The main topic of my research for some time, primed by a symbiotic collaboration with Richard Bentall, has been the phenomenon of stimulus equivalence (SE: see research section) which has interesting implications for the use of symbols and the development of language, both in ontogeny and phylogeny, in humans. Happily this has allowed me, since retirement, to become an informal associate of the Liverpool Language Learning (LLL) group. At long last also I have recently presented my papers on SE for a PhD by publications, awarded by the University of Huddersfield. In the LLL labs, in addition to carrying on similar work with undergraduate participants, I have embarked, with Dr. Colin Bannard and Professor Richard Bentall, upon an attempt using eye-tracking technology to find the earliest age at which infants can be shown to manifest the defining features of SE in relation to their individual language development.
At a tender age I took a B.Sc. in Zoology followed by another B.Sc. in Psychology, and in some sense have always seen the latter as a subdivision of the former. At Liverpool I initially taught courses in animal behaviour not only in the Psychology department (to which I was appointed in 1964) but also in the Department of Zoology for a number of enjoyable years, trading lectures for rats, for only the latter department had an animal lab at that time. My orientation toward operant psychology had begun in the context of my first postgrad research (at UCL, 1961-64) when I sought a baseline for assessing possible effects of general anaesthesia on memory in the rat, and after pursuing this and other psychopharmacology for some time at Liverpool I moved on, thanks to stimulation from Geoffrey Parker (now Emeritus Professor in Zoology), to the operant simulation of optimal foraging in the Skinner box.
Teaching students about ethology and behavioural ecology demanded that actual work in the field be included in the psychology curriculum at Liverpool, and after a stimulating start-up with a new colleague John Lazarus (now an Emeritus at the University of Newcastle), I began running for many years a two-week animal behaviour field trip on the island of Lundy in the Bristol channel. This led me to collaborative efforts (with the University of Liverpool Film Unit headed by Carl Neads, and with Lucas Noldus and his Dutch observation software company, and later funded by an EC Socrates grant with other behaviour scientists in Spain and Iceland) to develop distance learning materials for teaching observational techniques (e.g. Dickins et al. 2000). The most interesting research we did on Lundy was on the prevalence of siblicide (one chick killing its nest mate, coincidentally another key topic in Geoff Parker’s evolutionary expertise), in the Kittiwake gull (Dickins & Clark, 1987).
A sabbatical year at the University of Toronto (1975-6) at the invitation of my old friend Gus Craik (who is still actively researching human memory in Toronto) allowed me not only to develop my interests in comparative cognition in seminars with Sarah Shettleworth and her colleagues, but also to attend the Ebbinghaus Emporium (EE) where a latent interest in mainstream cognitive psychology was first instilled in me. This has become more overt since I tried to find fMRI correlates of SE in collaboration with cognitive neuropsychologists (see Dickins et al 2001). Not long after I had switched from rats to SE work on humans I had the pleasure of reiterating to the EE group a lecture I had just given at a Harvard meeting (Dickins et al, 1993) on my first trip back to N.America since my sabbatical, but which led to many more subsequent visits.
Most of my conference presentations have been at behaviour analytical meetings – ABAI, EABA, EABG, despite which I hope I have remained discerningly eclectic, sensitive to several at least of the diverse approaches to the study of behaviour.