Jack Michael

2016 TxABA Award - Pioneer of Behavior Analysis in Texas

Jack Michael


Jack’s academic career as a chemistry major was interrupted by being drafted into the US Army in 1944. After release from the Army, he resumed studies at UCLA. Having read some Freud and Jung and others, he became a psychology major. He remained at UCLA through graduate school and received a Ph.D. in 1955 with a major concentration in physiological psychology, statistics, philosophy of science, and general experimental psychology. He enjoyed teaching undergraduates in several of those areas, and stayed on as a graduate student as long as they would let him (according to a personal comment).

Following graduation, he was hired at Kansas University "...to teach philosophy of science in Psych department, advanced statistics, and a few other courses, one of which was an introductory course for nonmajors at the junior level." (http://jackmichael.org/about/)

For an introductory course for non-majors, he happened upon a book by B. F. Skinner entitled Science and Human Behavior, a then radical treatment or retreatment of psychological phenomenon. He began to teach and apply the principles presented by Skinner, and continued to do so throughout his career. His application of Skinner was not appreciated by other Kansas faculty who suggested he find other employment with their help. In 1957, he joined the faculty of the University of Houston to teach learning theory and as a consultant in statistics. Jack cited his friendship and collaboration with Lee Meyerson, another Houston professor, with his subsequent interest in applying behavioral concepts to the problems presented by handicapping conditions: hard of hearing, vision, retardation, and similar.

J. L. Michael was an early (1957-58) enthusiast for what is now called “Transactional research” or Applied Behavior Analysis at the University of Houston and later at Arizona State University. His many seminal contributions were to applied behavior principles in both early publications and through the later work of students; T. Ayllon, M. Wolf, to mention just two.

His major theoretical concerns emerged at Western around clarifying the relations between the motivating versus ‘informational’ functions of stimuli or events. This was an issue that was unresolved from the 1950s in behavioral research. He introduced the concepts of establishing operations (EOs) and motivating operations (MOs).

Skinner’s treatment of language as behavior was also a strong interest. Skinner’s Verbal Behavior answered many questions that were unanswered by formal treatments of grammar and syntax, for instance (of which there were many). His writings and presentations on the subject were intended to clarify Skinner’s own views. In addition, his early interest in the philosophy of science was clearly an aide to his appreciation of Skinner’s Machian view of the history of science and to the description of a behavioral analysis as a "thorough going operational analysis" of behavior, human and other.

Although he has written over 70 influential articles and made numerous theoretical contributions to Verbal Behavior and to the field of behavior analysis in general, his favored activity was teaching. One former student listed his relations to students as a chiefly appreciated asset. His close relations to students even earned him acclaim as APA Teacher of the Year. Jack was noted for his wry or sardonic comments on social and academic issues. His initial experiences and contributions at Houston, and then ASU in Arizona (“Fort Skinner in the Desert”), was followed by his tenure at Western Michigan University. At Western, he was also instrumental, with former student Scott Wood, in the establishing of ABAI through MABA (Midwest), which became ABA and thus ABAI. Jack moved to Western Michigan University in 1967 and remained there until his retirement as Emeritus Professor in 2003.

by John Mabry