Thought Leaders 027 | Dr. Sigrid Glenn | Part 1

This month on Thought Leaders, we are joined by Dr. Sigrid Glenn as she tells us how her unusual journey to the field of Behavior Analysis in the 60's and how she has been instrumental in building the program at UNT and the Culturo-Behavioral Science Movement.


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Shauna Costello (00:01):

You're listening to Operant Innovations, a podcast brought to you by ABA Technologies. This month, on Thought Leaders, we are talking with Dr. Sigrid Glenn as she describes her unlikely arrival to the study of science of human behavior, and how she got to where she is today. Today we are here with Dr. Sigrid Glenn. Thank you so much for talking with me today. I'm very excited.

Dr. Sigrid Glenn (00:26):

Well, I'm very pleased to be here, Shauna. It's an honor to be asked.

Shauna Costello (00:31):

I'm going to jump right in because I have tried my hardest not to do any reading or anything like that. What is your story and how did you get to where you are today?

Dr. Sigrid Glenn (00:48):

Shauna, it's hard to know how far back to go, but I'll start with how I managed to decide what I wanted to do in graduate school. I was out of undergraduate school for about six years, and all that time I knew I wanted to go to graduate school. During that time, I was working in the theater and I had my bachelor's degree in theater education. I married an actor, director, producer, and we were in New York for a few years. While I was fiddling around in the theater, I also was spending a lot of time in the library. I was reading Freud, Jung, Theodore Reik, All these psychoanalysts like Karen Horney and it was very interesting and I thought about going back to school in that. The third thing I thought about was going to school in English, because I like to write. I thoroughly enjoy writing and I thought, "Well, I'll be a writer and I'll major in English as a graduate student." I decided because the reading that I had done had all been in psychology, I would try to do psychology. We moved back from Canada to Dallas and I also read a book called "Careers for women after marriage and children." I thought I had a child, I was married, I was going to have to go wherever we were going and whatever. This was in 1968. One of the things that they suggested would be a good career for a woman after marriage and children was clinical psychology, because you had some freedom into how you did your scheduling. I thought it made sense. I applied to two graduate programs. I applied to the doctoral program at Southwestern Medical School in Dallas and I applied to the masters program. They didn't have a doctoral program at University of North Texas. It was called, at that time, North Texas State University. The doctoral program wrote me back and said, "We are not accepting any incoming students this year. Please reapply next year." The masters level people at North Texas said, "Yes, we'll accept you." I started at North Texas and the very first course I took was taught by Dr. Donald Whaley. Recall that I had been doing all my reading in Freud, Jung psychoanalysis, what have you. Dr. Donald Whaley was a radical behaviorist and so the first thing he did was put me into shock with what he said. I could not believe what he was saying. Nevertheless, he sounded somehow believable, but it wasn't believable. After my first year, I had two courses from him, one each semester, and I had some other courses like statistics and whatever. At the end of the first year, he said, "Would you like to be in a reading group for the summer?" And I said, "Oh, that sounds great." He held up a book and it was "Contingencies of Reinforcement: A theoretical analysis" by Burrhus Frederic Skinner. I said, "Yes, I'd like to do that, except I'm going to California with my family in June." He said, "Well, you can join up when you come back so you can get with it." I went out to California and on the way out to California, I read that book and it was like a conversion experience. My entire world was completely reversed. It was like black and white was reversed. The picture and the profiles were reversed and for a long time I could go back and forth between those two worlds and see how I used to think and how I think now. Now I can no longer do that. I don't remember how I used to think. I just know how I think now. It was how I got into behavior analysis. I was in a masters program and about two years after I got in the masters... By the way, I had zero hours in psychology when I started in the masters program. I had to do a few courses to catch up or whatever. They said they had to be undergraduate courses, but I just went ahead and took graduate courses and they just added the 24 hours to my 36 hour degree. About halfway through my four years in the masters program, getting 72 semester credit hours, they got a doctoral program. I applied for the doctoral program and got it about halfway through or about the end of my masters program, I finally succumbed to Don Whaley's suggestion that I work with the kids with Autism because I was doing clinical psychology and I didn't quite see how that worked. I started working with the kids with Autism and I was absolutely fascinated. It was so interesting because I could see behavior changing with my eyes. I could see it changing and then the power of the behavior principles and behavior procedures really became clear to me. I went ahead into the doctoral program and eventually finished that. While I was on my internship, the Center for Behavioral Studies had been created and going along for a while. Don Whaley said, while I was on my internship, "When you come back, I'm going to have an administrative job for you." I said, "I don't want an administrative job. I'm not interested in administration. I want to work with people." He said, "Well, okay. We'll get somebody else for that." I said, "Okay," and so I continued working, basically doing this without appointment, but I just set up the clinic. There was sort of nobody in charge at that point and so I just started saying, "Well, let's have seminars," because nobody was taking courses in behavior analysis on the campus by that time. They were never called behavior analysis. They were always called psychology. I set up the clinic with a lot of people supporting and helping, but what I did was set up seminars and workshops for volunteers who were coming in and some of the other people who were about my level. We all worked together to do that. In 1983, Don Whaley died at age 49 unexpectedly. At that time the Center for Behavioral Studies was about to stop receiving funding from the state. We had a special item in the budget for the Center for Behavioral Studies to work with kids with Autism. I spent the summer of 1982 trying to figure out what I wanted to do because I had spent 10 years working with the kids with Autism. I had done some clinical work, which I really did not like that much and what I was interested in was experimental work. I did not do experimental psychology because Whaley said anybody can do experiments, nobody's going to stop you, but if you get your degree in clinical, you can always do clinical, but you can't do clinical if you get your degree in experimental. Do the experiments, but get your degree in clinical and you have all options open. We did a lot of applied experimental work during those 10 years that we were working before the center got defunded. I decided I really did like academia. I liked experiments, I liked conceptual work. I was very interested in conceptual work from the very beginning. My publications were about half and half conceptual and some type of mostly applied experimental work. Shauna, you're welcome to cut out any of this that you want to cut out. Just rehashing history here.

Shauna Costello (10:24):

I'm loving this. I'm absolutely loving this and you still became a writer. [Laughing].

Dr. Sigrid Glenn (10:29):

Yes, right. Exactly. I was already doing some writing. Actually, my first published article was an article I wrote while I was in graduate school, but before I got in the doctoral program. I was teaching cinema and drama at a high school in Dallas and I was directing plays, which I loved. Directing plays is all about behavior. It's all about showing physically and orally what people are thinking and what they're doing and how they're feeling and what you expect them to do, what you would predict they would do. It's all about that. I did that for a couple years and I wrote an article that was published in Dramatics Magazine called "Romeo and Juliet in Black and White." I had the Montagues white and the Capulets black because the school I was teaching in was a private Catholic school and it was integrated and I was able to do that. It was really a lot of fun, but it was the first published article I had. When I was in the Autism program, we got some more publications then. After the Autism program closed, I started doing more conceptual work mainly because I didn't have a lab. I was also very interested in a lot of the conceptual issues that were out there. I didn't spell out that about 6 of the 10 years I was working with the children with Autism was after I completed my doctoral studies. When Don Whaley died, we had a new dean in the college and the new dean wanted to build up the academic programs in the college. It had started as an applied school for people working in studies and aging. Our unit, the Behavior Analysis Center for Behavioral Studies was in applied economics. These were the programs in there, but most of them did not have any coursework. They were doing applied work in the field and so Bill Luker wanted to build up the academic profile of this college and make it into a more fully rounded academic program. We were in the process of proposing a masters degree in behavior analysis when Don Whaley died. The University or the dean, somebody removed the request for a program from the State coordinating board agency who were reviewing it. We had passed through all the hoops in the University to get this program underway and it was not easy because the psychology department fought us really hard on it. We were very fortunate we had a vice president who was not opposed to behavior analysis. He didn't like it particularly, but he wasn't opposed and he just said, "Well, let's see what the coordinating board says." When Don Whaley died, that degree was pulled, but we already had four undergraduate courses approved by the coordinating board that were designed to support the graduate program. People would have to take those four undergraduate courses along with their bachelor's degree, whatever it was, to get into the masters program in behavior analysis. We still had those four undergraduate courses already approved. When they pulled the masters degree, I said to dean Luker, "Please keep the four courses." He said, "Okay, we'll try." Time went by and then the graduate dean called me one day and he said, "Sigrid, what four courses did you want?" I named the four courses. He said, "No, I'm talking about the graduate courses." I said, "Oh, the graduate courses. Let's see. I want this one and this one and this one and this one." I pulled them out of the masters degree curriculum that we had proposed off the top of my head. We had an experimental course, an applied course, a course in theory and philosophy and one more. I don't remember what the fourth one was, but we had four. We now had four undergraduate courses and four graduate courses. There was a degree in the University called Master of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies. For that degree, you had three curriculum areas. It was an interdisciplinary degree and you have four courses in each of three programs. We immediately applied to have our four courses be part of that MSIS program. They said okay and so we now had four graduate and four undergraduate courses and people could come into the university and get a degree called Master of Science in Interdisciplinary studies, which really had six courses in behavior analysis because we had a way of doing special problems. That was the fourth course. It was special problems so we could put anything in there we wanted. That got us underway. Janet Ellis and I were still there trying to get this program. When Don Whaley died. Janet very kindly stepped aside to let me get us started. I told her if the dean offered us the opportunity for both of us to work half time... I said, "Janet, if we both work halftime, we will both be working halftime for the next 10 years." No matter how hard we work, we will keep building and they will have no reason to give us a full-time job because we have proven we will do it for halftime pay. I said, "One of us has to do it and I would really like to do it because I wrote all four." By that time we had done four proposals that I wrote. I'd like to start it, but were willing to let her do it if she wants to. She said, "No, you do it." And I said, "I promise you, within a year I will have you back in some way on the payroll, in this program." We did not have a department. We just had a program. A year later we brought her back as an adjunct teaching two courses a semester. About two years after that we got her on a tenure track. We both got on our tenure track. That was the story of the beginning of the Department of Behavior Analysis at the University of North Texas. Together, she and I started it out and built it up and then we asked for another faculty member because we were getting a lot of enrollments. We got a third faculty member and then I won't go into how we got two more faculty members, but it was by getting external funding from a then State School. Some deal where we worked for them and they worked for us and they gave us money to get the faculty and the University agreed to make those two faculty a tenure track position if the state school paid them their salaries for five years. We had five full-time faculty in the department, and I figured that was a respectable number in a Department of Behavior analysis. We continued building it and so that's the story of my early history. Of course, once we got the masters program, we started doing masters thesis, publishing some of those. I started doing work in 1986. I wrote an article, which you probably haven't seen. It's called, "Metacontingencies in Walden Two" and it was in Behavior and Social Action. I think it was the name of the journal. It's now called Behavior and Social Issues and that article was about looking at an institution like the Center for Behavioral Studies. In fact, I was looking at that one and how it comes to live or die as a result of what happens internally and how the external world responds to that. I wrote that article and for whatever reason, a lot of people got interested in that concept and they started using it in OBM. They said we needed this and it filled a gap. I got a lot of reinforcement for that article and it was very interesting to me. I continued developing the concepts and working them up further. I continued working in that area, and I had several people who were instrumental in helping me move ahead in that area. One was Ed Malagodi, who was at the University of Florida, and he supported that work a lot. He had his students all reading my work. By that time, I had written two or three articles in the area. He introduced me to Marvin Harris, the cultural anthropologist. By that time, several of us had written articles looking at the similarities between Marvin Harris's perspective and the behavior analytic perspective. Marvin Harris did go to graduate school where Keller and Schoenfeld were, and he took Keller and Schoenfeld's courses, so he knew about behavior. He was quite behaviorist in his basic perspective. I went to sabbatical with him one semester and spent a sabbatical with him. I went to the University of Florida where he was and where Ed Malagodi was, and spent a semester working with them. I was introduced to David Hull, a philosopher of biology, and I was very interested in selection as the process. By that time, Skinner had written about selection by consequences in the 1981 article in Science. Don Whaley had also been very interested in evolution. I already had it clear in my head that behavior evolves in some way. There's some process that makes it evolve and of course, reinforcement obviously involved. When Skinner wrote that article "Selection by consequences," it really stepped up my interest in that area. David Hull was given an article of mine and I met him at ABA. He was brought to ABA by somebody, and I met him and several of us went to dinner. Six months later, he wrote to me and he said, "I've been asked to develop an article for the Behavioral and Brain Sciences that looks at evolution from a biological perspective and other perspectives. I want to include behavior in here, and I'm also go include the immune system," which also evolves during a lifetime, during an individual lifetime. He said, "My friend Celia Hayes was going to do the behavioral part, but she can't do it because she's doing something else. Would you be interested in writing that article?" Well, David Hull is a brilliant philosopher of science. He is brilliant. If you are at all interested in digging into evolutionary processes in a very clean, conceptual way, David Hull's articles are fantastic. I was totally enamored with him and when he asked me if I'd do the article, I nearly did back flips because it was such fun to do it. It took us about two years to write the article. It was so difficult to do this article with three different fields. We were trying to use one framework that would cover all three of them, and we did it to a more or less satisfactory degree. Of course, that article was commented on by scholars in all kinds of fields and so we got a lot of press on that. That was the second person. Obviously Skinner turned my life around and then I got Marvin Harris. I got a lot of support from him and Ed Malagodi in Florida, who paid attention to what I was saying. They listened to what I was saying and they were very interested in what I was saying. I considered them really big people. They were major people and so that was very rewarding. I don't know about reinforcing probably that too, but it was very rewarding to have these people who really were smart, who saw the same thing I was seeing. I continued working in that area up to today and the last part of this is about 2001 or 2002. A man from Brazil named João Claudio Todorov asked me at ABA if I would come to Brazil, because they were using my work in Brazil to do a lot of applied work with the government, non-profits, and a lot of different people. He asked me if I would come to Brazil and I said, "Sure." He said, "I wanna do a think tank that brings people together on your metacontingency concept and see how people respond." About 15 people met, we had a think tank and out of that think tank, we had about seven or eight people who were really interested in this area. We continued working in the area and over a period in 2003, we had the first think tank. Since then, we've had seven think tanks. We just finished the seventh one when I was in Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was online and so we are going to have another one in a couple of years. The whole purpose of this think tank is to continue developing these ideas and working through problems. By the way, the Brazilians have done probably five dozen or six dozen experiments on metacontingencies and we've done a few here. I don't know if you knew this, but last year, ABA established a verified course sequence in cultural behavioral science. I think we have about seven Universities who are offering a small curriculum in this area and not all of them are working in this particular perspective that I've been telling you about. Some of them are doing other things. The more the merrier, the more we have the better and this is all basically in response to the fact that there are two things that we're interested in. Some of us are interested in integrating behavior analysis into a larger evolutionary picture. That's kind of a theoretical issue or conceptual issue. Others of us are interested in making use of these concepts and behavior analytic concepts in addressing societal level problems, which of course, you're interested in because you're gonna do public policy. [Laughing] I'm very glad to hear it. That's great. That's super.

Shauna Costello (29:20):

I actually attended the CVS conference this past fall. I don't even know time anymore.

Dr. Sigrid Glenn (29:28):

Yes, it was last October.

Shauna Costello (29:31):

Yes, and I loved it. I absolutely loved it. Just the diversity in the talks and I'm one of those people, as you can probably assume, I like to have my fingers in a lot of different pots. I'm about an inch deep and a mile wide. The cultural behavior of that conference was phenomenal.

Dr. Sigrid Glenn (30:04):


Shauna Costello (30:04):

I had such a great time at it.

Dr. Sigrid Glenn (30:06):

That's great. That's wonderful. Well, that's good you're going into public policy. You can make use of all that stuff [Laughing] because you have something you can talk about to the public policy people. [Laughing]

Shauna Costello (30:20):

I'm just very interested in learning right now. Suck it all in.

Dr. Sigrid Glenn (30:27):

That is exactly what you need to be doing and you might find a time, a place somewhere, somebody says something that fits in with your behavior. This is an article you might be interested in [Laughing], but your goal is to learn. Your goal is to find out as much as possible about policy and policy making. What it takes to get a policy accomplished. All of that.

Shauna Costello (30:57):

I am very excited to be able to bring it back. Thank you for listening to this episode of Thought Leaders. Come back next month as we continue our talk with Dr. Sigrid Glenn, and she answers the questions: Where do you see the field going and or where would she like to see the field go? And as always, if you have questions, comments, feedback or suggestions, please feel free to reach out to us at


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