We do it all the time and it seems so harmless – saying something about behavior but adding a speculation beginning with “as if.” “She was really kind of annoyed, as if she was already in a bad mood” or “When I talk to my dog, he cocks his head as if he’s trying to understand what I’m saying.” Is there a behavioral issue here?
Cheating with grammar
“As if” is a conjunction, along with “as though,” which is less common in spoken English. In today’s vernacular, “like” is a popular alternative, though it’s a preposition and drives the grammar police crazy in this context. A common function served by these phrases is to take an observation, situation, or circumstance that is more or less evident and add a statement that goes beyond the obvious to offer a conjecture of some sort. This speculation often suggests an explanation or rationale for the original observation.
The “as if” connection has the effect of changing the implicit rules. There is what was observed – bound in some sense by reality – but adding “as if” licenses any manner of unbound implications. The phrase essentially means, “And here I’m guessing about what might really be going on.” The “as if” conjunction opens the door to endless possibilities, perhaps more interesting than the original observation.
You know where this is going
There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these “as if” speculations about the causes of behavior as long as they stay within a natural or physical domain. So, if you say that a certain behavior looks as if there’s a reinforcement contingency lurking somewhere nearby, the conjecture may be vague, but at least it’s potentially consistent with operant principles and thereby testable. It’s the tendency of “as if” phrasing to shift consideration to causes that abandon these constraints and turn instead to a mentalistic domain that’s a problem. This shift rapidly leads discussion down a slippery slope toward a morass of casual guesses unlimited by any requirement that they must be provable in physical terms. Of course, our vernacular dialect offers more than enough room to meet any causal challenge with endless mentalistic possibilities. That these speculations may originate with perfectly clear behavioral observations does not justify these forays into the unknowable.
Some examples may help highlight the problem. “He acts out in the classroom as if he wants to get called down.” “It’s as if her self injurious behavior is communicating a need for attention.” “The way he dominates the conversation it’s as if he’s insecure and wants to make sure he is not ignored.” “My cat pushes things off the counter like he wants me to play with him.” “I’ve never known such an argumentative person. It’s as though he can’t help himself from finding something to disagree about.”
Sometimes these “as ifs” and their variants might seem harmless, perhaps a slight erosion of professional dialect that could be easily corrected if called out. Their references to mentalistic explanations can seem little more than a subtle backsliding into everyday parlance. However, they take the place of explanations framed in terms our understanding of operant processes and lead away from guarded speculations that might be testable. At best, they gradually morph acceptable professional dialect into a risky blend of technical and vernacular. At worst, they substitute casual mentalism for natural science.
A cry for help
Appending mentalistic “as if” explanations to our observations of behavior is a cry for help. Though undeniably convenient, and maybe even convincing to many listeners, it’s a kind of excuse for failing to think through possible explanations of an instance of behavior using our professional training and the power of our science. This conjunctive phrasing allows the speaker to change the context of a straightforward behavioral observation to conceptual framework that is more flexible and perhaps even unconstrained by the observed physical circumstances.
This rephrasing is not encouraged by a momentary lack of information about what might really be going on so much as a weakness in our analytical repertoire. Instead of having learned the importance and means of maintaining a consistent conceptual point of view in our wonderings about behavior, we grant ourselves a momentary dispensation to use the everyday mentalism with which everyone is so familiar to guess about the causes of behavior. These proposed mental causes are problematic when their illegitimacy is not recognized and they seem to resolve the implicit curiosity about why the behavior occurred.
Take one of the above examples: “The way he dominates the conversation it’s as if he’s insecure and wants to make sure he is not ignored.” The implicit suggestion of why he dominates conversations focuses on an invented phenomenon called “insecurity,” together with a mental process called “wanting.” In a colloquial context, this seems a satisfying explanation, one we might all recognize. However, this familiarity may distract us from noticing that the “as if” appendage has shifted the philosophical context from a simple though broad observation of a physical phenomenon to an explanation in terms of a mentalistic domain.
Try this exercise. See if you can catch yourself – or even a willing colleague – adding an “as if,” “as though,” or “like” speculation to a statement about behavior. Then reconsider what was proposed. Was it a causal conjecture? Is the suggested cause in a physical or mental domain? If the latter, how could you swap it for a speculation that is consistent with behavior analytic science and radical behaviorism? And you wondered how you were going to spend your free time over the Thanksgiving holiday!