Behavior Analytic and Computer Technology: An Introduction

TL;DR: Behavior analysis and computer technology have a long history, but the two fields may be diverging. This blog is designed to explore how behavior analysis and technology are currently linked and how the two fields may be combined in the future. I will review research and provide tutorials in monthly posts.


For those of you who don’t know me, my name is Nick. I’ve held many titles in my life so far. Here are a few:

  • Professor
  • Board Certified Behavior Analyst
  • Clinical Advisor
  • Web Developer
  • Applebee’s Host
  • Wedding Officiant
  • Flying Trapeze Instructor
Nick looking goofy as a flying trapeze instructor
Nick looking goofy as a flying trapeze instructor

I hope to use this blog to discuss the combination of two of those titles: behavior analyst and web developer. However, fair warning, some circus may slip in every now and then.

There has always been a connection between computer technology and behavior analysis. From the beginning, Skinner needed to develop new technology to more easily discover relations between the environment and an organism’s behavior. He started with a simple track that tilted as the rat moved back and forth. The tilting of the ramp would deliver a food pellet and record the movement. Skinner eventually created what we now call an “Operant Chamber” or “Skinner Box” that is still used in experimental labs today (Skinner, 1956 in Skinner, 1999).

A Skinner Box
A Skinner Box (Attribution: IntroPsyc )

Another example, the Teaching Machine, demonstrates the unfortunate separation between behavior analysis and computer technology that has happened recently. The Teaching Machine was a device that allowed a student to work through questions and immediately get feedback on their responses (Skinner, 1999; “Teaching Machines”). The Teaching Machine was a “low tech” version of the online quizzes in Learning Management Systems today. However, as much as the computer technology of “Teaching Machines” has advanced, the behavior analytic technology that should be supporting that computer technology is falling behind. The “Teaching Machine” was not about the actual device, but about making procedures like frequent responding, clear feedback, and errorless learning easier to implement. I think there is a need to bring together computer and behavior analytic technology.

Recently, I realized that almost all of the research projects in the course of my relatively short career in behavior analysis have involved a combination of behavior analytic and computer technology. How I didn’t realize it sooner, I will never know. It started with my attempt to create a digital data collection system at the Campus Autism Program during my undergrad at UW-Eau Claire. This was back when we were using devices called “Pocket PCs”. The smart phones we have today were still years away.

An old Pocket PC
An old Pocket PC (Attribution: Pocket PC Central )

There were many projects after that. Here are a few:

Samples from the Computer-based Behavioral Skills Training program in Vanselow and Hanley (2014). A computer program created in Adobe Flash CS4 and actionscript with no budget and a graduation deadline. Thanks again to the many actors in the stranger danger videos: Corey, Sandy, Lauren, Greg, Luke, Jess, and many others.

Each of these projects combined the science of behavior with computer technology. I hope to bring together behavior analysis and computer technology given my background in both areas. This blog is a step in that direction. I hope to provide research reviews, tutorials, and other information relevant to the combination of these two great types of technology in monthly or bi-monthly posts.

A better trapeze picture
A better trapeze picture (Attribution: Nolan McKew/TSNY Boston )

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