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A History of the Association for Behavior Analysis
Richard W. Malott1

Behavior Analysis Program
Department of Psychology
Western Michigan University

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On October 5, 2002, a few members of ABA, faculty and staff of the Western Michigan University Psychology Department, and ABA staff, gathered together at 1219 South Park Street in Kalamazoo, MI to celebrate the inauguration of new office space for the Association. President Michael Perone performed the ceremonial cutting of the ribbon, which was followed by a reception in the new building.

The new beginning that this ceremony represented, inspired past ABA Secretary-Treasurers to look back to provide an account of some of the major events in the Association’s history. In the following articles, Richard Malott remembers ABA’s first 10 years in The Founding of ABA, David Lyon recalls the second decade in ABA’s Expansion of Influence and Maria Malott remarks upon the past nine years in Growth and Organizational Maturity. In preparing these articles, the authors reviewed Executive Council meeting minutes from their terms of office and consulted key individuals regarding relevant sections, including Carol Pilgrim, Sigrid Glenn, Margaret Vaughan, and Jerry Mertens. However, the following pages are a personal account of the past 29 years, and the authors do not intend, and indeed space prohibits, that this be a comprehensive study of all the events that have taken place in the organization.

The Founding of ABA

The Problem
As it is now, so it was in the early 70’s: The Midwest was a behavior-analytic stronghold. But few behavior analysts could get their papers accepted by the Midwestern Psychological Association (MPA). For example, MPA rejected the presentations of notable, productive behavior-analytic scholars like Travis Thompson. As it turned out, the MPA program committee had an explicit policy of rejecting behavior-analytic presentations.

True, we could always present at the annual conferences of the Eastern Psychological Association (EPA), the American Psychological Association (APA), the Psychonomic Society, and the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy (AABT). But we couldn’t present in our own backyard, MPA, which met in Chicago.

The Solution
Many of us whined about this, but only one man did something about it. That man was Jerry Mertens, a faculty member at St. Cloud University (Saint Cloud State College, at the time).

I first saw Jerry Mertens at APA ‘68 in San Francisco--a huge, hyperkinetic bear of a man, with long, shaggy brown hair and a long, shaggy brown beard shouting, gesticulating, and enthusing about “Consequation in Education” to a large, captivated audience. I was so impressed, I remember the event 35 years later.

Well, the 70’s was a decade of protest against the establishment. And a common form of protest against establishment conferences was to hold an alternative-conference, same time, same place, next door, with the goal of forcing the establishment to open their doors to the alternative folks.

So, at the last minute, Jerry and Izzy Goldiamond threw together a two-day, concurrent, alternate conference at the University of Chicago in 1974. We were delighted that almost 100 people attended. And there was born MABA (The Midwestern Association of Behavior Analysis), with the goal of holding a more formal alternative-to-MPA conference in ’75, with the ultimate goal of gaining acceptance of behavior analysis by MPA.

Neal Kent, from Western Michigan University (WMU) felt that Jerry would not have sufficient human resources at St. Cloud to pull off a real conference and so offered to collaborate with him. And one human resource Jerry would not have for that next conference would be Marge Vaughn (AKA Maggie Peterson), a high energy little nifty whom Jerry had turned on to behavior analysis, who had played a key role in organizing the U. of Chicago conference, and who was just entering the MA program at WMU. Knowing that Marge would be at WMU and could keep the WMU end of things from completely falling apart, he agreed to share the responsibility with Neal and WMU. Marge would work under Neal, helping to organize the first MABA conference for independent, for which she received study credit, as MABA had no money for a paid staff.

But, midway through the fall of ’74, Marge came to me in tears because she could never find Neal to get the work done and she didn’t have sufficient clout on her own. Would I help. Yes, I would.

I would bring my considerable behavioral systems analysis skills to bear on the creation of MABA and its first conference. Those skills consist mainly of an expertise in delegatory technology—the ability to get everyone else to do the work, while kicking back and downloading Napster (or whatever the comparable form of degeneracy was in the 70’s). When you don’t have money to pay staff, the distinction between a good performance manager and a con-artist is a subtle one.

Well, MABA would be brand new and unknown; so we wanted to have a bevy of superstar headliners to attract attendees—with luck 200 or maybe 300 attendees. And we didn’t want to rely on our call for papers, which could be too easily ignored by the superstars. So we sent out personal invitations to the big guys. We were so bold as to even invite them big guys from the east coast, big guys like Charlie Catania. And, amazing: Almost all accepted, though we not only could not pay them, they even had to pay for their own registration. Outrageous, but it worked. Personal invitations are always worth the hassle.
And, in addition to 20 invited superstars, MABA ’75 had an attendance of 1,100, not 300. And, at the end of the conference east-coast superstar Charlie Catania said that MABA was the best thing to happen to behavior analysis since JEAB and JABA (or words to that effect) and he’d be back next year, with or without a personal invite. Imagine that. Build it right, and they may come.

Wagging the Dog
And the hotel was a delight—the Blackstone, just the right level of decaying elegance befitting an alternative, protest conference, and right across the alley from MPA’s Hilton—perfect for the active interchange and cross breeding between MPA and MABA that Jerry saw as crucial to the behavioralization of MPA.

But, it didn’t work. To my knowledge, no one from MABA attended MPA; and no one from MPA attended MABA. Never depend on natural contingencies to support difficult behavior.

Jerry had turned over ultimate control of MABA to The MABA Organizational Committee. And, because MABA, as a stand-alone organization, had been such a success, and because MABA had had no impact on MPA, and because of schedule conflicts, the committee voted to cut loose from MPA and meet when and where was best for MABA. Always be flexible enough to go for targets of opportunity.

Jerry objected to the mission shift. His goal was to influence MPA. Disappointed with the vote, he abandoned MABA to continue his seduction of MPA.

While concentrating on MABA, I continued to work with Jerry on MPA, though I thought it was a lost cause. But to my surprise, Jerry managed to get Jim Dinsmoor elected to the MPA Council of Directors in 1973, Nate Azrin as President in 1974, Sid Bijou as a Council member in 1974, and Ken MacCorquodale on the Council after that.

How’d he do it? Even in large organizations, few people send in nominations, so a small, coordinated group (e.g., Jerry’s MPA behavior analysts) can easily get their person on the ballot; then that person has a fighting chance of getting elected by the general membership (who, in this case, did not have an anti-behavior-analysis bias). A small, organized cohort can exert influence beyond its numbers.

But the behavioralization of MPA was short lived. The reactionary forces of MPA regrouped and recouped. This leads to Don Baer’s wisdom concerning maintenance of changes in organizations: After the behavioral revolution, beware the counter-revolution.

In 1988, Jerry returned to ABA, bringing his undergraduate students with him. He was wise enough to time-limit his grudge.

The Evolution from MABA to ABA
Now Jerry’s mission had been to behavioralize MPA. My mission had been to provide a conference that my students, the WMU students, and the Midwestern students could attend. So, it had to be in the Midwest, because clearly students could not afford to go to EPA, all the way out to the east coast, nor could they afford to go to APA, which met in such remote locations as San Francisco, New Orleans, Washington DC, and Disney World. I saw no need for another national organization; since we already had the Behavior Analysis Division 25 of APA, though Division 25 had been seriously weakened by the emergence of MABA. But, if behavior analysts from all over the country wanted to come to the Midwest, cool.

And, like Jerry, I was voted down. Clearly, MABA was functioning as a de facto national organization; and we should change it’s name and mission, to recognize that. Thus ABA was born, again, reflecting the wisdom of going for targets of opportunity. And it turns out that, Midwestern student participation has not been hurt by a floating ABA.


The Founders of MABA/ABA

Jerry Mertens
Jerry Mertens started MABA -> ABA to gain acceptance into MPA. That mission failed, but most of us think ABA is an even more significant accomplishment. Without Jerry, there absolutely would be no ABA. ABA was not an idea whose time had come. In fact, our success took us all by surprise. Who is Jerry Mertens? A teacher at St. Cloud. What has he published? Damned little, certainly nothing in JABA or JEAB. Where’d he get his PhD? He didn’t, he only has an MA. Yet, without Jerry Mertens, you wouldn’t be reading this ABA Newsletter, because there’d be no ABA. Who is Jerry Mertens? One of the world’s greatest teachers of behavior analysis. He coaches a farm team that sends many great, well trained, turned-on undergrads into the big-league behavior-analytic grad programs. Jerry also runs the Magical Behavioral Bus tour which he fills up with people from around the country, undergrads, a few grads students, an occasional faculty member, and takes a summer tour around the behavioral centers of the USA, having the students intensively read, study, and report on each center, before and after visiting. By the end of that trip, the students have learned a lot of behavior analysis, and lost a lot of sleep. At least he ran this bus tour, until discouraged by the bureaucratic, narrow-minded reluctance of the executive committee of a major behavior analytic program located in Kalamazoo, to grant undergrad credit for such a wonderful educational experience. But, I believe Jerry will rise again. Who is Jerry Mertens? He is a dream chaser. With amazing intensity and creativity, he has devoted his life to saving the world with behavior analysis, mainly by training them up and shipping them out.

Jerry is still teaching his butt off at St. Cloud.

Neil Kent
Who is Neil Kent? Neil was the man who had the vision. He had the vision of what the Psych Department at WMU could become. He and Roger Ulrich shared that vision. Without them, that program would still be the mediocre, eclectic program it was before them. Behavior analysis at WMU was not an idea whose time had come. It’s success certainly took me by surprise; and its continued survival goes against the predictions of many. Neil had the vision, and the social/political skills to realize that vision.

Neil also had the vision of what MABA/ABA could become. He knew the potential importance of MABA/ABA, more than all the rest of us combined. And he knew the importance of getting WMU involved in the creation and maintenance of MABA/ABA. And he had the social/political skills to get our department to commit the needed resources.

Who is Neil Kent? What has he published? Damned little, certainly nothing in JABA or JEAB. Who is Neil Kent. Just another dream chaser. A dream chaser who spent much of his professional life setting up effective behavioral systems like WMU Psych and MABA/ABA and then fading out to leave the maintenance of those systems to the rest of us. Without Neil Kent, there’d be no ABA.

Neil has now retired.

Marge Peterson
Marge was a mere first-year MA student when she played a crucial role in the creation of MABA/ABA. She could get things organized and get things done, in a way that Mertens and Kent certainly couldn’t. Without her, there would be no ABA. She charmed and coerced students and faculty alike to build a major conference in year one, when there had been none before. What had she published at the time she played an essential role in the creation of MABA/ABA? Absolutely nothing, of course (she was fresh out of undergrad school), let alone anything in JABA or JEAB. No Marge, no MABA/ABA.

From the start, she shared with me the position of Secretary-Treasure of MABA and in 1978 became the sole Secretary-Treasure of ABA, demonstrating that she didn’t need me to run things. Then she did an extended post-doc with Skinner, became Maggie Vaughn, and took a teaching position at Salem State College, where she’s still teaching. But she was just a first-year grad student when she played a crucial role in the creation of MABA/ABA and she was still a mere grad student when she became the sole Secretary-Treasure of ABA—the Head Mama.
Incidentally, at the same meeting where grad student Marge Vaughn was appointed as the sole person primarily responsible for running ABA, I had to argue with faculty members on the Council to allow me to have another grad student, Kathy Wright as my Co-chair of the ABA Program Committee. My observation is that faculty members have too strong a tendency to dis students…really.

Dick Malott
My role was the behavior systems analyst, the man with bubble gum and duct tape who tried to keep it all together, the master of delegatory tech. A good conman and a handful of dedicated undergrad and/or grad students can move the world.

In general, I find that it’s easier to get students to do the butt-busting work needed to pull off something as big and complex as MABA/ABA than to get faculty to do so. To chair an action-oriented faculty group is an exercise in frustration until you realize that the only ones who will reliably get things done are you and your students.

Now, that’s not completely true. If you can talk a faculty member into chairing a committee where failure will have serious consequences, then that person and that person’s students can do amazing work, usually.

There’s more than one way to contribute to the saving of the world with behavior analysis. In addition to people with strong basic and applied research skills, our field needs dedicated dream chasers, who have the vision, or the tenacity, or the management skills to create and maintain systems like ABA, where we can all display our wares.

Other Early Student Creators

ABA’s Student Volunteers
Marge and I had set up the MABA Coordinating Committee at WMU, consisting of an occasional faculty member and a few grad students. This was the main planning and logistic committee of MABA. Then a skinny girl in t-shirt & jeans wandered in. She wanted to be part of the action. She wanted to help. But we didn’t need any help; if anything, it looked to me like she needed help. So what could she do for us? She could organize a group of student volunteers to run the conference. Who needs student volunteers?

Well she persisted, recruited a large group of students. And then the t-shirt-&-jeans girl imposed something like a $1,000 dress code for all student volunteers. A code that persists to this day. And that’s how you can discriminate between the ABA student volunteers and the full members. The students look really terrific, while the full members are often mistaken for the janitors.

And the skinny t-shirt-& jeans-girl convinced her fellow students to work 40 hours at MABA for something like a commemorative t-shirt and a commemorative coffee cup. Student volunteers have been crucial to ABA’s being able to pull off a great conference every year and still keep the cost with in limits.

The t-shirt-& jeans-girl also had the vision. She knows what the mission is. And she knows how to achieve it. She knows how to get large numbers of people to buy into that vision and how to get them to work their collective butts off achieving that vision. She went on to get her MA and PhD, then to teach in Saint Mary's University in Halifax, Canada and start a long career of organizing excellent international and national behavior-analysis conferences. And to change her name from Linda Parrot to Linda Hayes. And to move back to the US of A. And rather than be the typical underemployed PhD wife, at her PhD husband’s university, she formed her own self-capitalized Behavior Analysis Program in that university (University of Nevada, Reno), which has become one of the outstanding MA/PhD behavior-analysis programs in the country and has branched out with satellite MA programs in other states. And, most recently, she created ABA’s Council of Behavioral Programs. None of her creations were ideas whose time had come. Without her none of her creations would exist today. That woman had the vision, and she still does, better than almost anyone I know. Linda Hayes is a queen of the dream chasers. But she was just a first-year grad student when she helped MABA/ABA have a great beginning and when she implemented a component of MABA/ABA that continues to keep it cooking so well.

ABA’s International Committee
Kathy Krumhus got her MA at WMU, did a couple Peace Corp years in Africa, and returned to get her PhD with Neal Kent. And among the Americans, she almost alone had the international vision. Along with fellow grad students Marco Sallas from Mexico and Okechukwu Ozuzu from Africa, she formed an ad hoc international group that raised a little money by throwing house parties in Kzoo and facilitated international participation in MABA. Because of the groups success, in 1977 MABA’s Council approved their request to be recognized as MABA’s International Behaviorists Special Interest Group.

Then one of the PhD council members objected to the notion that grad students be allowed to chair such an important SIG, failing to appreciate that the reason the SIG existed was because of the vision and organizational skills of those grad students and that no PhD had demonstrated that vision nor those skills with regard to the international issues. Fortunately, the grad students were allowed to chair and run the SIG, at least long enough to get it on a sufficiently sound footing that PhDs could take it over without doing too much damage.

After receiving their PhDs, Kathy went to Katmandu to establish a rural teacher-training program, changed her name from Krumhus to Goodman, then went to Jakarta and Bangkok to do international behavioral systems analysis, and finally to Washington D.C.; Marco returned to Mexico, where he is president of the Pedagogical University of Veracruz, where he continues to play a crucial role in the maintenance of a strong behavior analysis presence; and OK returned to Africa and is now in Florida working in developmental disabilities.

Though some parochial PhDs questioned the motives of Americans interested in international behavior analysis, suggesting they were just looking for international vacations, Kathy, Marco, and OK, mere a grad students, had the vision to understand that, if we were to save the world with behavior analysis, we needed behavior analysts all over the world. Dream chasers.

Today, ABA has a strong, worldwide orientation; and it’s getting stronger. Now, most of ABA understands that “saving the world with behavior analysis” means more than saving the USA. And a handful of grad students were responsible for pointing ABA in that direction.

Behaviorists for Social Responsibility
Harry Kent was a doctoral student of mine with a rapidly developing sense of social responsibility, so rapidly developing that by the time he’d finished his excellent dissertation at the Kalamazoo People’s Food Co-op, he agreed to publish it only if he could footnote the caveat that his dissertation was a lot of crap because its pay-for-performance incentive system was a corruption of the working class and inconsistent with his newly developed Marxist-Leninist social sensitivity—a caveat and thus a publication I felt compelled to decline. But Harry Kent (no relation to Neal) also had the vision, a true vision of the social responsibility to save the world with behavior analysis, only later to be replaced by what he considered the incompatible world saving tools of Marxist-Leninism. And Harry too was an excellent and persuasive behavioral systems analyst, so persuasive that he was able to convince a bunch of hippie, anti-money food co-opists to implement a $-based performance-management system, so persuasive that he was able to convince the head hippie co-opist, Marie Greening to enter our Behavior Analysis Program, where she did an MA thesis on her food co-op, so persuasive that she and fellow WMU grad students Gary Gant and Elizabeth de la Ossa accompanied him down the road to Marxist Leninism.
But while on the road to Marist Leninism and aided and abetted, as we say, by the Cal State, Sacramento cell of behavior-analytic faculty commie/commie-symp/neo-commie/ex-commie/anti-commies led by Joe Morrow, they started a small newsletter and a journal, with, yes, a red cover; and they formed the Radical Political Behaviorist group and the presumably less hard-core Behaviorist for Social Action group. And although these guys brought out the John Birch in even the most liberal ABA members, and although many of the ABA Council were sure the group was going to somehow embarrass ABA, I convinced the Council that there was nothing to worry about and that they should approve the groups request to form the official Behaviorists for Social Action Special Interest Group (BFSA SIG) of ABA.

Then when ABA moved its conference to Dearborn, because Illinois wouldn’t pass the Equal Rights Amendment, the OBM track included a special symposium with top managers from Chrysler Corp, an organization which was busy laying off workers to protect its bottom line, presumably with little concern for the bottom lines of those workers. In the middle of this symposium, terrorists rushed in and threw meringue pies in the faces of our distinguished, visiting Chrysler Corp managers.

The BFSA SIG immediately denied any involvement and blamed the heinous crime on “outside agitators.” But the ABA Council would have none of that and promptly replaced the student chairs of the BFSA SIG with a faculty member who could be counted on to demonstrate more decorum; I think that faculty member was Steve Hayes (the man whose ABA Follies was closed down because he showed a slide of the head of an important ABA woman superimposed on a nude body).

The BFSA SIG later metamorphosed into the Behaviorists for Social Responsibility SIG. And their red-covered journal metamorphosed into Behavior and Social Issues, both highly respectable, run by a respectable PhD.

Harry Kent was a young dream chaser. After graduating from WMU, he worked in developmental disabilities for Illinois. There is a good chance that we would have no Behaviorists for Social Responsibility SIG and no Behavior and Social Issues were it not for that student dream chaser. My only disagreement was with their idea that Marxist Leninism was incompatible with behavior-analytic performance management.


Other Early Faculty Creators

MABA’s Feminist Movement
I was chairing MABA’s first business meeting, when a tough, man-eating, feminist, you know the type, stood up, her fist clenched in a power salute, virtually if not really, and asked, “What about the women’s issues?” Huh? Can’t we just sweep those under the rug? No, we must make sure there’s a strong role for women in MABA. What a pain in the butt.

Turns out that Elsie Pinkston was not a tough, man-eating feminist, just a frightened, embarrassed, little Kansas farm girl with a PhD from the University of Kansas and a faculty position at the University of Chicago, but still a little farm girl scared spitless at having to make such a confrontational do in front of all these people. She didn’t want to do that; but the big conscience of the little, Kansas farm girl would not let her avoid doing what that little, Kansas farm-girl conscience told her was the right thing to do.

Elsie was the first woman elected to the MABA Council. And awkward though it was for her, she kept the women’s issues on the front burner, and wouldn’t let us good old boys sweep them under the carpet, to mix a metaphor or two. Elsie had the vision and stayed true to it. Without her and her fellow feminists, in early MABA/ABA, the wonderfully strong women’s presence in ABA might not now be as impressive; and we might not have had nearly as many women presidents and council members as we have had, over the years. And without the explicit intervention of women like Elsie, the role of women in ABA might be much less significant; the natural contingencies alone often fail to produce significant social improvements; things do not necessarily just get better on their own.

Why is the Experimental Analysis of Behavior Alive and Well in ABA?
Why isn’t EAB completely obscured by us M&M pushers? Because, from the git-go, Art Snapper, at the time a faculty member at WMU, assumed the responsibility of making sure that EAB was always well represented in the MABA/ABA program.

Why does ABA have The Behavior Analyst (TBA)? And why is TBA like it is?
Scott Wood, a faculty member at Drake University, had that particular vision. He thought MABA should have a journal, and not another JEAB or JABA, but rather a theoretical and organizational journal like APA’s American Psychologist. He had the vision and the verbal skills to make it happen. He convinced MABA’s Council and then brought it into being. And over the years, TBA has remained reasonably true to Scott’s early vision.

What ABA Needs

ABA needs people with PhDs. And also MAs. And BAs. ABA needs students. ABA needs women. ABA needs people with the vision and the behavior-systems-analysis skills to turn that vision into reality. MABA/ABA needed such people to get it going; and it needs them to keep it from stagnating. ABA needs dream chasers. And that’s one of the delightful things about ABA—it’s got ‘em. Check out the program. Talk to the folks hanging out in the lobby. ABA has many people who’ve spent much of their lives chasing a behavior analytic dream, in an effort to save or to understand one little part of the world or another. There are few issues of human concern that at least someone in ABA hasn’t tried to address, all the way from getting an autistic kid to touch his nose, to social welfare for an entire country, to achieving international peace. And they do so with considerable intelligence, considerable behavior analytic expertise, and considerable dedication. ABA has many great dream chasers.

But, most of all, ABA needs students. Without students, there would have been no MABA. Without students, there would be no ABA. And without students, there will be no behavior analysis. Our #1 priority is to recruit, train, and properly place students.

ABA’s Biggest Problem
ABA’s biggest strength is its student membership (in 2002, 36% of ABA’s 3,923 members were students). ABA’s biggest problem is maintaining those students, once they graduate. ABA’s biggest problem is converting student memberships to full memberships. If we were successful at this, ABA would now have 40,000 members instead of 3,923 members. For example, most of the original student founders and creators are fond but distant ABA memories. That doesn’t mean some are not still practicing behavior analysis, but there is a strong tendency for even our most dedicated and active grad students to gradually abandon most of their behavior analytic repertoire they worked so hard to acquire and we faculty members worked so hard to help them acquire; there is a strong tendency to regress to the common-sense, mentalistic mean. And the main function of ABA should be to attenuate that regression. We can never depend on natural contingencies to support difficult behavior.

For a wonderful, less opinionated, more factual account of this early history, see Marge Peterson’s (1978) article.


Peterson, M. E. (1978). The Midwestern Association of Behavior Analysis: Past, Present, Future. The Behavior Analyst, 1, 3-15.