Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


45th Annual Convention; Chicago, IL; 2019

Event Details

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Invited Paper Session #534

A Behaviour Analysis of Theory of Mind: Conceptual and Applied Implications

Monday, May 27, 2019
4:00 PM–4:50 PM
Swissôtel, Concourse Level, Zurich D
Area: PCH; Domain: Theory
Instruction Level: Advanced
CE Instructor: Francesca Degli Espinosa, Ph.D.
Chair: David C. Palmer (Smith College)
I fell in love with behaviour analysis in 1996, when I began working as a tutor for a child with autism. Almost immediately I became interested in interventions that could both define and establish generalised learning: the ability to demonstrate novel responses within an operant class without each individual response having been previously reinforced. I was given the opportunity to explore this question when I worked as the Lead Clinician for the first UK-based EIBI outcome study (Remington et al., 2007) at the University of Southampton. Within that context, I developed the Early Behavioural Intervention Curriculum (EBIC) an intervention framework derived from functional analyses of language, which subsequently formed the principal focus for my Doctoral thesis (2011). My clinical and research interests eventually settled, and continue to be, on advanced applications of contemporary analyses of verbal behaviour (Horne & Lowe, 1996; Michael, Palmer, & Sundberg, 2011) as a basis for teaching generalised verbal repertoires, and, thereby, as a means of minimising the need to teach specific individual verbal responses. Currently, I divide my time between the UK, where I live, and Italy, my home country, where I teach behaviour analysis to postgraduate students at the University of Salerno and support professionals in developing effective interventions.

The term Theory of Mind has come to refer to a collection of responses that involve one’s ability to predict another person’s behaviour based on understanding that person’s perspective. One of the most studied topics in the field of psychology for the past 30 years, Theory of Mind is considered not only an important developmental milestone in childhood, but also a theoretical system to explain additional social and cognitive processes in both typical and atypical children and adults. Despite the importance of the topic, behaviour analysis has yet to provide a satisfactory account of Theory of Mind (i.e., of the variables that control the types of behaviour commonly held to denote Theory of Mind). In this presentation I set out to provide the beginning of such an account. Firstly, I will argue that Theory of Mind is not an “entity” that is either present or absent, but rather, is a developmental verbal process that begins in early childhood with the establishment of tacting public and private events during social interactions. Secondly, I will provide an analysis of the controlling variables of the component verbal skills that are said to denote Theory of Mind. Thirdly, I will illustrate a hierarchical sequence of instructional activities derived from such an analysis to establish perspective taking in children with autism, a syndrome with known deficits in these skills. The application of a teaching technology derived from a conceptual and experimental analysis both validates and extends the basic approach.

Target Audience:

Board certified behavior analysts; licensed psychologists; graduate students.

Learning Objectives: At the conclusion of the presentation, participants will be able to: (1) describe the verbal controlling variables involved in Theory of Mind Tasks; (2) provide a behavioural interpretation of perspective taking; (3) delineate a programme of instruction to establish component Theory of Mind skills.



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