Association for Behavior Analysis International

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Laboratory to Clinic: Dysfunctional Behaviors Cannot be Erased From the Behavioral Repertoire, but a Growing Stable of Modification Techniques Collectively Can Reduce Such Behaviors and Impede Relapse

Ralph Miller (State University of New York at Binghamton)

B. F. Skinner Lecture Series Paper



Biography:Miller's specific area of specialization is elementary information processing in humans and nonhuman animals, including learning, memory, and decision making. Although his research team in recent years has worked in the framework of Pavlovian conditioning, integration with both the physiological and human cognitive literature is sought at the theoretical level. His research is concerned with dissociating processes impacting perception, acquisition, retention, retrieval, and response generation, using impediments to performance such as contingency manipulations, stimulus competition, and associative interference (including extinction). His laboratory has found that training and test contexts (i.e., background stimuli) play central roles in modulating the expression of acquired information. Present research examines how retrieval processes can explain phenomena that are traditionally attributed to differences in acquisition. Experiments are being conducted to determine whether the retrieval rule that they have formalized based on a modified form of contingency theory (the Extended Comparator Hypothesis) can explain sufficient behavioral variation to allow simplification of contemporary theories of conditioning. For example, with this retrieval rule, behavior indicative of conditioned inhibition can be explained in terms of a decrease in US likelihood as opposed to associations to the absence of a US per se, i.e., negative associations. A second avenue of research is concerned with the role of temporal relationships between events in elementary learning. Their data indicate that temporal proximity not only fosters the formation of associations, but is invariably part of what gets encoded within the association. Moreover, this temporal information is a critical determinant of how the association will later be expressed in behavior. Their work in this area is summarized in what they call the Temporal Coding Hypothesis. With the intent of informing practitioners of exposure therapy in clinical situations, other studies are examining the variables that influence relapse following exposure therapy, as modeled by extinction of conditioned fear. Additional research focuses on similarities and differences in Pavlovian conditioning, contingency judgment, and causal attribution by animals and humans. Professor Miller has served as editor-in-chief of the two leading journals in his field, chaired NIH study sections, lectured extensively on five continents, and has been widely cited in the professional literature (over 20,500 citations, h-index of 71, and i10-index of 286). His current research is collaborative with laboratories in England and France and his own laboratory is staffed by postdoctoral fellows and undergraduate research assistants.



A number of behavioral pathologies arise in part from aversive associations (e.g., anxiety disorders) and cue-drug reward associations. Enormous efforts have been made over several decades trying to identify procedures to decrease these behaviors, including extinction-like exposure therapy, counterconditioning, and related techniques. Most these treatments are initially of some effect, but relapse, with long retention intervals, change in context (i.e., renewal), and re-exposure to the initial affective experience, is frequently observed. Newer treatments such as presenting the target cue some minutes before starting a session of massed exposure/extinction trials (i.e., so-called disruption of reconsolidation) have proven no more effective in eliminating dysfunctional behaviors or preventing relapse when some initial benefit of treatment is observed. The observed recovery of the dysfunctional behaviors, in conjunction with experimental laboratory data concerning associative interference, suggest that irrevocably erasing memories is difficult if not impossible. Improved behavioral outcomes appear to reflect impaired retrieval of the problematic memories. Rather than seeking erasure of these associations, more realistically, we should be seeking to impede their retrieval, using conjointly as many different techniques as possible to impair subsequent retrieval (i.e., a “kitchen-sink” approach).


Modifed by Eddie Soh