Nathan H. Azrin

2013 TxABA Award - Enduring Career Contributions to Behavior Analysis

Nathan Azrin


Nathan Azrin was born on November 26, 1930 in Boston. During his 57-year career, Nate was one of the most prolific researchers in the field of applied behavior analysis. He conducted pioneering studies in the basic research laboratory and also developed innovative treatment techniques in a variety of applied areas.

Nate received his Ph.D. at Harvard in 1956 under the mentorship and supervision of B. F. Skinner. He then spent a year as a research psychologist at the Yale Institute for Living (working in Karl Pribram's behavioral physiology lab) and then spent another year at the U.S. Army Ordnance in Maryland where he conducted studies on the effects of noise and fatigue on human behavior. In 1958, he moved to Illinois where he began work at Southern Illinois University as a psychology professor and at Anna State Hospital as Director of Research. Here, he would spend the following 22 years. While at SIU, Nate was instrumental in developing the first graduate program in applied behavior analysis in the world.

He conducted the most thorough series of experiments on the effects of punishment on nonhuman behavior. Nate's studies revealed variations in the direct effects of punishment as a function of immediacy, intensity, and schedule, as well as characteristics of prior or ongoing reinforcement that influenced punishment effects. His research also documented some negative side effects of punishment, such as escape and aggression. Much of what we know today about punishment with humans is based directly on the more than 40 studies Nate published with his colleagues and students.

The setting in which Nate conducted much of his applied research was a mental health facility, Anna State Hospital. His goal was to determine how learning principles yield development of interventions that solve problems and what procedural details need to be taken into account to make those interventions work. In 1968, Nate, along with Ted Ayllon, created what was probably the first comprehensive behavior analytic treatment system involving numerous contingencies and methodologies, the token economy. The token economy and its variations has become one of the basic tools for motivating individual and group behavior. Ayllon and Azrin took an extremely comprehensive approach to their work with human behavior, viewing their work on the token economy from both theoretical and methodological perspectives. The questions they addressed remain critical to the success of applied programs today.

Nate coined the term behavioral engineering in 1968 to describe therapeutic contingencies programmed through electronic devices. He developed procedures for postural control, smoking cessation, stuttering, self-medication, self-feeding using mini meals, overcorrection, and habit reversal. His work with Richard Foxx on toilet training and their subsequent books on the topic are viewed as the definitive approach to this issue. He developed the concepts of “shaping” and “successive approximations” in his work at Anna. He also developed the concept of “graduated guidance” used in prompting.

From 1980 until 2010, Nate was a professor of psychology at Nova University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. He maintained a strong interest in developmental disabilities and was an author of Florida's policy guidelines on the use of behavioral treatment with individuals with mental retardation. He conducted studies on a variety of problems found in general clinical populations, including depression, substance abuse, bulimia, and Tourette Syndrome.

During the course of his career, Nate also served in a number of key leadership positions and received many awards for his contributions to several fields. In 1974, Nate was elected the first president of MABA (the Midwestern Association for Behavior Analysis), which he was involved in developing and which was the forerunner of ABAI. He also served as president of Division 25 of APA, the Society for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, the Association for the Advancement of Behavior Therapy, the Association for Behavior Analysis, the Midwestern Psychological Association, the Florida Association for Behavior Analysis, and the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. He served as Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, and he chaired the committee that founded the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (JABA).

It was my great fortune, although somewhat by accident, to have studied under Dr. Azrin in the Behavior Modification master’s degree program at SIU and also the opportunity to do my internship under his supervision at the Anna State Hospital. I was just finishing my bachelor’s degree in Psychology at SIU. Though happy to be graduating, I felt very uneasy about the fact that I had been taught many different and often conflicting theories of why people behave as they do, but I did not think I could really prove the effectiveness of any of them and was therefore worried about how I could use my new skills to make a living. I happened to be talking about this to a friend of mine who suggested that I could find resolution in studying behavior modification in a rather new graduate program there. Since I liked going to college better than getting a job, and I really liked Carbondale, Illinois, I signed up in 1974 and learned to be a scientist rather than trying to be an artist.

Nate was an excellent teacher and rather uniquely one who could (and did) provide examples of nearly all the points he made in class by references to his own studies. Nothing was tenuous or in a grey area with him. It was just—“this is the way it is.” Although some people may perceive this approach as arrogant, I found it very comforting to learn from the master and to learn that, yes, there are real answers to the questions about why people behave as they do and what we can do to change it. I left there with a real set of skills, as well as with a framework through which to look at the world. I owe a lot to Nate Azrin in shaping my career potential and, for that, I am very grateful.

TxABA wanted to give Nathan Azrin an award for Enduring Career Contributions at the 2013 conference. Unfortunately, Nate was unable to attend, and he died shortly after on March 29, 2013. Although he is no longer with us, he has certainly left an enduring legacy in applied behavior analysis and has left each of us in this field with the knowledge of many practical applications of the science, which will be used to the benefit of the recipients of our services for a very long time to come.

submitted by Jeff Enzinna