Figure 4. The participant encounters a chair.

Participant sits

Figure 5. The participant sits in the chair.

During the game, I would normally ask the participant to put fingers in his/her ear so I can discuss what just happened with the class without him/her listening to what was said. Of concern for the discussion was how we deal with the behaviour of sitting. Having previously primed the class before we brought in the participant, we now have the basis for an interesting discussion. Importantly, the participant is a conscious human being and there can be no suggestion that we are treating him/her like a black box, a familiar misrepresentation of behaviour analysis. Indeed, we can even ask the participant about his/her act of sitting, how s/he felt, the reasons for sitting, the role of free will when deciding to sit or not to sit etc. Figure 5 also includes a person wearing a woollen hat made to look like a brain. If you had one, the participant could wear it throughout the shaping exercise. The rationale for doing so is to make the point that changes in brain functioning throughout the shaping game do not explain the reasons for the changes in brain functioning. The whole person changes across time in a way that is under the control of the contingencies operating during the shaping exercise. The participant in Figure 3 can even walk along the timeline to replay segments that provoked discussion, where each segment represents a snapshot in time. An added ‘visual’ is to ask the class to imagine they could see everything they wanted to see inside the skin, thus capturing the essentials of a sentient being. The whole exercise provides opportunities to put to rest strawman arguments about behaviour analysis that persist in many schools of psychology.

Whatever way you use the conceptual canvas described here, it provides space for delving into numerous questions that make for an interesting classroom practical in behaviourism.


Keenan, M., & Dillenburger, K. (2000).  Images of behavior analylsis: The shaping game and the behavioral stream. Behavior and Social Issues, 10, 19-38.

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