Title: Murray Sidman: Fostering progress through foundational choices

Authors: Stuart Law and Steven C. Hayes

Date Published/Presented: November 6, 2020

Publication/Presentation Format: Peer-reviewed article in the Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior

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Sidman is considered an innovator and a philosopher of science in the behavioral tradition. His work has widely influenced the science of behavior. Sidman’s writings demonstrate his commitment to naturalistic thought. He advocated for a psychological science that focuses on observable behavior in context without referencing mentalistic or mystic entities. While Sidman was interested in effecting broad cultural change, he also sometimes advocated for strategies that pigeon-holed behavior analysis; for example, his commitment to time-series experimental designs and inductive research. He believed behavior analysis was highly relevant to human functioning, yet rejected the use of aversive methods. Sidman had great clarity about the foundational assumptions of his work, which afforded him the freedom to speak without reservation on many matters. This article highlights a few key contributions of Sidman’s work that led the science of behavior down a progressive path: stimulus equivalence, his use of rapidly inductive and idiographic practices, and his impact on ethical practices. 

Sidman’s discovery of stimulus equivalence led the way in seeking a naturalistic approach to human language and cognition. It provided a way for thinking about symbolic language and its interaction with direct-acting contingencies. Sidman did a good job of defining stimulus equivalence in ways that avoided confusion and promoted experimentation in both basic and applied research. His precise definition also provided an analysis that did not require neurobiological connections or cognitive mediators opening the door for behavior analysts. Though the work on defining and understanding relations continues today, it would not be possible without him. 

Sidman saw the need not only to examine equivalence relations in applied and basic areas but also to explain equivalence itself. He integrated set theory into his explanation and concluded that equivalence relations were an important property of reinforcement processes that could only occur given the right set of contextual conditions. Today, relational frame theory (RFT) is the dominant research area that attempts to explain equivalence. The RFT position is that equivalence is one of many relational operants. Sidman seemed to disagree with the notion that ‘equivalencing’ is a learned process and preferred his mathematical description. Nevertheless, Sidman’s diplomacy has allowed RFT research to progress, though he warned that it is important that theories are based on parsimony, coherence, consistency and productivity and should be subjected to rigorous experimentation. While science should be cautious in its analysis and recognize there is always room for error; it is also important to take bold leaps to advance the science. Regardless of how the battle over equivalence and derived relations shakes out in the future, Sidman made an important mark on the field. 

Skinner was an advocate of idiographic designs, but Sidman canonized them. Idiographic designs are necessary for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (EAB). It is impossible to discern the processes of change that impact the individual from a group-level analysis. It can only be accomplished with research designs that use within-subject replication. The functional principles of EAB have both precision and scope of application, which makes them extremely useful. Sidman was one of the greatest defenders of the methodological tactics of this approach as evidenced by his book Tactics (of Scientific Research). 

Applied behavior analysis has always been committed to this methodological approach; however, this approach is not true of clinical psychology. Mainstream clinical psychology has relied on randomized control trials and analysis at the level of the collective partly due to funding policies and partly a belief that analysis of individuals lacks generalizability. Nonetheless, the tides seem to be turning and now funding priorities are pointed toward process-based interventions and reinvigorating idiographic research. Mainstream psychology is starting to shed its reliance on statistical models concerned with inter-individual variation and moving toward models that focus on intra-individual variation, which echoes many of Sidman’s data-based decision-making practices. Of course, many of the idiographic statistical models proposed in clinical psychology do not mirror exactly the time series designs used in behavior analysis, but the root assumptions are the same. This consensus bridges the gap that has existed between the two fields and it might be that behavior analysts need to learn to speak a common language to expand into other domains. 

Sidman was one of the first in the field to speak out against coercive methods and believed they posed a great threat to the field. Now, most behavior analysts agree reinforcement is the first and foremost tool for therapeutic change, though it could have been different if Sidman did not speak up when he did. Nonetheless, the issue of ethics was not resolved in Sidman’s time. It is an issue that requires regular consideration. It’s important to consider the impact of expanding our knowledge base on scientific methods, providers, and the support of the culture overall. For example, it is important we examine how we select and shape behavior so we don’t run the risk of earning the mistrust of other professionals, the public and learners. We also need to continue to explore the best ways to promote choices linked to a person’s long-term interests. There are implications for stimulus equivalence and derived relational responding research since it has become evident that the traditional approach to functional analysis (i.e., four functions) is less useful with verbally sophisticated learners. Behavior analysts need to learn how to evaluate learner’s values, goals and committed actions beyond the four functions, and learn to shape relational repertoires that lead to self-advocacy and self-direction. It is critically important that research in this vein continues to be refined with diligence and address concerns such as dignity-of-risk in a naturalistic way. The science should inform best practices that foster health, safety and dignity. 

Murray Sidman was known for his quiet and humble manner – but beneath that exterior

he was a warrior for behavioral science. His clarity of vision and depth of commitment to a

natural science of behavior made a lasting impact. In each of the three areas we have reviewed he

took strong stands, but he was never rigid; he made adventurous leaps, but he was never

scientifically irresponsible or impulsive; he spoke forthrightly, but he was always prepared to

listen. His actions have had a striking impact on our field – one that continues to expand, not just

in what we know now, but also how we know it.

Relevance to our mission and vision: Many of Sidman’s philosophical ideas resonate with the mission and vision of High Sierra Industries. We are a person-centered organization, which inherently assumes that we care about fostering growth while also protecting the safety and dignity of those we serve. We also adhere to the notion that effective change can only be made with an analysis at the level of the individual and our flexible, individualized assessment process exemplifies our commitment to this notion. Moreover, we are an organization that respects the rights and dignity of every individual, and we think carefully about how to affect change through non-coercive means. It is evidenced by our inclusion of an entire domain in our assessment tool that is dedicated to exploring participants’ values, goals, and committed actions. 

Relevant genArete Skills Domains: Complex Verbal Behavior, Committed Action

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