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.

When We Speak of Self…

Timothy Hackenberg (Reed College)

Invited Paper



Biography:Tim Hackenberg has had the good fortune to work with and learn from great teachers and students over the years. He received a B.A. degree in Psychology from the University of California, Irvine in 1982 and a doctorate in Psychology from Temple University in 1987, under the supervision of Philip Hineline. Following a two year post-doctoral research position at the University of Minnesota with Travis Thompson from 1988-90, he served on the faculty in the Behavior Analysis program at the University of Florida from 1990-2009. He is currently a Professor of Psychology at Reed College in Portland Oregon. He has served on the Board of Directors of the Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, of the Society for the Quantitative Analysis of Behavior, as Associate Editor of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, as President of Division 25 of the American Psychological Association, as the Experimental Representative to the ABAI Council, and as the first Director of the ABAI Science Board. His major research interests are in the area of behavioral economics and comparative cognition, with a particular emphasis on decision-making, token economies, and social behavior. In work funded by the National Science Foundation and the National Institutes of Health, he and his students have developed procedures for cross-species comparisons of complex behavior.


Abstract: The concept of self has a long and complex history in philosophy and psychology, ranging from an inner cause of behavior (e.g., as in psychodynamic theory) to an illusion (e.g., as in some Eastern religious traditions). In this talk, I consider the concept of self through a behavioral lens by identifying some of the conditions surrounding its use. From a behavioral perspective, the concept of self can be viewed as a kind self-discrimination, where some aspect of one’s own body or behavior serves a discriminative function. This encompasses a wide range of discriminative behavior, some shared with other animals, but mostly unique to human social environments in which we are prompted by others to examine our own behavior and the variables of which it is a function. I will discuss this type of self-descriptive behavior, where it comes from, how it relates to self-awareness, the extent to which it is seen in other animals, and relations between aware and unaware repertoires in the same skin. By grounding the concept of self in the particular conditions surrounding its use, my aim is to demystify it, treating it not as a causal entity separate from behavior, but rather, as behavior itself, a class of environment-behavior relations. This provides the basis for a behavioral view with intriguing parallels to other process-oriented and non-dualistic approaches to self, some of which will be considered in the talk.


Modifed by Eddie Soh