Can you step outside your history? June 28, 2017

Regardless of when you studied to become a behavior analyst, your journey was guided by the work of B. F. Skinner. Through his 20 books and hundreds of papers, he has been an instructor for all of us. Even though most have read only a limited selection of his publications, almost everything else we studied was rooted in discoveries and arguments that Skinner had first articulated.

In hindsight, it’s easy to appreciate why his experimental and intellectual achievements were so important that they fostered an entire science and its eventual technology. Take away that hindsight, however, and his contributions become even more impressive. He was able to see that what he was doing was important even though he often had no mentor to guide or reassure him. Although he was careful to acknowledge his influences, especially in his three-volume autobiography, the iconoclastic character of his research and writings was more than bold. His work would have been difficult to predict on the basis of his early history and would even have been hard to forecast on the basis of the prior contributions of others.

This assessment is more than unalloyed enthusiasm for Skinner’s accomplishments. The nature of his experimental curiosities, the methods that he developed for addressing them, and the focus of his research program were groundbreaking. This would have been enough to insure his success in the academy. However, his use of his discoveries about behavior to fashion a worldview dramatically and pervasively at odds with contemporary thinking in psychology and mainstream colloquial views of behavior was even more impressive. His proposals about the nature of behavior and its workings flew in the face of almost everything others believed.

Put another way, Skinner was able to step outside of his history to an extent that only an informed reading of his autobiography can help explain. In fashioning his experimental and theoretical approach to the study of behavior, he was able to largely escape the bounds of his culture, its dialect, and even his professional verbal community. No wonder we stand in awe.

But the answer to the title question is…

“No.” Aside from biological influences, our repertoire is fully a function of our history of interactions with the environment. No matter how surprising or apparently unpredictable a piece of behavior may be, its origins can only be found in an organism’s history. It is simply in the nature of behavior as a biological phenomenon that a lifetime’s environmental history is all that there is to provide a physical explanation of behavior. Non-physical or mental explanations of behavior abound, but they are inevitably invented and without direct supporting evidence, in spite of seemingly endless efforts to find sources that are more than mere argument.

If history seems too simple a way of explaining the fullness of behavior (again, excepting influences more usefully distinguished as biological), this hesitation may come from a failure to appreciate the mechanisms, complexity, and pervasiveness of this unceasing interface between an organism and its environment. As behavior analysts, we know something about all this – a lot actually – even though we never know enough about any particular behavior for a specific individual. We understand the mechanisms by which behavior evolves as a result of an organism’s experiences, and we appreciate how experiences accumulate to spawn ever more complex effects, though the clarity of this picture grows murky the longer the history. We’re also willing to acknowledge that there are no dark corners of an organism’s repertoire that are hidden from its environmental history. The effects of history pervade every nook and cranny, in spite of the implications of colloquial dialect that there are countless exceptions explained by mental processes instead.

A unique and inescapable perspective

Aside from giving us the details of our continually evolving repertoire, our history creates what we call a personal perspective. In everyday terms, a perspective or point of view might be loosely described as a particular way of looking at everything going on around us. As we learn to observe and describe our experiences, our verbal reactions unavoidably emerge from our unique history. These observations and descriptions of our experiences constitute our personal perspective.

The fact that each of our histories is unique means that our perspectives are distinctive as well. Just as no one shares the details of any one else’s history and repertoire, no one else shares any one else’s perspective. Although we may share selected aspects of our history with others and thus have similar reactions to common experiences, when it comes down to the details each person’s perspective is necessarily unique.

Given that we only have experience with our own perspective, it shouldn’t be surprising that we don’t really notice it. It’s just there, a grand summation of our history. It’s the only perspective that we can have, so even the act of considering our own perspective can only occur from within that very perspective. We cannot turn it off or step outside of our perspective and inspect it in a neutral or objective way. In other words, we are completely captives of our personal perspective. We’ve never been without it and never will be.

It follows that we can’t compare our perspective to any one else’s from a “perspective free” point of view because we can only make such comparisons from our own perspective. This means that we cannot in any fundamental sense take someone else’s point of view. We can certainly make a valiant effort, but we have not experienced the completeness of their history and cannot experience their perspective.

And our very own self

We often view this personal perspective as our “self.” We reference this self as who we are – our essence, our individuality, our identity. It is everything our history has given us and the only way we can see ourselves. This self is not seen as merely a passive accumulation of our experiences, however. We are taught by our verbal community to imbue this self with causal capabilities. It is conventionally assigned a governing role in our actions – the locus of our mental life and origin of our actions. In vernacular dialect, we are implicitly referring to this self when we use the first person pronoun, “I,” as in “I am planning” or “I decided,” or “I want,” and so forth. (See Johnston, J. M., 2016).

Of course, there is no direct evidence for the existence of a self and its guiding influence on our behavior. This is merely the way we are taught by our verbal community to talk about behavior, including our own actions. Absent training in behavior analysis, we have no alternative dialect, nor any reason to suspect there is anything wrong with this kind of talk. We are certainly unaware of its mentalistic implications for how we understand behavior.

In sum…

Supported by biological factors, behavior is fully a function of the interactions between organisms and their unique environments. Each person’s behavior is therefore unique and without exception reflected in distinctive histories. Our acquired ability to observe and describe these histories constitutes what is traditionally called our personal perspective, which is necessarily different from anyone else’s. We cannot step outside of our perspective any more than we can escape our history. Our references to our “self” are consistent with this personal perspective.

This argument is important not just because it helps tie our philosophy of science to its experimental foundations. More practically, it encourages us to look for explanations of behavior in every day circumstances without succumbing to the temptation to wonder outside of the bounds of history. If an FBA is not satisfactorily revealing, for example, it should not license curiosity about the contribution of mental processes. It helps to appreciate that the historical underpinning of a particular behavior is always more complicated than we are likely to identify.

These observations should also remind us of the bias we unavoidably bring to our responsibilities, whether as researchers or as practitioners. No matter how certain our convictions, they are entirely the result of our unique personal and professional history. Although we cannot step outside of our history, we can learn to recognize its features and develop our skill of assessing its influence on the challenges we face as behavior analysts.

Reference

Johnston, J. M. (2016). How do you know who you are?, January 1.

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Can you step outside your history?

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Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

Can you step outside your history? June 28, 2017


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