What are your intentions? May 29, 2017

In common parlance, when talking about human affairs it’s difficult to avoid referencing intentions. The usual assumption is that intentions are something each of us privately possesses, so we have no hesitation in describing our own. However, we’re not bashful about characterizing the intentions of others based on how we read the circumstances surrounding their behavior. We talk about intentions as both a force guiding our actions, reflecting an a priori vector for our behavior, and as a source of motivation to follow through to satisfy the intentional mandate.

Lacking apparent physical properties, intentions are easy to invent, whether for trivial or more elaborate actions. So we make coffee in the morning because we intend to take a thermos with us to work. We stop by the office of a colleague intending to convince them to back us up in an important meeting later in the day because we expect that our supervisor intends to propose a new policy we disagree with. We are comfortable seeing intentions lurking behind the actions of others and ourselves although we are not able to unambiguously point to them – even when they are our own – as we might in identifying a particular behavior. They “exist,” after all, in a mental domain.

But we know better

Of course, as behavior analysts, we know better than to be seduced by common parlance. We’re not going to fall into the trap of accepting our verbal community’s mental inventions as valid explanations of behavior. In spite of their status as a noun in our syntax, intentions are neither a guiding force nor a source of motivation and have no role to play in explaining behavior. Thanks to our verbal community, we have merely learned to offer intentions as one of many casual explanations of behavior.

This kind of explanation is called teleological – an explanation that depends on the contribution of outcomes that lie in the future. Teleological explanations of any natural phenomenon are widely avoided in science, and for good reason – how is it possible for an event that has not yet occurred to influence a prior event?

Teleological explanations are especially hard to resist in discussions of behavior because the culturally accepted model of human nature provides an endless array of events in a mental domain to supplement those that are more physically obvious. These mental processes are conveniently assigned features that defy the limits of physical processes, and intentions are a good example of this problem. The dependence of intentions on future events might seem subtle, given that we seem to place their occurrence prior to the behavior they seem to direct and motivate. That is, we often talk as if the intention comes first and then leads to the forecast behavior. Although this familiar causal sequence implies that the a priori intention in some way causes the resulting behavior, there is more than a whiff of teleology implied in the contribution of intentions to the identified behavioral outcome.

This is where it may be helpful to tie intentionality to the colloquial notion of purpose, a first cousin to intentions and perhaps a more explicit example of teleology. In the often-used example of looking for something, we say that such behavior is controlled by a future state of affairs – finding the item that is missing. The problem in explaining the behavior of looking for something this way is that it suggests that the behavior is not mere looking, but looking for something. The italics say it all. It is the final cause of finding the missing item that supposedly explains the prior behavior of looking. Although there is a proper way to accommodate the notion of purpose in terms of operant contingencies, this is not it. (See chapter 5 for a fuller discussion of purpose.)

Once again, it’s just verbal behavior

Explanations of behavior in terms of intention and purpose – and let’s include similar vernacular terms and phrases such as trying to, meaning to, wanting to, going to, wishing, hoping, desiring, and so forth – share the vague idea that behavioral outcomes that have not yet happened can through mental processes play a causal role in the occurrence of prior behavior. Note that this position is not the same as acknowledging that the consequences of responding influence the nature of similar responding in the future – the scientifically established essence of behavioral causation. In contrast, the causal idea underlying the above list of everyday mental processes is that future events influence prior behavior instance by instance. That is, each occurrence of intending, trying, wanting, and so forth is assumed to have effects on behavior because of specific outcomes that lie in the future for that occurrence. These are fundamentally different propositions.

An alternative explanatory approach looks at the role of verbal behavior, specifically tacts of our own behavior. When we say that we intend to do something, we are tacting various aspects of our behavior in particular environmental contexts. If we say that we intend to go grocery shopping, for example, this statement merely labels or describes features of our behavior we are observing, such as checking the fridge for shortages, making a shopping list, finding the car keys, and so on. Though it might seem that we are observing intentions themselves, it is not clear what might be physically present for us to observe other than our own behavior and associated features of the environment, including the behavior of others. Rather than referencing a fictional mental process, it is more parsimonious to admit that offering intentions as a causal mechanism is merely how we have been taught by our verbal community to describe our behavior, whether public or private.

In looking at intentionality this way, it is important to be clear that proposing that intentions can be responsible for behavior is not the same as asking if the individual was aware of what he or she was doing. Awareness is also about self-tacts (see Chapter 7), but acknowledging that a person is aware of (could describe) what they are doing falls short of the conventional idea of intentions. When we say we intend to do something, we are indeed aware of our behavior, but the usual connotation of intentions is that unlike mere awareness they go further in playing a causal role in guiding and motivating a particular course of future action.

Does this seem too simple, as if we’re not giving intentions their due? As you sit at your desk reading this post, try thinking of something you intend to do. Got it? Now stop and consider what you are actually doing. You are engaging in covert verbal behavior about some activity. It could as well be overt, if you announced your intention to your office mate. But is anything else going on? Anything that is real (physical) and not imagined? What if your dog came to you with its leash? Is it intending to go for a walk? Wouldn’t it be more parsimonious just to say that the dog is engaging in behavior that increases the likelihood of reinforcement? Isn’t this the same as what you’re doing, the reinforcer being the intentional statement itself or the increased probability that it will result in the stated outcome? There is no explanatory value to inventing an intention as a cause for everything we do.

But there are practical implications

This more scientific interpretation of intentionality and the like does not deny that the colloquial perspective toward them isn’t thoroughly engrained in the culture. The everyday notion of intention is quite important in the legal arena, for instance. As Box 7.3 describes, whether the accused is guilty of a crime may depend on the intent presumably underlying their behavior. Of course, determining intent through judicial processes isn’t just an iffy proposition. It is fruitless from a scientific perspective, given that intent is a mental fiction in the first place.

The everyday idea of intent is closely tied to the notion of responsibility. If an action is considered intentional, the individual may be assigned more responsibility for engaging in it than if no intentionality can reasonably be discerned. That is, the consequences for an action may vary depending on how intentionality is assessed. For example, if you are texting while driving and hit a pedestrian, the crime may be deemed inexcusable but not intentional. On the other hand, if it can be shown that there was “malice aforethought” in hitting a pedestrian, the same outcome – an injured pedestrian – may result in far more severe legal consequences. Chapter 7 considers the topic of responsibility more fully, and the discussion importantly distinguishes between scientific and practical perspectives.

The discrepancy between colloquial and scientific understandings of intentionality and similar mental fictions raises endless practical complications. In spite of the challenges and ultimate futility of discerning legal intent, judges and juries often make these calls and attach significant consequences for criminal behavior. And although the everyday notion of personal responsibility may conflict with the working assumption that behavior is fully determined, arranging contingencies that in some sense hold individuals “responsible” for their behavior is valuable in encouraging compliance with societal norms.

Such complications should remind us that although we may view the primary contributions of behavior analysts in terms of their specializations, this is only part of their professional responsibility. All of us have a significant role to play in supplanting the everyday understanding of mentalistic concepts such as intentions with more productive scientific views.


What are your intentions?

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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.

What are your intentions? May 29, 2017