Brian A. Iwata

2017 TxABA Award - Enduring Career Contributions to Behavior Analysis

Brian Iwata


It is quite an honor for me to present this award to Dr. Brian Iwata. I’d like to start with a brief history of his professional career, as it is truly amazing. He received his Ph.D. in clinical/school psychology from Florida State University, under the mentorship of Dr. Jon Bailey. As the story goes, he selected the school for its location in the beautiful “sunshine state;” Dr. Bailey introduced him to behavior analysis and Skinner after he entered graduate school.

Dr. Iwata accepted a faculty position at Western Michigan University after graduating in 1974. Less than one year later, he was invited to join the editorial board of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis(JABA). He accepted a faculty position at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine / J. F. Kennedy Institute in 1978. That same year, he was selected to be an Associate Editor of JABA. Remarkably, he became Editor-in-Chief of JABA just three short years later! This must be unprecedented. Dr. Iwata joined the faculty at University of Florida in 1986, where he is currently Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Psychiatry.

Dr. Iwata’s work has endured (and will continue to endure) in large part because of the breadth of its impact. His work has made a tremendous difference on the field (theory, conceptual systems, research), on clinical practice, and on public policy. Although most people think of his seminal work on the functional analysis (FA), Dr. Iwata has published a variety of highly influential articles throughout his career. I’d like to mention some that may be less familiar to new behavior analysts. But first, I’d like to say a few things about his research on the FA, as it clearly illustrates the breadth of his impact. Dr. Iwata and his colleagues were not the first to show that problem behavior may be learned. However, the development of a simple, effective, and eloquent methodology was necessary to clearly demonstrate that the etiology of any form of problem behavior often can be traced back to its current reinforcement contingencies. This methodology opened the door to systematic evaluations of function-based treatments and made it possible for us to have a better understanding of the mechanisms underlying common treatment procedures, such as extinction. Through this research, we all got a lot smarter about problem behavior and became highly effective in its treatment. No one is more effective than us. Once we accumulated a large empirical base, it necessarily followed that our methods would become part of routine clinical practice. Dr. Iwata and his students conducted most of the work on refinements to the FA methodology that has made it more effective in identifying function and more practical for practitioners to use. Other work that has greatly impact research and practice include his work on two preference assessment formats (single-stimulus and multiple-stimulus), his conceptual article on negative reinforcement, and his model evaluation of an alternative treatment for self-injury (sensory integration).

However, some of Dr. Iwata’s other enduring contributions may be less well known. The first was his dissertation, which examined two token systems with students (token loss versus tokens earned). Toward the end of the analysis, Dr. Iwata permitted the students to choose the token system, providing an objective measure of social validity. This was published in 1974. In the past 10 years, we have seen an increase in the use of such choice measures for the purpose of measuring social validity. However, none of these studies cited Dr. Iwata’s work. Dr. Iwata and his students at WMU also published a series of studies on instructional strategies for teaching adaptive community skills (e.g., how to cross the street safely, how to order in a restaurant) to individuals with developmental disabilities. I have no doubt that this impacted educational approaches for this population. Dr. Iwata also contributed to the development of the new field of behavioral medicine in the late 1970s/early 1980s, conducting research on ways to increase senior citizens’ participation in a nutritious meal program, to encourage people to exercise more, and to get people to brush their teeth better! And, finally, Dr. Iwata and his colleagues at the J.F. Kennedy Institute conducted some of the seminal research on the treatment of pediatric feeding problems in the mid-1980s.

Dr. Iwata’s enduring contributions to the field also come in the form of mentorship. No less than 5 of his former students have served as JABA Editor-in-Chief and 9 have served as JABA Associate Editors! This must be unprecedented.

Dr. Iwata has received numerous prestigious awards for his contributions to research and service, including most recently the Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Application of Psychology from the American Psychological Association. He has also received a number of “distinguished contributions” awards from state associations. TxABA is truly honored to be the first state association to recognize Dr. Iwata’s enduring contributions.

by Dorothea Lerman
presented at the 2017 Regional Conference on Behavior Analysis in Austin, Texas