Can we use technical notation to help to achieve conceptual precision?

I was really happy to finally publish a paper first conceptualised in 2013, which I have worked on intermittently since. In some scientific fields, abstract ideas such as theorems, grammatical rules, and so on, are expressed using technical notation. In my own field of psychology, Relational Frame Theory (RFT) is a particularly useful approach to both explain and manipulate language and cognition with precision, scope, and depth. In the early days, researchers would use technical notation to describe the patterns of adaptive behaviour (called “relational framing”), but that has gotten lost as the field has become more practitioner-oriented and the experimental behaviour analysts have (alas, literally) been dying off. Having spoken to others who have gravitated to RFT over the years – especially the ones who aren’t so interested in ACT therapy – I noticed that a few of us have started to lament how efforts to achieve technical precision with basic experimentation have been sidelined by our colleagues and by other fields. We wanted to create a resource (i) for anyone who wants to revisit it, (ii) to remind people that there are still a few of us left who do basic experimental behaviour analysis, and (iii) to show our cognitive colleagues that the behaviour analytic tradition has indeed accounted for the complexity and generativity of language.

This paper is dedicated to my more senior friends, colleagues, and mentors who sacrifice sexy research in favour of doing more technical legwork.


We inherit anxious behavior. So what?

People who are high in trait Neuroticism are stirred up emotionally more easily and may be more likely to withdraw from challenge/threat situations. With early twin studies, we learned beyond reasonable doubt that this susceptibility to negative emotion is highly heritable (Viken, Rose, Kaprio, & Koskenvuo, 1994), with modern genetics research corroborating early findings in this respect (Goodman et al., 2018; Segerstrom & Smith, 2019).

Recent research has suggested that anxiety and attentional biases to threat stimuli are also highly heritable (Aktar, Bockstaele, Perez-Edgar, Wiers, & Bögels, 2018). That is, we inherit a certain degree of likelihood of quickly directing our attention towards threatening stimuli in preparation for a fight (anger/outrage etc.), flight (running away/ignoring the problem etc.) or freeze (staying very still so the T-Rex doesn’t eat you). However, we don’t just display attentional biases towards actual threat stimuli. My colleagues and I have recently demonstrated that we also have a biased orientation towards stimuli that suggest a possibility of future threat (Gladwin, Möbius, McLoughlin, & Tyndall, 2018).

Image result for anxiety

All in all, we’re a very “touchy” species. That can be adaptive in that it helps us to stay out of danger, or maladaptive as we’re paralysed from moving forward in the world and doing things that are scary but worthwhile.

Due to the high heritability of our susceptibility to negative emotion, it seems that some people will naturally experience more negative emotion than others, independent of our individual circumstances. Therefore, when someone is negatively affected (e.g., anxious, offended, depressed etc.), it does not necessarily mean, in and of itself, that there is something wrong with the world around them. The solution to experiencing negative affect might be to change your environment to make it less scary, or it might be to be braver and meet the challenge head-on. The latter is what behavior therapy trains people to do.


Aktar, E., Bockstaele, B. Van, Perez-Edgar, K., Wiers, R. W., & Bögels, S. M. (2018). Intergenerational Transmission of Attentional Bias and Anxiety. Developmental Science, e12772.

Gladwin, T. E., Möbius, M., McLoughlin, S., & Tyndall, I. (2018). Anticipatory versus reactive spatial attentional bias to threat. British Journal of Psychology.

Goodman, S. J., Roubinov, D. S., Bush, N. R., Park, M., Farré, P., Emberly, E., … Boyce, W. T. (2018). Children’s biobehavioral reactivity to challenge predicts DNA methylation in adolescence and emerging adulthood. Developmental Science, e12739.

Segerstrom, S. C., & Smith, G. T. (2019). Personality and Coping: Individual Differences in Responses to Emotion. Annual Review of Psychology, 70(1), annurev-psych-010418-102917.

Viken, R. J., Rose, R. J., Kaprio, J., & Koskenvuo, M. (1994). A Developmental Genetic Analysis of Adult Personality: Extraversion and Neuroticism From 18 to 59 Years of Age. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 66(4), 722–730.


Can psychologists raise intelligence?


Here’s a blog post I wrote for the Association for Behavior Analysis International, the world’s leading organisation for behavioral psychology, with 35,000 members across all its sub-chapters. In this blog, I put my PhD work in context in an attempt to bridge the divide between behavioral psychology and cognitive neuroscience.

“Nonetheless, those smaller studies yielded large effects, with improvements in IQ in the 15-30 point range. Considering that 15 points represents one whole standard deviation in many IQ tests, this seems remarkable. In the context of a broader literature saying that this was virtually impossible, it seemed that behavior analysts might have the tools to climb a little further, even if those effects were to diminish substantially in more stringent tests.”