Remembering Travis Thompson

Behavior Analysis Obituary for Travis Thompson

By Richard Malott

Travis Thompson was a uniquely talented person who made major contributions to behavior analysis, over the course of more than half a century. But unfortunately, he died this August 2nd, at the age of 86.

Travis was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minn. And as a student at the University of Minnesota, he studied psychology, neuroscience, zoology, and child development, with Ken MacCorquodale, Paul Meehl, and others. Though after grad school, he frequently ventured away from Minneapolis, for post-docs with Joe Brady and then with Robert Hinde and for work, as Smith Professor of Psychiatry, at the University of Kansas, and Director of the John F. Kennedy Center for Human Development, at Vanderbilt University–both prestigious appointments. But he always came BACK home to Minneapolis, both to work (teaching, research, and human service) and to live.

     Travis’s prolific, high-quality work was widely recognized and appreciated, as shown by his receipt of a dozen awards. He was a very productive researcher and author with over 200 articles and 30 books, covering an amazing range of topics including the first textbook on behavioral pharmacology, with Charles Schuster; conditional relations by monkeys; behavioral functions of aesthetics; the history and the philosophical bases of behavior analysis; social learning theory; visual reinforcement in Siamese fighting fish and in fighting cocks; applied behavior analysis; cannabis, morphine, and other drugs self-administration by rats, pigeons, and monkeys (among the first in that area); autism; developmental disabilities; Prader-Willi syndrome (many articles); neurology and behavior; classical conditioning; self-injury; token economies; children, poverty, and developmental disabilities; architectural design of housing for adults with developmental disabilities; self-injury; and urinary incontinence. 

     In addition to all his scholarly research and publications, Travis spent most of his career providing services to people with developmental disabilities, Prader-Willi syndrome, and autism. And in recent years, he’d also concentrated on providing support for the families of children with autism —  support that included relevant family-oriented publications and a website, as well as direct-care services.

     Also, Travis played a major role in the development of the Minnesota Northland ABA, and he played a major role in ABAI, itself, from chairing our Autism Conferences to founding our Behavior Analysis and the Arts special-interest group with its graphic and musical presentations, reflecting his own excellent water-color painting and stained-glass creations. Additionally, he was an active member of our executive committee. And aside from ABAI, he’d been president of three different divisions and societies.

In 2010 Travis began the long, complex, and no-doubt irritating process of getting ABAI and related organizations, the APA, and ultimately the AMA to approve a set of CPT (Current Procedural Terminology) codes for behavior analysis, so that insurance and government funding could be available for all the ABA services we are now providing for those with autism and other difficulties. And without Travis and also Wayne Fisher understanding the necessity of our CPT codes and doing the work to make them a reality, we would be able to provide only a small fraction of the services that ABA now provides.

     Finally, as many of you may remember, in recent years Travis had been actively posting his daily behavior-analysis calendar on Facebook, telling the history and current story of behavior analysis with photos of various participants, on their birthdays and an explanation of their relevance. Even though he had been seriously ill during his last years, Travis continued to work on his beloved behavior-analysis calendar.
     We’ve had and still have many great behavior analysts in our field, but few have been as impressively productive and diverse as Travis Thompson.

General obituary:


A Small Example of a Massive Contribution Travis Thompson

By M. Christopher Newland
Auburn University

It is the rare individual about whom it can be said that before they came along a scientific field did not exist and afterwards it became a major force. Travis Thompson was one of those individuals. The obituary in Inside Behavior Analysis by Richard Malott.  Identified the many areas that Travis Thompson shaped. On top of this were his contributions to the professional practice of behavior analysis and the state and national organizations that support our science and practice.  I wish to amplify a slice of that work, with an emphasis on what he accomplished as a young scientist.  

In the 60’s he and his collaborators Charles Schuster and Roy Pickens, asked an extraordinary question: Can we understand drug abuse by framing the drugs of abuse as a reinforcing event?  Travis Thompson and Charles Schuster showed that the answer was “yes” for morphine (Thompson & Schuster, 1964) and with Roy Pickens it was also “yes” for cocaine (Pickens & Thompson, 1968). In each case, a laboratory animal pressed a lever when a drug was the consequence and ceased lever-pressing (sometimes after an extinction burst) when the drug’s vehicle, a placebo, was the consequence. More detailed examination provided solid evidence that the drugs participated in behavior as a reinforcing stimulus. Before this work, theories of why drug abuse occurred including the blaming of the victim for being morally deficient to psychoanalytic approaches like early experiences with breast feeding that are difficult to comprehend and harder to apply. Like all good science, the question could only be asked because of earlier work, notably behavioral work by B. F. Skinner, Charles Ferster, James Weeks, and James Collins and neurobiological work by James Olds and Peter Milner and it was asked with his collaborators, but Travis Thompson’s work is frequently viewed as the benchmark investigations.

Here was a simple, straightforward approach that accomplished a lot. It framed substance abuse as a behavior-environment interaction and not the result of internal, and unreachable, processes. It also placed substance abuse squarely in the framework provided by B. F. Skinner’s three-term contingency: In the presence of a stimulus, a reinforcer had a consequence that strengthened that response. Regularly spaced patterns seen in the drugs’ self-administration raised the prospect that a private stimulus produced by the drug might be occasioning a response to produce the next administration. Increasing a fixed-ratio requirement for the drug eventually gave rise to an appreciation of one of many environmental factors, a drug’s cost, in driving self-administration.  This work changed our scientific understanding of substance abuse. And by identifying a mechanism for the behavior associated with substance abuse, his work pointed to treatment approaches, such as those targeting choices between drug-taking and other activities conducted later under the auspices of behavioral economics.

There was a time when the idea that bringing substance abuse into the lab was inconceivable. Travis Thompson and his colleagues showed how it can be done using a procedure that is now the gold standard in laboratory models of substance abuse. A PubMed search of “drug” and “self-administration” produced over 13,000 papers since those seminal works, and there are certainly many others that did not use those exact terms.

The passing of Travis Thompson is an occasion to reflect on how a relatively small component of the corpus of his research effort had a massive impact on the world. It also is an indication of how a fundamental understanding of the scientific side of behavior analysis yields important advances in addressing a perplexing and devasting problem. The work was accomplished using a purely behavioral analysis of the problem yet it yielded results that extend to the core neurosciences as well as to public health. His work contributed significantly to an appreciation of behavior-drug interactions and his life illustrates the best of what a science of behavior can accomplish.

The Loom Upon Which Culture is Woven

Some Reflections on Travis Thompson’s Contributions to Behavior Analysis and the Arts

The Chicago School of Professional Psychology

By Ruth Anne Rehfeldt,

On August 2, 2023, the behavior analytic community lost one of its heroes. Few can boast of a history of contributions to the field to the same extent as Travis Thompson. Travis’ lengthy career included a breadth and caliber of work that few scholars accomplish in one career, let alone a lifetime. Travis’ work will indeed leave a lasting mark. Travis was a scientist, practitioner, humanitarian, and an artist, all bundled up into one very kind human who was passionate about seeing progress in the discipline he so loved. To be sure, a large portion of Travis’ career was dedicated to the behavioral treatment of autism. The vast majority of his publications focused upon the genetic bases for a variety of developmental disorders, and, as Malott and poling acknowledged, he himself was a service provider who worked tirelessly to enhance supports for autistic individuals and their families. in the decade or so preceding his death, however, Travis ventured into a new arena which he approached with elegance and brilliance: behavior analytic interpretations of the arts, aesthetics, and culture. not only did Travis contribute conceptual analyses on these topics in academic forums, but he fostered an appreciation for the arts more generally among the behavior analytic and ABAI community. 
     Travis served as the founder and chair of the Behavior Analysis and the Arts (BAARTS) Special Interest Group within ABAI, which he established in 2014. BAARTS’ stated purpose is to promote the relationship between behavior analysis and the arts, including literature, visual arts, music, and other performing arts. Under Travis’ leadership the SIG organized two performance events at annual conventions. In 2015 in San Antonio, this included an evening program of music and poetry, along with an art exhibit. An additional event was held in 2016 at the annual convention in Chicago, which featured Fabio Luz, a world-renowned classical pianist from Brazil, and other musicians, poets, and arts enthusiasts. Hundreds of conference attendees participated as audience members at both events. 

Travis co-coordinated a special issue on the arts and aesthetics for The Psychological Record, in which he and several others provided commentaries on a lead article by Francis Mechner. Travis’ paper conceptualized the behavioral processes underlying both the creation of art by the artist and the responses to an artistic work by a verbal community, including the cultural-level selection of various art forms (Thompson, 2018). In Travis’ words, “we may be patrons or followers of an artist or of a certain type of aesthetic materials. We attend concerts, visit museums, collect and listen to recordings, attend movies and theatrical performances, belong to a book group, or learn to be docent at the art museum. These activities all involve actively responding to aesthetic materials, and having experiences that serve as reinforcing events” (Thompson, 2018, p. 372). In this seminal paper Travis encouraged us to address analyses of phenomena as complex as the arts straight-on, and not be intimidated by the enormity of such a task. He further elaborated, “culture defines the parameters of art and aesthetics, which determine which of these devices will fit within a given cultural niche. Our lives and behavior are organized around a few givens; the rest consists of strands tying us together, because we are woven around a simple set of values and derived symbolic relationships the rest of what matters grows like hand-woven threads knotted in an irregular, unpredictable pattern to strengthen our relationships. Some people complain these irregularities make it difficult to decipher. That is what behavioral analysis is all about, isn’t it?” (Thompson, 2018, p. 376).

Travis delivered several noteworthy presentations on aesthetics at ABAI conventions, including a paper at the 9th International ABAI Conference in Paris in 2017 entitled “Behavior Analysis and Private Events: Love Looks Not With the Eyes, but With the Mind.” This paper provided a behavioral analysis of the processes involved in the covert experience of love. At the 45th Annual Convention in Chicago in 2019, Travis delivered a presentation entitled, “Behavioral Analyses of Aesthetic Reactions,” which followed closely from the TPR special issue.

Travis was an active Facebook user. He shared many posts on behalf of BAARTS in recent years, which were predominantly stories about artists, musicians, and writers, as well as commentaries on the integration of the study of the arts and creativity into behavior analysis. Travis was a studied artist himself. He shared photos of his own stunning water-color paintings with his friends on Facebook frequently. Like the volume of prolific scholarly publications, his artwork provides a lasting stimulus in which the many functions of Travis will always be present. 

Thompson T. (2018). Behavioral functions of aesthetics: Science and art, reason, and emotion. The Psychological Record. 68:365–377. doi: 10.1007/s40732-018-0314-

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