Our everyday dialect is filled with terms implying human qualities that seemingly explain our behavior. There are thousands of these terms, often serving as nouns in our syntax. Their grammatical status not only suggests their existence in some sense, but begs for their definition.
The problem – and it is a very big one – is not just that these terms are usually vague and slippery, but that they are not rooted in distinctive physical phenomena. More plainly, the human qualities they label are usually fictional, although no one seems to notice. This misdirection (see Chapter 5) is a problem for human sciences if their practitioners take such terms seriously and fail to worry about their physical underpinnings. The evidence of this faux pas is well represented in the journals of psychology and the other behavioral and social sciences.
It’s also a problem for everyone else. Absent scientific curiosity, few are inclined to wonder whether the vocabulary of common discourse allows meaningful descriptions of human nature. In one sense, the price of this lack of interest is not high. We don’t really notice this shortfall in our daily conversations, after all. Most do not even seem concerned that science shows no signs of conquering human affairs, even as it pushes back the frontiers of ignorance in other fields. Human behavior is often assumed to be beyond scientific reach anyway.
But this is where we pay a very high price indeed. In our everyday ignorance, we do not insist on a scientific resolution of the challenges that human behavior poses for society. We live with endless dramas that range from personal to species threatening, and our lives are diminished by these struggles. Still, we seem to accept that these confrontations are just part of life, when they could be resolved or even avoided entirely.
As behavior analysts, we know that the mess implicit in vernacular dialect can best be cleaned up by understanding verbal behavior as no more than verbal behavior. Appreciating this conceptual revelation and following its implications takes systematic study, however, complete with learned professors and classroom exams. Even then, some students slip through the net unscathed. And the chances for attaining this enlightenment any other way? Slim indeed, I would venture.
There is another approach to the zen of behavior analysis, however, another way to confront the mentalistic allusions of vernacular dialect and avoid at least some of their untoward consequences. Just ask about the evidence. What is the physical evidence underlying any putative human quality with which we describe and explain behavior? Even if we can’t be sure, – and we almost never are – what might the evidence be if we limit the options to the physical universe?
This almost simple question about the evidence must be pursued with dogged determination if it is to lead to good answers. Each time it is asked and a bit of supporting evidence is imagined or proposed, it must be asked again. And then again. The repetition is necessary because the proffered evidence will at first be of poor quality. For example, it may be not physical but mental – an immediately disqualifying fault. The proposed evidence may be inconsistent with existing science or require assumptions that are. It will often violate the scientific cannon of parsimony. In other words, there may be good reasons why the evidence marshaled – or even just speculated – in support of a human quality or behavioral feature is not worth scientific pursuit.
What are you expecting?
Take as an example the notion that we can expect something to happen. We have all said things like, “I’m expecting her to call any minute.” What are we doing when we say we are expecting? Exactly what is expecting? Is it a behavior? Is it a mental “phenomenon?” Perhaps it is no more than how we have been taught to label behavior under certain conditions.
What is the physical evidence in support of expecting? By requiring any legitimate evidence to be physical in nature, we might be able to eliminate any argument that expecting is a mental process of some sort. What if someone concedes that when they are expecting, they are not doing anything that others could observe. They might also acknowledge that they are not necessarily actively thinking about the events that are expected. They might at one moment or another think about the expected phone call, but not continuously, all the while still saying they are expecting it. They might be doing other things while they are waiting (expecting). If this is the proposed evidence, what is its nature? If expecting is neither public nor private behavior, what is it? We cannot accept that it is a unique mental state that has no physical dimensions. How could there be any physical evidence in support of that position?
Asking again about the evidence leads to another possibility. Someone might say that when they are expecting they feel physically different than when they are not expecting. This description raises the possibility that expecting involves physiological events that could be detected, at least in principle. There is certainly no question that we learn to detect and describe particular physiological events, usually calling them feelings. As previous posts have pointed out, Skinner insisted that a science of behavior must include an analysis of such phenomena. However, it can be too convenient to casually reference some feeling any time we need an explanation of an everyday term that seems to describe or explain behavior. There is always physiological stuff going on, after all. The challenge is to directly measure the specific events and show that they occur in a coordinated way, often under certain environmental conditions, and that we are wired to detect them.
For instance, when we say that we feel hungry, it is possible to directly measure certain physiological events that we can detect and learn to describe, particularly aided by environmental conditions related to how long it’s been since we last ate. Is something similar going on when we say we are expecting? What might be the specific physiological events that could be involved? Do we have the sensory equipment to detect them? What learning contingencies would be required for our verbal community to teach us to describe them as expecting? In order to buy the possibility that expecting is a true feeling, we would have to find some pretty good answers to these questions.
At this point, it is probably necessary to note an important caveat, just in case someone does an imaging study that shows that a certain measure of brain activity changes under some expectation test condition. Such a result would not constitute evidence for the existence of expecting as a physical phenomenon. There is no doubt that various measures of brain activity change, perhaps even in more or less orderly ways, under an endless variety of behavioral and environmental conditions. However, concluding that a correlation between certain measures of brain activity and some experimental condition constitutes sufficient evidence for the existence of expecting as a distinctive phenomenon would not be justified. Even putting aside methodological challenges in this kind of research (Faux, 2002; Uttal, 2011), a particular measure of brain activity is just that, and it is gratuitous to leap to the conclusion that it represents, causes, or even constitutes a behavioral phenomenon. Putting behavioral labels on measures of brain activity is a risky business.
Finally, the search for evidence in support of expecting as a physical phenomenon should raise the possibility of an alternative explanation. What if references to expecting are no more than tacts of our behavior under certain environmental circumstances? That is, what if there is no such thing as expecting? What if we have simply learned to say we are expecting something to occur when we can describe events that might occur? And the evidence for this possibility? As we know, of course, there is abundant scientific support for how such verbal behavior might be learned. As a bonus, this position has the additional advantage of being parsimonious. It is the simplest and most well understood explanation of “expecting,” which increases the burden for other proposals.
Faux, S. F. (2002). Cognitive neuroscience from a behavioral perspective: A critique of chasing ghosts with geiger counters. The Behavior Analyst, 25(2), 161-173.
Uttal, W. R. (2011). Mind and brain: A critical appraisal of cognitive neuroscience. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.