Reading 4.2 – What is “_______?”

Chapter 4 – What Is Really Inside?

Reading 4.2 – What is “_______________________?”

A recent question posted on the Students of Applied Behavior Analysis Facebook page focused on the nature of frustration and generated a fairly long thread that went this way and that. I was tempted to join in, but decided instead to develop a reading that would contribute more than a brief Facebook response might.

What is frustration?

As behavior analysts, our initial reaction to this question should be easy. The question itself is simply a bit of verbal behavior. Yes, I know this seems to avoid the everyday sense of the query, but wearing our behavior analyst hats in this discussion is the best way to get to a useful answer. Approaching the question as verbal behavior is the right place to start because the necessary discussion is not about frustration but about our verbal behavior. A more behaviorally useful way of asking the question is, “What do we mean when we emit the verbal response, ‘frustration.’” This phrasing encourages searching for an answer the way Skinner recommended in his 1945 paper, “The operational analysis of psychological terms.”

Skinner’s take on operationism provided us with a blueprint for discussing the endless array of human qualities implied by colloquial dialect. He proposed that coming up with an operational definition of any of these qualities – usually taken to be causes of behavior – must start by asking about the sources of control over our verbal behavior. (Reading 10.4 may help you differentiate between Skinner’s use the phrase “operational definition” and the contemporary use of the phrase in ABA technology.) That is, when we ask about the nature of some putative human quality such as frustration, we should acknowledge that our answer is verbal behavior and must be understood as such. This exercise is an ongoing theme in the book, and it is an important skill for practitioners to master.

Sources of control

So, what are the sources of control over our verbal response, “frustration?” If we’re observing a student in a classroom and are inclined to say she is frustrated, what makes us want to say that? Exactly what features of the child’s behavior are we seeing? Is she making a frowning face, whatever that might be? Is she crying? What exactly is she doing? A related set of questions would focus on her environment. What is going on when she emits this behavior? Is she trying to do something, such as taking a test? And what follows the behavior? What exactly is it that makes us refer to frustration as an explanation of what we observe her doing?

We know that our verbal behavior is entirely learned, so when we explain the child’s behavior by saying that she is feeling frustrated we are emitting learned behavior under control of certain features of our environment. That is, we have been taught to say that someone is “frustrated” only in the presence of certain stimuli. These stimuli involve not just the person’s actions, but the surrounding environmental events. In fact, the context in which certain behavior occurs may often exert more control over what we say than the features of the behavior we observe. (When someone is crying, for example, whether we say they are happy or sad depends less on the behavior than on the events that apparently precipitated the crying.)

Of course, our verbal behavior about frustration has been reinforced by the reactions of others, which explains why we label or explain behavior this way. This is an important point. As a word (verbal response), frustration is whatever our verbal community teaches us it is. That is, we emit this verbal response in the manner dictated by our reinforcement history. It doesn’t matter what we call whatever is “really there” as long as everyone labels it pretty much the same way, which is the outcome that social reinforcement produces.

But what is it really?

OK, let’s get past matters of process and guess about what frustration might be. For this part of the discussion, let’s turn from labeling a child’s behavior in a classroom to labeling our own behavior. The only difference – and it is an important difference – is that each of us can sense some of what is going on inside our skin. If frustration is anything more than verbal response – if it is a real phenomenon – we must get to its physical features. This isn’t an easy task, but it starts with what sensations we might detect that contribute to our labeling a personal feeling of frustration. One of the reasons this isn’t easy is because, as Skinner pointed out, we’re not very well wired to detect events going on inside the skin.

Nevertheless, there may well be changes in our biology that occur under certain conditions. Let’s assume that this is the case and that our verbal community has taught us to detect these changes in our physiology and to label them as the feeling of frustration. How our verbal community brings our labeling behavior under control of these private stimuli is another story, but if the biological processes (sensations) are real and if they occur in a coordinated way under certain conditions, then a program of scientific research should be able to tell us what is actually going on at a physiological level. Are we detecting changes in the tension of certain muscle groups, gastric secretions, heart rate, blood pressure, and so forth?

Whatever we may be detecting, it is unlikely that these sensations are the sole source of control over our labeling behavior. Our emission of the statement, “I’m really feeling frustrated right now” is probably also under control of environmental events that have some consistency in our verbal community. For example, we are presumably taught to say we are feeling frustrated when we are trying to do something that is difficult. (Skinner talks about this in the context of problem solving.) The sensations and their context are drawn together by the learning history given us by our verbal community that leads us to refer to feelings of frustration under those conditions.

In sum, given reasonable assumptions of the occurrence of certain biological processes in certain environmental contexts, we may detect and label these stimuli as the feeling of frustration. There is admittedly a lot we don’t know about the biology involved, and it is not as if the details of this learning history have been dignified by a program of research. However, this interpretation is consistent with personal experience (we do seem to feel what we call a “sense of frustration” under certain conditions) and with what our science tells us about how behavior works. Although everyday talk about feelings is far too casual for scientific purposes, Skinner urged us to recognize physical feelings as real aspects of behavior. Although talking about and studying them is complicated by their private nature, he stressed the importance of not shying away from acknowledging their role in behavior just because they are private.

In spite of the speculation in the above paragraphs, we should consider the possibility that there is no set of coordinated physiological factors that might underlie our references to frustration. If this is the case – if frustration is not actually a real feeling – then the term is no more than a bit of verbal behavior occasioned by certain consistencies in behavior and environment. Given the countless terms seeming to describe or explain human behavior, it may be a safe bet that most lack any distinct physiological foundation.

A useful tactic

The title of this reading should suggest that the interpretation of our verbal behavior about frustration is an example of how we should go about understanding our verbal behavior about any human qualities suggested by common parlance. If such everyday referents implying human qualities have no underlying physical status but are nevertheless said to be internal causes of behavior, this is a form of mentalism. On the other hand, if such terms label actual sensations or feelings, it is not necessarily mentalistic to consider them as possible influences on behavior.

The problem is that this distinction between real versus fictional is difficult to assess without a focused research literature. Even if experimental evidence suggests that there is a coordinated set of physiological variables that might justify a term that purports to explain behavior, we must also acknowledge that our everyday use of such terms is influenced by purely environmental factors. In the case of frustration, for example, if may be that the label is often used when the actual sensations are not present. Because we usually lack justifying evidence, we tend to generalize from our own personal experiences in certain types of situations when we say that someone is feeling frustrated, and we may well be wrong.