Is your behavior really yours? February 27, 2018

The syntax of our vernacular dialect suggests that behavior originates in, comes from, or is possessed by the organism. It is difficult to casually refer to an individual’s behavior – note the possessive case – without these implications. This tendency may not be among the most harmful everyday insinuations, but it’s hardly innocent either. Read on.

What is behavior?

This might seem an easy question, but try challenging some colleagues with it first thing in the morning. You may be surprised at the stumbling around, not to mention the variety in their answers. After all, we should have a pretty well developed and standard answer, given that behavior is the subject matter of our science and technology.

Hank Pennypacker and I have wrestled with a definition of behavior over three editions of Strategies and tactics of behavioral research (1980, 1993, and 2009), as well as in the upcoming fourth edition, and others have also weighed in with thoughtful discussions (for example, see Moore, 2008, chapter 4). So maybe it’s not so simple. My purpose in this post isn’t to wax poetic about the particulars of a technical definition, however, but to probe some implications of our general conception of behavior for how we talk about it as professionals.

Chicken or egg?

Whatever the details, behavior is at least a physical phenomenon. It should be obvious that behavior requires a living organism, and we also know that any organism unavoidably inhabits a fully enveloping environment at every moment – both physical entities. This relationship between organism and environment involves a hand-in-glove reciprocity whose mutual effects are inescapable. In fact, this bond suggests that behavior is the interface between an organism and its environment. It is the result of a live organism existing in a continuously changing environment. Either entity alone does not give us behavior.

This means that behavior is not something that an organism possesses, nor is it a phenomenon unilaterally called out by the environment. We cannot apportion the extent to which it depends on the organism as a biological locus or on the environment as a context because both are inextricably bound as mutual causes of the unique phenomenon of behavior.

Because behavior cannot be separated from the organism’s biology, it is a biological phenomenon. Nevertheless, it cannot be described solely in biological terms because of its necessary dependence on the environment. Furthermore, it isn’t so easy to define the limits of the environment. We’re comfortable pointing to environmental events clearly separate from the organism, but it seems unwise to use the skin as an arbitrary barrier and thereby exclude events occurring inside the skin as playing an environmental role in determining behavior.

Although we may argue about matters such as where to draw the line between behavior and physiology, there is at least no reason to wander into mentalistic territory by inventing vague, internal processes unsupported by direct physical evidence. However, our colleagues in psychology and the social sciences are quite comfortable in speculating about ways that behavior is caused by physiological processes. If that isn’t enough, the world of mental processes conveniently available for causal attribution is boundless.

There is more to a good definition of behavior, but other considerations go beyond the focus of this post. For example, a further complication is that most of what we usually consider behavior involves movement that is fairly easily detectable. That is, behavior involves an organism doing things in environmental contexts, most often things we can see. Our interest in easily detected movements is convenient and usually suffices for practical purposes, but what about movements that are not so obvious because they are very small or brief or even inside the skin? Is the beating of the heart behavior? What about a muscle twitch that even its “owner” cannot detect? And what about covert verbal behavior such as reading silently or thinking? Perhaps the limits of behavior as a biological phenomenon aren’t so easily found.

Whose behavior is it?

One of the implications of this way of defining behavior is that it is improper to imply that behavior in any sense originates in, comes from, or is possessed by the organism. Even describing behavior as being emitted by the organism is a bit sketchy. True, without the organism there would be no behavior, but an organismic focus omits accountability for the role of the environment – the other side of the behavioral equation. Explaining why a particular behavior occurs when it does requires reference to the environment. The organism’s biology cannot by itself supply these answers.

When we see someone behaving, it is easy to imagine that it is their behavior we are observing. After all, we are looking at a certain person and it is obvious that the actions involve their physiology. However, we often fail to notice the past and present environment and acknowledge it as an equal partner in the implied ownership of the actions. Although as behavior analysts we are fully aware of the contribution of the environment, we implicitly award possession of behavior to the individual, as vernacular syntax demands, thereby ignoring that portion of ownership rights involving the environment.

This tendency may not seem the worst sin, but it tends to put at least one foot down a slippery slope. We are warned early in our training to beware of the risks of putting the origin of behavior “inside” the organism, and assigning possession of behavior to the individual certainly heightens this risk. Egged on by everyday dialect, it is easy to start sliding down the slope by accommodating countless explanations of behavior that supposedly reside inside the organism. These explanations are most often characterized in everyday dialect as mental processes located in nonphysical domain. This status is necessarily fully invented and lacks even a shred of direct scientific support (see Johnston, 2017).

And where is it kept?

Aside from the above risks, attributing behavior to the organism suggests a vexing question. If the organism is the source of its behavior, where is a behavior when it is not occurring? After all, a repertoire is full of countless distinct behaviors that could occur at any time, or at least whenever the right circumstances arise. If an individual is the owner of his or her repertoire, how are its many constituent behaviors kept at the ready and “selected” at the right moment? Viewing behavior as originating in, coming from, or possessed by the organism encourages looking for the answers to these questions within the organism.

But where could they be within the organism? The obvious guess is that they “exist” in the organism’s complex physiological machinery, but this speculation goes well beyond the usual sense of “exist.” We might agree that whatever is happening physiologically when a behavior occurs constitutes its biological substrate, but this is certainly not the behavior itself in any meaningful sense. Even the notion that each behavior in a repertoire is “stored” in the organism’s physiology may be an inappropriate metaphor, one already overworked with endless mentalistic allusions.

The supposition that behavior is the purview of the organism fails to explain how it is that the right behavior occurs at the appropriate occasion. The mentalistic temptation urged by vernacular dialect is to assign selection responsibilities to the organism – the individual chooses or decides when to do this or that. Among other problems, this sloppy mentalistic reasoning neglects the fact that an individual attends to his or her behavior only infrequently throughout the day and is hardly up to this challenge.

All this awkwardness can be avoided by acknowledging that the environment shares ownership with the organism in the occurrence of distinct behaviors. This admission requires pulling away from the notion that behavior originates in the organism and instead recognizing that behavior is jointly determined by a learning history that fuses organismic and environmental factors into unique repertoires.

In sum

That position should be familiar and comfortable to behavior analysts, who understand that the vernacular implication that the organism is “in charge “ of its behavior comes with a cascade of problematic consequences for how we view the fundamental nature of behavior. Although behavior analysts are exquisitely sensitive to the pervasive and powerful role of the environment in how we define this phenomenon, everyone else seems to consider environmental influences under the implicit assumption that it is the organism owns the behavior that environmental events are messing with. Perhaps we should push back against this colloquial tendency by finding ways of clarifying the conjoint role of organism and environment in defining the nature of behavior. Behavior is not just something that the organism does that is susceptible to environmental modification. It is the interface between organism and environment.


Johnston, J. M. (2017). How good are you at recognizing mentalism? February 7.

Johnston, J.M. & Pennypacker, H. S. (1980). Strategies and tactics of human behavioral research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Johnston, J.M. & Pennypacker, H. S. (1993). Strategies and tactics of behavioral research. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Johnston, J.M. & Pennypacker, H. S. (2009). Strategies and tactics of behavioral research. New York. NY: Routledge.

Moore, J. (2008). Conceptual foundations of radical behaviorism. Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan Publishing.


Is your behavior really yours?

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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.

Is your behavior really yours? February 27, 2018