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Studying, researching, and applying behavior analysis in New Zealand.


This paper is intended to show that New Zealand is a viable place to study, research, and apply behavior analysis. The author presents his personal accounts of moving from the United States to New Zealand and presents some statistics and summary information about the country. Similarities and differences with respect to behavior analysis are discussed and reasons for these differences are proposed. The author concludes that increased academic freedom, the presence of behavior-analytic expertise, the availability of behavior-analytic work, and the subtle cultural differences contribute make New Zealand a unique and appropriate choice for a prospective or an active American behavior analyst.


It was winter, 1999 when I decided to leave my behavior specialist job in Philadelphia to pursue a master's degree in behavior analysis at the University of Waikato in New Zealand. Why go all the way to New Zealand to get what so many United States Universities offer? Before coming to New Zealand I really didn't have an answer to this question. I did know that reinforcers probably increase behavior even on the other side of the world, that New Zealand was a beautiful natural marvel, that the trout are huge, and that things were relatively inexpensive. Furthermore, people at several universities in New Zealand publish behavior analytic papers frequently, and the two New Zealanders who I met at an Association for Behavior Analysis conference were laid-back, approachable, and just as behavior-analytic as any other behavior analyst I had met. Something in the above made me decide to go. The remainder of this paper attempts to answer the above question and to disseminate some information about studying and applying behavior analysis in New Zealand.


The plane ride from the United States to New Zealand is indeed a long one. It spans several time zones that, in the end, results in over 12 hours of plane ride that arrives in Auckland about two calendar days after departing the United States. Needless to say, the resulting jetlag is memorable, especially if the trek began on the East Coast of the States. The trip becomes worth its trouble when the tired passenger is greeted by the green rolling hills of New Zealand around Manukau Harbor with the city of Auckland spreading across the background.

Contrary to the belief of some Americans, New Zealand is not part of Australia (nor were prisoners of the British mainland sent here) and there is no trans-Tasman-Sea suspension bridge linking the shopping district of Auckland with the shopping district of Melbourne. Rather, New Zealand is located about 1,600 kilometers (1000 miles) east of Australia and consists of the North and South Islands along with hundreds of smaller islands scattered along its coasts. The terrain varies considerably from black beaches to white beaches to thermal areas to rolling hills to snowcapped mountains and volcanoes. The country is roughly the same size as the United Kingdom or Japan and has a population of just over 3.5 million people. About 1 million of those people live in Auckland (cf., Philadelphia's 1.5 million people). This small population results in 14 people per square kilometer compared to the United Kingdom's 240 or Japan's 332 (these statistics and subsequent statistics are from the New Zealand Immigration Service, 1999). Of this population, about 75% are of European descent about 15% are New Zealand Maori, the indigenous people of the country. The combination of the diverse landscape and the small population make New Zealand an extraordinary place to enjoy the outdoors.

Being in the Southern Hemisphere means different stars, different sun and moon orientation, counterclockwise water spirals, and reversed seasons. Auckland is located at 36 degrees south latitude making it slightly closer to the equator than San Francisco or Washington D. C. Going south, then, results in colder weather while the opposite occurs when going north. The weather differs slightly between islands and across the several types of geography, but overall New Zealand's weather never gets too hot, too cold, too wet, or too dry. In Hamilton, where I live, the summer temperatures range from 45 to 82 degrees Fahrenheit and the winter temperatures range from 33 to 61 degrees Fahrenheit. There are about 6.5 rainy days per month in the summer and about 14.2 per month in the winter. When people ask me what the weather is like in New Zealand, I say, "it's nice," and when asked for more detail, I say, "'cold' and 'hot' are associated with less extreme temperatures down here."

Also describable as, "it's nice," is the exchange rate. Currently, a U. S. dollar will buy over two New Zealand dollars. A simple formula for putting cost in perspective is to take the price of the product in New Zealand dollars and divide it in half to get the approximate price in U. S. dollars. The result is quite astonishing for most products and services. For example, an inexpensive car that runs fine can be bought for about $250 (all prices quoted are in U. S. dollars). One-month of rent in a 3 bedroom house in Hamilton costs about $350; one night in a motel, about $30; a quality dinner for two, about $20; a meal at McDonald's, about $2; a can of Coke, $0.45. Hence, the current exchange rate makes time in New Zealand affordable to people earning U. S. dollars.

New Zealand wages range from $3 per hour (minimum wage) to about $4 for service and sales workers to about $6 for trades workers and higher for professionals, including behavior analysts. In U. S. dollars these wages seem low, but the socio-economic statuses of New Zealand workers are similar to the socio-economic statuses of Americans working similar jobs in the United States. Overall, the labor force is about 7.7% unemployed and the government supports low-income individuals with the dole (i.e., welfare).

A variety of industries are supported in New Zealand including forestry, horticulture, and tourism. The largest industry, though, is probably agriculture and anything related (e.g., there are about 47.4 million sheep in the country; approximately 13 times more sheep than people). It is difficult to travel for more than 20 minutes in New Zealand without seeing cows, sheep, chickens, and farmland. This industry has created a niche for scientists researching animal behavior, welfare, biology, genetics, and other animal-related sciences. AgResearch is a large organization in New Zealand that supports many scientists in agriculture-related endeavors and shares the Animal Behaviour and Welfare Research Centre (ABWRC) with the psychology department at the University of Waikato in Hamilton. It is in this building where I do my research for my Ph.D.


The Ph.D. program in which I am enrolled is a full-time research program in behavior analysis in the psychology department at the University of Waikato. New Zealand uses a system similar to the British system of education, which deviates from the United States system. At the tertiary level, students spend three years on a bachelor's degree or four years on an honors degree. Advanced degrees require one or two years for a master of arts or science degree, and about three years on a Ph.D. (or about one year for a master of philosophy--a degree between a master's degree and a Ph.D.). Furthermore, Ph.D. students are not required to do courses as partial fulfillment to their degree, only a dissertation (or thesis, as it is called in New Zealand). Without scrutiny it appears as though this system neglects important content material that should be learned during a Ph.D. However, this is not the case. While completing undergraduate, honors, and master's degrees, students take courses that are specific to their field of study. This structure differs from most American colleges and universities in that it promotes more concentrated study vs. an American liberal-arts-type program. Consequently, by the time a New Zealander reaches doctoral study, much of the important content in the field has already been learned through the required courses.

The absence of course requirements allows students to more freely engage in other academic and research activities. Generally, the biggest difference between undertaking a Ph.D. in New Zealand vs. the United States is this academic freedom. Several students teach at the University and others, myself included, are able to do some applied behavior analysis in the community along with our Ph.D. work at the ABWRC. So, most of my time is spent at the ABWRC with occasional consulting, teaching, and applied work in autism.


The ABWRC is home to about 10 staff from AgResearch, university students and staff who are currently undertaking behavior-analytic research (usually about 4 to 6 Ph.D. students, about 4 masters students, and occasionally an undergraduate or honors student), and a full-time laboratory technician. Behavior analysts, Mary Foster, Bill Temple, and Cath Sumpter are lecturers at the university and supervise the university work that is undertaken at the laboratory. The ABWRC is also home to over 100 hens, 30 brushtail possums, 2 horses, 5 stoats, lots of cows, and a cat. Over the past 25 years the ABWRC has also been home to sheep and goats. Currently, most of the work that comes from the university part of the ABWRC is done with hens and brushtail possums and is related to behavioral economics, psychophysics, animal welfare, matching, and delayed matching to sample.

The hen lab is a cooperative lab, meaning that each member who is working with hens runs all of the hen experiments once per week instead of running only their own experiment daily. So, for six hours of running all experiments on a single day, each lab member gets six or seven days of data. The possum lab is similar, but fewer members work with possums so those members run the possum experiments more often. This organization allows members to become familiar with each other's work and it also frees a considerable amount of time.

Behavior analysis is limited to three courses at the University of Waikato. Behavior analysis that is not covered in the above courses makes its appearance in psychology courses such as research methods and general and experimental psychology. The clinical psychology program is based on cognitive and behavioral therapy and none of the current students are behavior analysts. There are about four students doing applied-behavior-analytic-type research throughout the department, but applied behavior analysis is not a mainstream topic of study at the University of Waikato. Because many of the local professionals were trained locally, traces of behavior analysis can be found but practitioners are usually not behavior analysts, per se. Such traces include positive parenting practice, positive behavior support, the Center for Autism Research and Development program, and precision teaching.


Although New Zealand has such a small population, behavior analysts can be found all across the nation's universities. These include (from north to south) the University of Auckland (Auckland), the University of Waikato (Hamilton), Massey University (Palmerston North), Victoria University (Wellington), the University of Canterbury (Christchurch), and the University of Otago (Dunedin). It is tempting to make the claim that New Zealand has more behavior analysts per capita than any other country in the world.

As at the University of Waikato, most of the behavior analysts in other parts of the country are basic researchers and only a few do applied work or a bit of both. The lack of applied behavior analysis was apparent at the annual New Zealand Behaviour Analysis Symposium, a two-day conference usually occurring in August. There were 32 presentations at the 2000 conference and only 4 involved humans (and only 1 of those involved applied work).

This low number of applied behavior analysts means that it may be difficult to find academic or practical support in the area and that the terms, methods, and history of behavior analysis may be quite distant to many people. It also means that there is a lot of room for applied behavior analysts who don't mind the challenge of applying and disseminating the science with little support. However, being a small country with a different culture, few people, and few applied behavior analysts makes for some substantial differences in applying and disseminating behavior analysis as compared to the United States.


Subtle differences in New Zealand's culture change the way behavior analysis should be applied (as one would expect when transcending cultures). When Americans ask me what New Zealanders are like, I ask them to envisage a continuum of "personality" that is bound by Americans on one end and the British on the other. New Zealanders are somewhere around the British end being more subtle and conservative and less competitive and overt than your average east-coast American. So, for a Philadelphia-raised person like myself the move was difficult. Before going to New Zealand someone else's silence, lower-volume speaking, or slow speaking during a conversation meant that it was definitely my turn to talk; being loud was always better than being quiet; using the horn was a necessary part of driving; and being brutally honest was usually appreciated. But the rules are different in New Zealand and must change somewhere in the Pacific Ocean between Los Angeles and Auckland. Needless to say, to maintain myself as a salient reinforcer my more American behaviors are sometime attenuated.

Another cultural difference that affects the application of behavior analysis is the Treaty of Waitangi. The Treaty is the agreement between the British Crown and the indigenous Maori people that made New Zealand a British colony in 1840. Many issues involving colonization, land ownership, equality, and others continue to be debated with respect to the Treaty of Waitangi. In some ways, the issues seem to parallel the issues that have plagued relations between Native Americans and European Americans. However, New Zealanders see the Maori culture more as a part of New Zealand than distinct from it (there are no reservations for Maori and the culture is an integral part of schooling). Because aspects of the Treaty specify how the Maori culture should be preserved, it is a document that is important for the applied behavior analyst.

The sparse population has some important implications on education, psychological services, and other areas that are of interest to applied behavior analysts. First, inclusive education is sometimes more of a necessity than a choice because in small towns and rural areas there are simply not enough children with a particular need to support a specialized school. Second, and for similar reasons, families in these areas are likely to have a difficult time finding services. I used to drive for an hour and a half to get to a client because no closer services were available. And third, problems associated with population density (e.g., violence) are encountered less frequently.

The apparent sparseness of behavior analysts also impacts education, psychological services, and other areas. Psychologists must be registered in New Zealand and certified behavior analysts are not yet recognized as specialists. The small number of applied behavior analysts and the non-recognition of behavior analyst certification give the impression that applied behavior analysis is somehow less trustworthy than it really is. At the individual level, though, the New Zealanders who have been my students, consultees, or audience for paper presentations have been generally agreeable with the content.

Following a presentation that I gave on autism and behavior analysis to about 50 parents, teachers, and professionals, 16 members of the audience sent back feedback forms. A parent corroborated my thoughts on the sparseness of applied behavior analysts and wrote, "I've never really heard anyone talk on behaviour analysis before so I have huge gaps in knowledge on this topic." A pragmatic parent wrote, "I think that behaviour analysis is a huge chunk in the jigsaw puzzle of autism. I tend to look at most approaches and take out what works. Not all approaches work but I'm still learning and open to information." A parent with a two-year-old child who was recently diagnosed with autism wrote, "I have yet to set up any type of intervention programme for my son. But, it gave me great guidelines, encouragement, and belief that we can be involved and set targets for our children and ourselves."

But you can't please everybody. After the same presentation a professional indicated that the presentation was, "Heavily behaviourist ... the sort of stuff New Zealand did in the 70s ... we've moved on since then." I can only wonder what was so bad about the 70's! And sometimes you can be happy that at least most of your point made it through. A teacher wrote, "We have since reworded objectives in our EEP. However, I still believe you can have well written objectives and they cannot be used when the reality of the classroom hits."

Generally, the same criticisms and praises of behavior analysis occur in New Zealand as they do in the United States. Although it is unlikely that many parents, teachers, and professionals may regularly encounter behavior analysis proper, the majority of respondents in this audience seemed to like the material. When asked, "will you use behavioural objectives now?" 12 of 16 respondents said definitely. For the question, "about how much of the discussion did you agree with?" 8 of 16 said over 80% and 4 said 60%.


So back to the original question: why go to New Zealand to do behavior analysis? I remain in New Zealand for the same reasons as when I first came to New Zealand. Recall that I did know that reinforcers probably increase behavior even on the other side of the world. I was right. Some evidence for this fact is that some children with autism with whom I've been working have developed part-time American accents! So, behavior analysis even works all the way across the world and a foreigner behavior analyst can be an effective practitioner once cultural differences are overcome.

I said that New Zealand was a beautiful natural marvel. I continue to concur with this point when I go to the beaches, parks, and mountains and encourage anyone to take one or two months to see the North and South Islands. Julie Vargas and William Baum gave rave reviews of New Zealand when they independently spent some time seeing the countryside last year. Some behavior analysts from the University of Waikato showed each of them some thermal areas, parks, gardens, and a glowworm cave, amongst other things.

I also said that people at several universities in New Zealand continue to do sophisticated basic research and to publish behavior analytic papers; they still do. These behavior analysts and their students are a tightly woven crew; most are aware of each other and each other's work. As described earlier, this group meets yearly at the New Zealand Behaviour Analysis Symposium conference and its members are approachable, knowledgeable, supportive, and good-humored. These qualities make the conference an excellent place for new students to practice their presentation skills and for more experienced students and professionals to attain up-to-date feedback on their work.

Another comment that I made was that the trout are huge. After plenty of fishing experience I add that it is not possible to put a line in the water without catching a fish in New Zealand's waters. This rich variable-interval schedule brings the fisherman to coasts of islands and to rocks off of the mainland where mussels and oysters can be picked ad lib. As with any outdoor activity in New Zealand, one is constantly reminded that the country is New Zealand when so few people abound, when the bottom of the ocean can be seen, and when only a few homes and industry-related buildings dot the landscape.

Now that I earn New Zealand dollars, it is no longer the case that things are as "inexpensive" as they were when I arrived with U. S. dollars. In order for a foreigner to be financially secured in New Zealand, the first step is to acquire the appropriate paperwork. Student permits are granted to foreign students; holders of these permits are allowed to work a maximum of 15 hrs per week. Work permits are granted to certain successful foreign job applicants and restrict the type, hours, and duration of work. Resident permits are granted to foreigners who fit the government's current specifications for residency (such as age, work experience, education, and others). These remove most of the restrictions on work, allow government subsidies for university tuition, allow coverage under the nation's health system, and make the holders eligible for New Zealand scholarships. So, after an intensive bit of paperwork, a New Zealand resident has most of the same rights as a New Zealand citizen. Once the paperwork is completed, working, getting paid, and getting taxed is similar to the process in the United States.

Finally, I said that the two New Zealanders who I met at an Association for Behavior Analysis conference were laid back, approachable, and just as behavior-analytic as any other behavior analyst. After being in New Zealand for over a year and a half, I've found that there are good reasons why New Zealanders are laid-back. Generally, there is not much red tape in all aspects of New Zealand life. Car insurance is not mandatory; there is less signing and asking for permission in administrative matters; there are fewer forms, disclaimers, warning signs, and other hurdles for most endeavors. Additionally, lawsuits are rarely heard of. The first time I heard the word, "sue," mentioned was on the radio about a year ago. The announcer was describing the attempt of an American man to sue the city of Hamilton. Apparently, the city's slogan, "Hamilton ... where it's happening," misled the man somehow and he saw it fit to be compensated. He didn't get very far. It's likely that the virtual non-existence of suing contributes to the laid back atmosphere in New Zealand because it decreases the reasons for directing blame or taking advantage of small accidents. Consequently, though, it makes it difficult for those individuals who are more justified in pursuing a lawsuit.


The personal account outlined above shows that undertaking study or work in behavior analysis in New Zealand is a viable option for American students and behavior analysts. Once half of the world is traversed, one finds that the technology and quality of behavior analysis is up to par with the rest of the world, especially with respect to basic research. Although applied behavior analysts are less frequent than their basic-research counterparts, applied behavior analysis has found its way into some of the methods and language of local practitioners from different schools of thought. This low number of applied behavior analysts means that there are many opportunities to apply and disseminate behavior analysis in New Zealand, especially in areas such as autism. Overall, the freedom, expertise, and opportunity down here combined with all of the cultural differences are salient reasons for spending time doing behavior analysis in New Zealand.


New Zealand Immigration Service. (1999). New Zealand: The Facts.

Eric M. Messick

University of Waikto
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Author:Messick, Eric M.
Publication:The Behavior Analyst Today
Geographic Code:8NEWZ
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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