Reading 6.2 – Are you confused?

Chapter 6 – The Misdirection of Everyday Dialect

Reading 6.2 – Are you confused?

What do we mean when we say we’re confused? We certainly know what it’s like to be or “feel” confused. We may be struggling with instructions on how to assemble something or trying with some difficulty to understand an issue in a textbook or wondering which turn to take to get to a destination. The circumstances under which we say we’re confused obviously vary widely, but there must be some common features that lend the term everyday utility in talking with others.

But first…

The reason for putting “feeling” in quotes was explained in Reading 4.3 (“When are feelings really feelings?”). In brief, that reading argued that the sense in which behavior analysts discuss feelings concerns actual physiological events that the individual can detect and eventually learn to label through instruction by the verbal community – that is, sensations that can actually be felt. However, the unavoidable difficulty of teaching someone to label private events to which the trainer does not have direct access encourages a broader and potentially misleading use of the term. We often refer to feelings under circumstances in which it is doubtful that we can detect any real sensations. Instead, we tend to casually insert the term into everyday dialect with the vague implication that the referenced “feeling” in some way helps explain our behavior. This implication suggests an internal process of some undefined sort, though absent the requirement for any detectable physical foundation.

The distinction between these two ways of talking about how we feel is important. In one case, feelings are tied to real physiological events that can in principle be directly investigated, just as we can also study how the verbal community teaches us to describe them. In the other, no such physiological basis is required, leaving only the option of studying the environmental sources of control over these verbal expressions, as well as addressing gratuitous implications that they reflect inner sources of control.

Should we consider confusion as a physiological state that the individual can detect? This is a difficult question for characteristically cautious scientists because there may always be physiological correlates to the ebb and flow of behavior under changing environmental circumstances. The issue, however, is not whether there are distinctive physiological correlates to our moments of apparent confusion but whether there is any evidence that the individual can detect them, which is required for the verbal community to be able to teach reasonably consistent self-reporting of these private events.

What are we responding to?

In sum, there are two circumstances under which we may learn to say we are confused. One involves responding to private physiological events corresponding to “confusing” situations by labeling these events as a feeling of confusion, as taught by our verbal community. The other also involves responding by labeling our reactions to certain situations as confusion, but without access to any unique physiological events. That is, it is possible that our sense of being confused does not result from actual sensations we can detect, but is merely the way we learned to label our behavior in certain contexts, just as we learned to label other aspects of our behavior under particular circumstances. (See Reading 4.2 for discussion of these two alternatives.)

To be clear, we may say we are confused simply because that is how we are taught to describe our behavior under certain circumstances. In fact, we often label our behavior based on not just what we are doing but on features of environmental situations at that moment. For example, we say we are grateful when someone does something nice for us or that we are disappointed when a planned event falls through. There may be a vague assumption that these labeled reactions are rooted in internal processes, whether physiological or mental, but a more parsimonious explanation is that we have learned to label our behavior in context no differently than we learn to label physical objects in the environment such as chairs or cars.

Is this a problem?

What might be the common features of environmental circumstances that prompt us to label our reactions as confusion? Skinner’s discussion of problem solving may offer some guidance (Skinner, 1953, 1969). He proposed that problems are situations in which the individual has no behavior immediately available that can resolve a condition of deprivation or aversive stimulation. For example, the discussion of problem solving in Chapter 5 suggests that it is a problem when we have not eaten all day (a condition of deprivation) but have no obvious way to get food. Similarly, it a problem when we are trying to study but are distracted by a noisy party next door (an aversive condition) that we cannot shut down. The conditions of deprivation or aversive stimulation need not be obvious or substantial, however. For instance, merely hearing a familiar tune and wanting to know the artist may constitute a mildly aversive problem if you have no immediate way of answering the question. Skinner went on to define problem solving behavior as behavior that alters the situation so that the problem disappears.

From this perspective, being confused constitutes a particular kind of problem. Saying that we are confused involves situations that are aversive because a course of action that will lead to reinforcement is desired or called for but is not immediately apparent or available. For example, driving to a friend’s house without knowing the way may lead to getting lost and not knowing whether to turn right or left at an intersection, an aversive condition. Although both responses may be available, there may be no influences that signal which alternative will result in reinforcement. In this circumstance, the driver might be described as being confused. Although “confusing” situations may vary a good bit from one another in their details, they share the fact that an aversive state of affairs is created by the need to respond in the absence of influences that select responses that will result in reinforcing outcome, thereby solving the problem by terminating an aversive situation. These shared features seem to be the operational basis for our describing our reactions as being confused.

One advantage of this conception of confusion is that it does not require any assumption that such reactions are based on underlying physiological processes. The fact that we learn to label our reactions to situations with emotional referents (e.g., frustration, irritation, annoyance, exasperation, etc.) does not mean that we need to reify these terms. In other words, just because we may say that these kinds of problem situations lead to our “feeling” confused need not imply that there are actual detectable internal sensations involved, whether physical or mental.

This constraint may seem difficult to accept because our tendency to describe our reactions in terms that imply inner processes is the result of a lifelong verbal history. We are continually describing our reactions to daily situations with an extensive lexicon of subjective states without concern for their physical status. Again, a more parsimonious explanation is that such referents are no more that the result of labeling our behavior in context, albeit with terms that subtly suggest inner processes of some sort. The argument proposed here is that we can “feel confused” without the need to assume an underlying physiological condition or mental state. All that is required is learning to respond to “confusing” situations by describing our reaction as being or feeling confused.


Reading 4.2 – What is ____________?

Reading 4.3 – When are feelings really feelings?

Reading M12 The behavior analyst and the border collie

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: MacMillan.

Skinner, B. F. (1969). An operant analysis of problem solving. In B. F.

Skinner, Contingencies of reinforcement (pp. 133-171). New York: Appleton-century-Crofts.