Four Behavior Analytic Quotes by Non-Behavior Analysts

By Chelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Earlier this year I shared five inspirational quotes from behavior analysts. As I said then, I often come across impactful passages when reading (or listening to audio books and lectures) and have recently started taking notes so I can refer to them later. I also believe one way behavior analysts can disseminate our unique approach to science and technology to larger audiences is finding common ground with others. To that end, I assembled four quotes from non-behavior analysts which I believe fit with our approach to the world.

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” ~ William Faulkner, 1951

Faulkner%2c 1951William Faulkner’s 1951 Requiem for a Nun is the haunting sequel to Sanctuary. The story focuses largely on the main character’s attempts to deal with her violent past and the events surrounding the death of her child. Though Faulkner’s prose dwells on many non-behavior analytic concepts such as “spirit,” “evil,” and “redemption,” this particular line (Faulkner, 1951) is applicable to the philosophy underlying the science of behavior. When assessing any behavioral deficit or excess, behavior analysts consider the individuals’ history of reinforcement for behaviors, or lack thereof, an important factor in the current rate of behavior. In that sense, the past is in the present.

“That human behavior is more influenced by things outside of us than inside. The ‘situation’ is the external environment.” ~ Philip G. Zimbardo, 2007

Zimbardo%2c 2007Social psychologist Phil Zimbardo studies the conditions under which people engage in desirable “good” behaviors, or undesirable “bad” behaviors.  Zimbardo’s famous, 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment demonstrated the extreme behaviors in which otherwise typical young adults can engage given the right circumstances. In 2007, Columbia University adjunct professor and New York Times’ author Claudia Dreifus interviewed Zimbardo for her column entitled “A Conversation With… Talking to Science and Health Leaders” (Dreifus, 2007). At the time, Zimbardo was promoting his book, The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Throughout the interview, Zimbardo continued referring to a person’s “situation.” The chosen quote was part of his response when Dreifus asked specifically about his use of that word. While Zimbardo did refer to non-behavior analytic concepts in the interview, I believe his main point—that human behavior in largely influenced by the environment—is solidly aligned with a behavior analytic approach.

I’d hoped the language might come on its own, the way it comes to babies, but people don’t talk to foreigners the way they talk to babies. They don’t hypnotize you with bright objects and repeat the same words over and over, handing out little treats when you finally say, ‘potty’ or ‘wawa.’ It got to the point where I’d see a baby in the bakery or grocery store and instinctively ball up my fists, jealous over how easy he had it. I wanted to lie in a French crib and start from scratch, learning the language from the ground floor up. I wanted to be a baby, but instead, I was an adult who talked like one, a spooky man-child demanding more than his fair share of attention.” ~ David Sedaris, 2000

Sedaris%2c 2000In this quote (Sedaris, 2000, pp. 160-161), author and satirist David Sedaris describes his experience learning French. Having grown up in the American South, Sedaris moved to France as an adult, well after his writings made him famous in the United States. In his book Me Talk Pretty One Day, Sedaris muses over the difficulties of learning a second language as an adult. This humorous description of how people teach babies languageand do not teach adults languagehighlights the behavior analytic components of child rearing versus adult education. When I work on verbal behavior tasks with my toddler son, I giggle a little bit every time I reinforce his behavior with “little treats.”

“It’s all about finding the simple rules from which complexity arises.”

~Nicolas Perony, 2013

Perony%2c 2013Nicolas Perony is an animal scientist interested in how individual behaviors contribute to larger social phenomena. He applies complexity theory to the animal kingdom,  much of which aligns with behavior analysis.  I particularly enjoy his TEDx talk, delivered in Zurch in 2013 (Perony, 2013). In it, Perony not only explains how people discover the workings of complex animal systems by looking at simpler, individual behaviors, but uses the same model to show that the scientists collaborating to solve these research questions are themselves components of a complex system. This approach to problem-solving parallels much of what the systems researchers in behavior analysis investigate. Looking at systems from a behavior analytic perspective involves understanding the division and interaction between the behavioral and systems levels of analysis, examining the behavioral contingencies in light of the system and the system in light of the behavioral contingencies.

Thanks to Criss Wilhite for help tracking down the Sedaris quote. I would love to hear about your favorite behavior analytic quotes by non-behavior analysts in the comments below.  Also, be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive new articles directly to your inbox!


Dreifus, C. (2007). Finding hope in knowing the universal capacity for evil. The New York Times. Retrieved from

Faulkner, W. (1951). Requiem for a Nun. New York: Random House.

Perony, N. (2013). Puppies! Now that I’ve got your attention, complexity theory. TED. Retrieved from

Sedaris, D. (2000).  Me Talk Pretty One Day. London: Abacus.

Chelsea Wilhite, M.A. chelsea.wilhite@gmail.comChelsea Wilhite, M.A., BCBA has always wanted to better understand the world around us. As a television journalist, Chelsea worked her way up the ranks to produce the number one rated television news broadcast in the Fresno television market, an area covering five California counties. Along the way, she won two regional news Emmys and a Radio and Television News Directors Award for best news producer. In an effort to further her understanding of natural phenomena, Chelsea left television after more than a decade, turning to Behavior Analysis. She is currently a doctoral student at the University of Nevada, Reno. While behavior science research and instruction is now her primary interest, Chelsea never lost her passion for journalism and regularly contributes to behavior science oriented blogs, magazines, and newsletters. You can contact her at

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