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Minneapolis or Bust! ABAI #1 June 2013

So, I’ve just come back from the 2013 ABAI (Association for Behaviour Analysis International) Convention, along with my colleague BCaBA Practicum Student Lexie Kosick, which was held in Minneapolis Minnesota this year. Always held on the US Memorial Day long weekend, this Convention brings 4 to 5 thousand Behaviour Analysts from around the world together, to share the latest information in one of three behaviour analytic realms:

  • Applied behaviour analysis,
  • Experimental behaviour analysis, and
  • Conceptual behaviour analysis.

I’ve been asked to produce some blogs with regards to the Convention, but before I start to get into sharing my learning from that setting, I wanted to share a bit about the convention location that was chosen this year. Annually the convention is an opportunity to share the latest information in the field of applied behaviour analysis, but in addition to this, the host city for the Convention provides an opportunity to take in local culture… so why Minneapolis… not to be disparaging of the residents of the Twin Cities, but as far as being a tourist location, Minneapolis… not so much.  Minneapolis may not be a tourist mecca, except perhaps for hard-core Behaviour Analysts, why you might ask… Skinner used to work there.

Seventy-five years ago, BF Skinner (the Father of Behaviourism) began his career at the University of Minnesota, where he devised a plan to defeat Nazi Germany in World War II that was so unusual it just might have worked. Skinner arrived at the University of Minnesota in 1936, fresh out of graduate school at Harvard. Skinner’s most famous work in Minnesota began in the spring of 1940. It is reported that while on a train while travelling to a conference in Chicago, he was pondering the war in Europe. He recalled the recent massive Nazi air raid on Warsaw, in which the Germans had employed hundreds of old and obsolete planes with no expectation that they would return, instead ending their flights as bombs in the destruction of the city. Suddenly a flock of birds appeared outside, wheeling in formation as his train car passed by. “Suddenly I saw them as ‘devices’ with excellent vision and extraordinary maneuverability,” Skinner wrote in his memoirs. “Could they not guide a missile?”

Now thinking about our current levels of technology, one could not help but snicker when considering the utility of training pigeons to guide missiles – really? Remember, Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s work thus far in his career had been that of operant conditioning involving animals (rats and birds); he could teach them to perform complex behaviours through shaping and reinforcing discriminations – it wasn’t that far fetched that a group of pigeons could be trained to peck a sequence or light and guide a missile. Furthermore, at the time many countries were involved in training animals for aid in the war effort – dogs for detecting explosives or seals for defusing mines. Needless to say – there were a few kinks that could not be worked out, which compounded by the skepticism of the wisdom on trusting a bomb to a bird brain (or 3), eventually led to the disbandment of “Project Pigeon” in 1944. Luckily, for the science of applied behaviour analysis, BF Skinner’s failure to develop a “smart bomb” led to his return to academic work and to the identification of learning principles that have become the foundation of the scientific principles we utilize daily in improving the lives of individuals and that of society as a whole.

Elizabeth Sparling, BCBA

Clinical Director

Pivot Point FGC Inc.