A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

How to Explain Behaviorism: We are Reflections of our World

This is the second in my ongoing series of articles trying to provide basic lead ins to behaviorist theory. The first is here.

How to Explain Behaviorism, version 2: 
We are Reflections of our World

A friend of mine asked for advice online. She is a teacher, working with a 9 year old girl who is "Bossy, has to be right, have things her own way. Failing is not an option, so she lies about failing at anything." The inquiry generated many suggestions, all good. Someone suggested that maybe the daughter is afraid of admitting failure, because she covets approval. Another suggested that maybe sibling dynamics might be at play, especially if there is an older sibling who is very successful. Had the daughter been taught that everyone makes mistakes and that it is ok to admit them? When it was mentioned that the girl is choleric, someone suggested that spending times with other cholerics might help. (By the way, fascinating that the Waldorf Schools still uses those terms!) Maybe playing sports would help if, she could find a coach who rewards efforts and teamwork. Etc., etc., etc. So many suggestions were offered, but... not a single person proposed either a more detailed study of the behavior in question or a systematic study of the child's environment.

What would I like to know, before I began an intervention? Things like: Which particular types of situations is she bossy in? To whom is she bossy? What, exactly, does that "bossiness" look like? How do those around her respond? In particular, how often does she get what she wants? Is the thing she wants --- the thing that stops an instance of bossiness --- what she is ostensibly asking for or is it something else? 

Even if I thought like my friend's other advisers, I would still want to know these things, because I like to have a good understanding of the problem I am trying to solve before I try to solve it. But I don't think like the other respondents, I think like a behaviorist. In this context, one important implication of being a behaviorist is that I think my types of investigations might well tell us everything we need to know. That is, we might well learn everything we need to know about the daughter's "bossiness" if we know what the behaviors looks like (its "topology") and the circumstances under which they occur (the aspects of the world that the behavior is a function of).

This is because, behaviorists view behavior as a reflection of the world. If you live in a world where being obstinate works, you will be obstinate. If you live in a world where being unobtrusive works, you will be unobtrusive. If you sometimes live in a world where it works to be obstinate and you sometimes live in a world where it works to unobtrusive, and there is a way to tell which world you are in at any given time, then you will adaptively switch between being obstinate and unobtrusive. Etc., etc., etc. Of course, you cannot make these adjustments instantly, so there is a heavy developmental component. So what I really mean is that at any given time you are changing to better fit the world you exist in, and if your world stays stable long enough, you will come to reflect it very well. 

Sometimes you can see this most clearly when things go wrong. For example, my wife and I became quite frustrated at our children's inability to be quite when instructed to do so. This is the type of skill that some kids (by dint of past experience) are good at, and other kids (by dint of past experience) are bad at, and our kids were showing no improvement towards the right behavior. After sitting back and observing for a bit, I pointed out that sometimes when we said "be quite" we meant "talk more quietly", but other times we meant "stop talking." Because the same signal was used in both cases, it was no wonder our kids were not matching their behavior to the situation! So we made a new rule, and we now distinguished between "be quiet" and "be silent." Once there was a reliable signal in the world that told our kids what to do, they began to reflect it almost instantly. They are still not perfect, but neither is our use of the terms. 

When you start to think this way, you get reflexive answers to many common questions (many of which you probably shouldn't say out loud).  "Why don't children pay better attention in class?" Because class is boring. "Why does Bobby keep kicking Linda?" Because good things happen when he does. "Why do my kids act so differently when I raised them the same?" Because you didn't. "Why does Jane act so confident, but Bob doesn't?" Probably because good things happen when Jane acts confident and bad things happen when Bob acts confident (or at least that has been the case in the past). 

But what about when people don't seem to reflect their environment well? There are several things that could be going on. I can't list them all, but a top 4 would probably be: 1) Their world might not contain any signals that their behavioral system can latch onto, or the signals are so weak they will need special training to attune to them. This often occurs when a novice enters a world full of experts, which is part of the natural state of childhood. 2) They could still be adjusting to the world. Adjustment may be very slow if the person used to be well attuned to life in a different world. Also, if the world changes faster than a person can adjust, that person might never attune very well. This could happen for example, if you have a job where the boss rapidly changes, and the bosses have wildly different styles. 3) The person could have a damaged adjustment system. Such effects could be transient (e.g., during a blood sugar crash), or relatively permanent (e.g., the fate of most professional boxers). If so, the person could be stuck in a state of partial attunement, where their behavior still reflects the environment, but never quite as well as you think it should. 4) The person could be attuned to aspects of the environment that you do not appreciate. Never neglect this possibility. This last part is so important, I will end with three examples, one young kid example, one teenage example, one adult example. 

Unexpected Attunement - Young Kid Example
Most kids like to play "birthday". This usually involves asserting, seemingly out of no where, that it is your birthday, or someone else's birthday, and then proceeding to do a rough reproduction of certain aspects of birthday activities. "How creative," the parents think, "what an imagination!" This is a great example of a situation in which people think that the behaviorist approach will fall apart. But the behaviorist begs you to examine the world of the child. From that perspective, the child is doing exactly what adults do. The way birthdays work is that someone walks into the room and says "Today is Grandma's birthday, lets give her a call" or "It is Merryn's birthday on Sunday, so we should invite people over." That is the initiation of the "birthday" game, from the perspective of the young child, who does not live in a world where there were any preceding steps. Thus randomly stating that it is someone's birthday is simply a part of a larger pattern of adult imitation, and should be displayed by kids who live in a world where imitating adults tends to create good outcomes. We need not hypothesize anything else behind the behavior.

"But," you object, "the child thinks it is his birthday." I'm really not sure what that objection means. Absent further evidence, I suspect the child is simply playing a game that involves the world birthday. Does the child really believe that today is the anniversary of the day of his birth on the Gregorian Calendar. Really? I don't know many 2 or 3 year olds who think that. "Well, no, I don't mean that he understands what a birthday is, I just mean that he thinks it is his birthday." Alright, I guess, but I think that just gets us back to my assertion that, for the child, "birthday" is a thing you get to say at fairly arbitrary times. and that if others agree with you then it initiates a particular type of game. 

Unexpected Attunement - Teenage Example
A frequent complaint from my friends with teenagers: "Why does he think the world revolves around him?" My most common response "He isn't wrong." The parent objects "Oh yes he is, he's gonna have a rude awakening one day." And the parent is right in a broad sense; the adult world does not revolve around their particular child. But the teenager is also right; the world the teen is in does revolve around them. Their school is focused on them, their friends are focused on them, their home life is focused on them, their TV and other media experiences are focused on them. Back in the day (a few hundred years ago) parents tried to move kids as quickly as possible to be part of the adult world, but now we have designed a world in which there is a buffer time, during which our teenagers and young adults are in a world that is revolving around them. Why does a kid who has more than enough complain when they don't have more? It is not because they "think" they don't have enough, in any grand sense, it is because in their world complaining works, and they are correctly attuned to that world.

Unexpected Attunement - Adult Example
My wife is fidgity, but not always fidgity. She has been for as long as she could remember: lots moving around, not much standing still. It was "just who she was", and there was no obvious cause of it, or the variation in it. She recently did a "tilt table test" where they strap you to a board an then repeatedly transition the board from standing you straight up and down, to lying you flat, to holding you almost completely upside down. It turns out she has postural orthostatic hypotension. Basically, her blood pressure drops dramatically when her orientation changes, and it also happens if she stays still for too long in a vertical position. When she has higher blood pressure (e.g. she has been drinking more water and eating more salt) it is not as bad, but if she has had even minor diuretics (e.g., coffee) it is worse. Her fidgiting, the behavior, was attuned to an aspect of the world that was very hard to observe, but it was attuned nonetheless. If you live in a world where being still makes you nauseous and dizzy, and moving makes you feel better, then you move.


  1. We both thought the birthday analysis was brilliant; our son does this and it's true, that is his experience of what a birthday is :)

  2. I agree - the birthday example is great.