Francis Mechner, PhD

Interview conducted by Kaitlynn Gokey

Francis Mechner was born in Vienna, Austria. He received his PhD under Professors Keller and Schoenfeld at Columbia University, where he also served as Lecturer in Psychology from 1955 to 1960 and conducted Prof. Keller’s government research contracts. Mechner’s basic research work has focused on learning processes, behavioral pharmacology, the analysis of individual operant responses, resurgence, and a formal symbolic language for codifying behavioral contingencies.

In the 1960s Mechner developed an instructional technology based on the behavioral analysis of concepts and skills. Programs he developed with that technology included medical education programs used for years in virtually all of the country’s medical schools and teaching hospitals, and the Professional Selling Skills training program that generated nine-figure-range revenues for Xerox Corporation after it acquired Mechner’s company. In the early 1960s he worked with UNESCO on modernizing science teaching in South America and Asia, and with the OECD on manpower development. In 1964 he developed a model for the nationwide network of Job Corps Training Centers.

In 1970 Mechner participated in the original design of Sesame Street, created statewide educational day care programs for several states, and testified before the U.S. Senate Finance Committee on behalf of the Comprehensive Childhood Development Act of 1971.

Mechner’s theoretical work has included the development of a formal symbolic language for codifying behavioral contingencies, with applications in economics, sociology, law, and other disciplines. His interest in the scientific analysis of aesthetics grew out of his life-long immersion in the arts (he is an accomplished pianist and painter). At age 19 he achieved a Master rating in chess (Elo 2236) and later a 5-dan rating in Go. Mechner is fluent in German, French, Spanish, English, and Portuguese.

Your book chapter mentioned taking a wide spread of courses in other disciplines, including electronic circuit theory, anthropology, and biochemistry. What other fields/courses should behavior analysis students become familiar with?

Graduate students in behavior analysis should have a well-rounded science education. They should be especially familiar with neighboring disciplines because progress occurs mostly at the boundaries of disciplines. If you want to make advances in your field, don’t stay in the safe and fashionable middle, go for the edges. To do that in behavior analysis, you need to understand and be comfortable with such neighboring fields as genetics, neurobiology, and molecular biology. Epigenetics has become very important in recent years. The more you know about these disciplines, the greater your ability to contribute to advances in behavior analysis. And all scientists should be versed in the philosophy of science and have quantitative competencies, at least in statistics, probability theory, algebra, calculus, and mathematical modeling.

What do you think the field should be doing more of?

There are several topics that I believe deserve more attention. One that comes to mind immediately is the effects of behavior repetition and behavioral history. Resurgence is one such effect. The metaphor from electronics, that there is such a thing as steady state operant behavior, should be abandoned. When behavior is repeated, it changes and keeps changing. It becomes faster, smoother, more efficient, more automatized, and less susceptible to modification by consequences. These types of changes are involved in all types of skill learning. Familiar examples are signing your name, saying or reading certain phrases, doing mental arithmetic, and brushing your teeth. Neurobiologists have shown that the more practice a skill receives, the less neural activity it involves. Most of every adult’s operant repertoire is already highly automatized. This is a topic that has huge implications for learning, education, and all sorts of clinical issues.

A second major topic crying out for the attention of behavior analysts is epigenetics and its implications for learning and education. The field should pay more attention to the relationship between gene expression and how instinctual behavior emerges—the processes by which some behavior becomes genetically encoded, and critical periods for the acquisition of various competencies. This topic has major implications for early childhood development and the acquisition of basic competencies in such areas as social behavior, language, and mathematics.

Third, I believe that behavioral science should be more assertive in treating thinking and mental activity as part of its domain. Not only is it a vital and central part of our biological makeup, but it is also what we care about most, regardless of whether we call it behavior or something else. For instance, the law cares about whether a damaging act was or was not “intentional”; a math teacher cares just as much about the thought processes by which the student arrived at the answer as about its correctness; a chess coach says “think out loud” to her student; we tell people what they should pay attention to, remember, or consider. It’s always mainly about thinking and mental processes.

What about the problem that thinking and mental processes are private and not observable?

We observe their physical manifestations, like those of genes, atoms, and chemical bonds, and they are just as real. As Skinner pointed out, observability is about the present status of our technology, not about the real world.

What advice do you have for folks just entering the field of behavior analysis? 

Take responsibility for your scientific education, from the start. If you want to make a contribution, don’t let others tell you what knowledge is sufficient. Read widely, not just behavior analysis literature, not just your assignments, but other material as well. Use your peripheral vision, conceptually speaking. Be skeptical and question ideas that others take for granted. Keep digging deeper. Don’t be afraid to follow your own interests and perceptions.

What have you been working on lately?

For the past five years, my associates and I have been working on the personalization of education. Since 2009 we have been operating a small school, Queens Paideia School, to demonstrate what is achievable with a 6:1 student teacher ratio. At the same time, we have been developing learning resources for the individualization of education in larger classrooms and the home—assessment methods for social-emotional competencies, thinking and inquiry skills, and self-management competencies.

I have also continued to work on the behavioral and biological analysis of aesthetics—a lifelong interest of mine (article published online, 6/17). And I continue to work on the formal symbolic language for the codification of behavioral contingencies, which I believe our field needs if it is to make substantive contributions in such disciplines as economics, law, sociology, public policy, conflict, and management.

I have to ask – Did you really compose the music for the game Prince of Persia?

Yes, I confess that I did. The creator of Prince of Persia, Jordan Mechner, is my son. I also composed the music for his previous game, Karateka. You can download Prince of Persia’s soundtracks from the Mechner Foundation website.