Tricky questions, perhaps because they come from different places and lead to different answers. There is more to this topic that you might suspect, so this post is only a teaser for the fuller discussion in Chapter 7.
First, what is responsibility?
Let’s start by looking at how the notion of responsibility is taught in our everyday culture. We learn to talk about people being responsible for their behavior with the implication that they are aware of what they’re doing and able to choose among alternative courses of action. The idea is that these dual capabilities allow individuals to control their behavior, which in turn encourages society to establish contingencies relating to the resulting behavioral outcomes. Let’s look at these key assumptions.
The idea that people can be responsible for their behavior only works if they have learned to observe their own behavior. Most of us acquire this skill as we learn to observe and describe all other aspects of our environment. This capability is essentially what we commonly call awareness. We are aware of our own behavior when we observe it, and acknowledging our behavior necessarily involves some form of labeling or description.
Our everyday understanding of responsibility recognizes that not everyone has this self-descriptive aptitude. Babies and very young children don’t, of course, though at some point a rudimentary form of this skill begins developing. Individuals who have significant difficulties learning any kind of skills are also understood as not responsible for their behavior because they are not cognizant of what they are doing. Similarly, individuals who are impaired due to illness or drugs are given a pass.
The other foundation for the conventional understanding of responsibility is that people have the ability to choose from among different courses of action. There are always varied ways someone could behave in any situation, but the notion of responsibility only makes sense if each person has the ability to freely choose from among these options. Although environmental circumstances might push toward one course of action versus another, the key assumption here is that the individual has an ability to choose that is at least somewhat independent of such influences.
To make this point, if for any reason you had no choice about your actions, you would usually not be considered responsible for them. For instance, if you were driving safely down a neighborhood street and a child suddenly darted into your path in a way that could not have been foreseen, you would probably not be seen as responsible for the tragic consequences.
More behavior analytically
Given this everyday understanding of responsibility, how do behavior analysts approach this concept? Very differently, as you might expect. In fact, behavior analysts don’t really talk about individuals being responsible for their behavior. The fundamental reason for this exclusion stems from the everyday assumption that people have the ability to freely choose how they behave. In contrast, the deterministic posture of behavior analysis – shared by other natural sciences – assumes that the natural phenomenon of behavior is fully determined by other natural phenomena (see Chapter 1).
The idea that individuals can guide their behavior in a way that is free of natural or physical influences violates this important assumption. The notion that people can behave in ways that are solely the result of their choices – unencumbered by physical influences – depends on the invention of a mental domain filled with mechanisms by which such options are supposedly available. Behavior analysts scrupulously avoid this mentalistic distraction by restricting their interests to behavior and other physical phenomena. Absent the assumption that behavior can be determined by free choice, the notion that people can be responsible for their behavior makes no sense. In its place, behavior analysts look to the real variables that actually influence behavior.
Along the way, a number of familiar everyday practices fall by the way side. Consider the idea of giving credit for praiseworthy behavior or assigning blame for disapproved behavior. Although these consequences may indeed function as reinforcers or punishers for particular actions, the underlying premise is that the individual had some control over the behavior at issue. They could have chosen to behave differently. The mentalistic attribution of credit or blame is to the “person” doing the choosing as if they, rather than variables in their environmental history, are the cause.
So, the answer to the first question – Can you be responsible for your behavior? – is “No.” The key word in the question that gives away the answer is “you.” As is often the case in our vernacular dialect, the question assigns causation to the individual. Following this attribution leads to a mentalistic domain in which the individual serves as a source of his or her behavior that is independent of physical influences. That way madness lies.
But what about…
It’s understandable if you’re concerned that abandoning the colloquial notion of responsibility is too much, that it surely has practical value in society. What about the fact that giving credit for laudatory behavior or blame for falling short of cultural norms can nudge future behavior in a useful direction? And doesn’t our legal system depend on the notion of personal responsibility? Isn’t it important to hold people responsible for their behavior?
Rest easy. The answer to the second title question is “Yes.” It is indeed important for you to be responsible for your own behavior. However, this answer is predicated on redefining responsibility in terms of operant contingencies.
It’s obvious that socially mediated consequences arranged for desired and undesired behavior can be valuable for guiding individual behavior in ways that benefit both the individual and society. That the idea of personal responsibility is justified from a conventional (mentalistic) perspective that makes no scientific sense is unfortunate, but this is no reason to abandon the term. We also talk about the sun rising or setting, in spite of scientific evidence that this is not really what is going on, but the misunderstanding doesn’t seem to be a major problem for the culture.
It would certainly be better if the everyday understanding of responsibility wasn’t grounded in mentalistic assumptions. The problem with this misunderstanding is that it limits the practical utility that would otherwise flow from appreciating the nature of operant behavior. When we assume that behavior largely originates from and is controlled by the individual’s mental processes, we often fail to go about behavior change in ways that would be most effective.
For instance, teachers may approach the problem of a misbehaving child differently under the assumption that the child’s behavior reflects core personal qualities rather understanding the problem behavior in terms of the effects of operant contingencies. As another example, if creative behavior is viewed as coming from somewhere within the individual, supportive contingencies might be focused only on those who show creative tendencies, instead of searching for ways of developing those tendencies in everyone. The legal arena offers many examples of how everyday assumptions about personal responsibility complicate efforts to encourage socially acceptable behavior.
So holding people responsible for their behavior makes sense in terms of sound contingencies, but this position requires looking at responsibility in operant rather than mentalistic terms. It is important for ABA practitioners to address this distinction by reinterpreting the concept in a scientific rather than a colloquial framework. Abandoning its traditional mentalistic context allows viewing the origin of praiseworthy and problematic behavior in ways that offer more effective intervention options.