The politics of behavior February 18, 2015

Short of retreating to a desert island or remote mountain cabin, it seems impossible to escape today’s political noise.  Trying to tune it out cuts you off from so much that is important in society, yet participating in political discussions is often painful, perhaps especially so for behavior analysts.  After all, politics is all about human behavior, and we know something about that.  Our understanding of behavior is based on solid, long-standing science and hard won through systematic graduate study.  Everyone else knows a lot less about behavior than they even know about physics or chemistry – in other words, not very much at all.

Behavior through a political lens

Of course, folks don’t know what they don’t know, so they argue their political convictions without a clue as to the implications for their assumptions about behavior.  Although the grand sweep of political opinions is complex, it’s easy to identify a major bifurcation that accommodates the views of a pretty fair portion of American society.  It’s risky to label these two political camps, of course, but difficult to discuss them without doing so.  Basically, we’re talking about conservative and liberal positions on wide-ranging topics, but don’t get hung up on how these terms might not be just right because I’m going to suggest a behavioral foundation for this traditional political distinction.

In the most general terms, conservative views on a variety of topics seem to share a conviction that individuals are largely responsible for their lot in life, whether good or bad.  Laudatory accomplishments are the result of individual efforts to make the most of life’s circumstances, just as failures to succeed follows from not trying hard enough.  The successful business is earned by hard work.  Academic shortcomings can be explained by insufficient personal exertion.  Challenging origins can always be overcome with individual initiative.  A silver spoon at birth guarantees nothing unless the individual puts it to good use, just as misfortune can be overcome with the right personal qualities.

The contrasting liberal take on the same topics – again, vastly over generalized – is that individuals are largely at the mercy of their circumstances.  Successes come from favorable situations and failures from unfortunate events.  Good intentions and hard work don’t always overcome challenges, and the credit for achievements must be given to the experiences and advantages that made them possible.  A business flourishes because it is well capitalized or has a good location or weak competition.  A student fails because of the burden of too many disadvantages.  Challenging origins are often too much to overcome, and a silver spoon is only the beginning of a cascade of advantages.

And the implications of what is seen

Few people are likely to reflect on the assumptions about human nature that underlie conflicting political views about tax policy, regulations, welfare, criminal justice, the role of government, and endless social issues.  Nevertheless, it’s not difficult to figure out that the origin of typical conservative and liberal positions on social issues may be found in fundamentally different convictions about why people behave as they do.  Conservative arguments seem to be based on a belief that people are responsible for their own behavior and may therefore be lauded or blamed for its consequences.  Liberal opinions seem rooted in the view that people’s actions are largely influenced by their past and present circumstances, which limit the reach of personal attribution.  These contrasting assumptions about the causes of behavior should be familiar to behavior analysts, who recognize the old conflict between free will and determinism.

The belief that people are fully responsible for their behavior requires the assumption that the causes of behavior lie within the individual.  Taking this inherently mentalistic position further, it means that whatever the circumstances associated with a course of action, it is the individual who makes of them whatever he or she will.  Those circumstances may have some impact, but it is the person’s unique qualities that rule the day and determine the outcomes.  This position therefore holds that a person’s behavior is ultimately free of the suffocating grip of environmental events.  It is instead the province of the individual, who is blessed or cursed with certain innate qualities, that forecast how a life will unfold.

The contrasting view that behavior is the tail wagged by life’s circumstances is based on the assumption that the causes of behavior lie in the events each individual experiences.  This position gives personal qualities a minimal role and searches a person’s history for the contribution of experiences that may be assigned causal priority.  Of course, only behavior analysts are likely to disallow even a modicum of mentalism, so most people taking this position grant that some personal responsibility overlays the otherwise dominant role of environmental events.  Still, life’s circumstances are given first place in explaining why people behave as they do.

The first chapter in Radical behaviorism for ABA practitioners explains the details of these incompatible assumptions about the nature of behavioral causation.  Their role in political arguments about how we collectively manage human affairs as a society reminds us that these assumptions are not merely esoteric philosophical entertainment.  They are at the heart of political debates about how to address pressing societal challenges.  How should we solve the problem of poverty?  Whose fault is it?  Should we blame society or the individual?  How should welfare work?  How far should governmental obligations go?

As behavior analysts, we always wish that such debates were informed by our science and technology.  However we each earn our daily bread, we share the overarching obligation of all scientists to bring our specialized training into public discourse.  The topic of free will versus determinism may not be just right for your next talk at a Rotary Club lunch, but the nature of behavioral causation must find its way to the forefront in discussions of societal issues.  It is our job.  There is no one else who can do it.

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The politics of behavior

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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.

The politics of behavior February 18, 2015


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