Applied behavior analysts face many challenges. We always need more guidance from our science, for instance, especially its applied literature. Making the best of the opportunities presented by our field’s rapid growth and development has become particularly important. One of the central problems here concerns how we can do a better job of training new practitioners. Selling our field’s technology to consumers and other disciplines is another ongoing task. And then there is our daily preoccupation with how we can be most effective in meeting our client’s needs.
Underlying all of these challenges is perhaps the most pervasive and difficult test of all: recognizing and confronting mentalism in all its insidious forms. If you don’t appreciate this proposition, you don’t know what you don’t know. Read on.
What is mentalism and why is it a problem?
In short, mentalism involves describing and explaining behavior with reference to a non-physical mental domain. More fully, mentalism involves dividing our experiences into behavioral and non-behavioral domains. The latter domain has no physical properties and is taken to “exist” only in our mind. The “events” in this mental universe are assumed to be independent of those involving behavior and environment, although they are also assumed to influence events in the behavioral domain. This influence is customarily seen as ubiquitous and endlessly powerful. Probing its supposed effects is the agenda of psychology and, by extension, the social sciences.
Mentalism is the foundation of culturally accepted explanations of behavior. In teaching us to talk, our verbal community innocently teaches us to be mentalistic, and there is no reason to realize what is going on or to suspect its deceptive character. Mentalism is so integral to our vernacular dialect about human affairs that it cannot be avoided without focused study and practice. And why make the effort? The result is a spare, technical, and awkward dialect that only works for others sharing the same specialized preparation. Besides, no one else is complaining about mentalism – even most scientists seem to be fine with it.
So why worry about mentalism in discussions of behavior? Because it gets in the way of understanding how behavior really works. Mentalism makes it exceedingly difficult to identify the real influences on behavior and therefore prevents using those influences to resolve behavioral problems. Like a good magician, mentalism misdirects our attention away from events that would explain what is actually happening. By supplying familiar and apparently easily understood reasons for why we do what we do, it short-circuits curiosity about alternative explanations. “Why did you do that?” “Because I wanted to.” So there – end of story. Even if the questioner persists by asking why you wanted to, it is likely that a further answer would only substitute other mentalistic explanations, such as “because I felt like it” or perhaps the ultimate dead end – “Because I just wanted to.”
The harm in mentalism lies not just in its misleading character; mentalistic explanations of behavior are simply vacuous. There is nothing there. They are in that sense wrong. Furthermore, they depend on invented or fictitious phenomena that cannot be disproved, thereby insulating them from scientific study that is itself not mentalistic. What is “wanting,” after all? Does it exist as a coherent physical phenomenon? How would ‘wanting’ work? How would we study it in terms of established physical phenomena? Mentalism is impervious to scientific disproof – a fatal flaw in the natural sciences.
Developing your mentalism detector
A discussion of mentalism and its problems goes well beyond the limits of a blog post. Let’s just agree that its evils require behavior analysts to be good at identifying mentalism in professional contexts, understanding the misunderstandings it can cause, and replacing these misinterpretations with explanations rooted in the science of behavior analysis. This agenda starts with developing a very competent mentalism detector.
Consider some common ways that mentalism is embedded in daily discourse. Perhaps its most ordinary form lies in describing and explaining behavior in terms of general qualities such as happy, depressed, assertive, kind, smart, angry, and so forth. There are thousands of such terms, which may serve as nouns, adjectives, or adverbs in vernacular syntax, but they share the implication of being internal aspects of a personality that are assumed to contribute to the behavior that others see. These qualities are not just ill defined; they disappear in any search for physical properties, aside from slippery biological attributions. In other words, they are largely invented or fictional and certainly not available for a causal role.
Mentalism does not only depend on reference to such labeled personal qualities, however. Merely retreating “inside” in some vague mental sense – entirely separated from the physical environment – is patently mentalistic. The apparent inner agent motivating or explaining our actions is often referred to with the first person singular pronoun “I,” as in “I decided” or “I was thinking” or “I believe” and so forth. We summarize these designations as a “self,” as in “I figured this out by myself.” The possible assignments for this self are truly endless. It is always there for convenient causal solutions and obviously impossible to refute. Even after acknowledging the possible contribution of environmental factors, this self seems to have the last and most influential say.
Yet another variation of mentalism is implicitly enabled by this self when we explain our actions in terms of future causes. When we say that we are acting “in order to” accomplish some future outcome, for example, we are attempting to explain behavior in terms of events that have not yet occurred – a serious faux pas in science. This kind of explanation often involves “to” as a preposition, as in “She is going to the store.” or “The dog is sitting to get a treat.” This kind of phrasing implies that behavior can be purposive, intentional, or goal directed in nature – that is, controlled by events that have not yet transpired. The means by which a current action can supposedly be explained this way is implicitly assigned to mental processes. When we explain the behavior of looking for something in this way, for instance, the colloquial assumption is that “looking” is initiated and guided by our self in some unclear manner. Explanations in terms of a learning history are usually secondary, if considered at all.
As if these examples of mentalism aren’t enough, the colloquial conception of verbal behavior is itself thoroughly mentalistic. It gets a bit complicated, but accepting that words have meanings that we reference and transfer between speakers and listeners is inherently mentalistic. These representations are said to exist in a mental lexicon and turn conversations into a fully mentalistic exchange for both parties. This colloquial approach to everyday talking is an almost insurmountable barrier to getting around this pervasive form of mentalism because a non-mentalistic dialect can be mastered only by intensive academic study – as you can surely appreciate – and is not well suited for ordinary discourse.
Only the first step
There is much more to mentalism, of course, and the ways it dominates our understanding of behavior seem endless. The reason for sharpening our skill at recognizing mentalism is not to reform our daily dialect – or any one else’s. After all, chemists don’t ask a dinner companion to pass the NaCl, nor should we be alarmed when a teacher says a child is frustrated. The point of getting good at identifying mentalism in everyday parlance is to sharpen our professional dialect in the interest of minimizing the risks of mentalism intruding on our science-based repertoire. These risks are substantial because we can neither escape the effects of our colloquial history nor avoid daily immersion in a vernacular community. Even if we were well trained, the chances – and consequences – of backsliding are daunting.
Recognizing mentalism in the ebb and flow of daily life is only the first step in inoculating ourselves from its insidious effects. We must understand on a case-by-case basis the problems that can follow from such misunderstandings and then be able to substitute descriptions and explanations of behavior that are consistent with good behavioral science. These skills are not just important for individual practitioners, who cannot afford to be misled into designing interventions guided by mental attributions and processes. They are also critical for the intellectual health and viability of our field. The history of behavior analysis shows just how much its character and focus depends on our reliance on a philosophical framework that avoids a traditional psychological approach to human nature in favor of a radical behavioristic conception of behavior. Without Skinner’s insistent guidance, it is easy to imagine how even a sound understanding of operant learning could have gradually morphed into a technology in which conventional mentalistic assumptions played a central role.