What is “___________?” August 21, 2014

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 posting on my blog seemed to provide a better way to make my contribution.

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 whole discussion is fundamentally 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.  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 my book, “Radical behaviorism for ABA practitioners,” 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 is?  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 the 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 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 figure out what frustration really is.  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 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.

A useful tactic

The title of my post should suggest that this interpretation of our verbal behavior about frustration is the way we should go about understanding our verbal behavior about any human qualities suggested by common parlance.  Of course, many everyday terms that suggest features or causes of human behavior probably have no physical referents, which mean they would not qualify as real.  The countless examples in this category are most often said to be internal causes of behavior, a conviction that is called mentalism.  If frustration is a real phenomenon, however, it is not mentalistic to consider it as a possible influence on behavior.  On the other hand, perhaps we shouldn’t be too confident in speculating about its influence on someone’s behavior, given that in any particular instance we don’t know whether the private feeling is actually occurring in another person.  Lacking this information, we tend to generalize from our own personal experiences in certain types of situations when we say that someone is feeling frustrated.

Finally, the Facebook post that prompted this post wondered if frustration was an explanatory fiction.  This kind of explanation attempts to explain a behavior in terms that represent the same set of facts that are evident in the behavior itself.  For example, saying that Sarah plays the piano well because she is musically talented is an explanatory fiction because the fact of her piano playing skills is the same fact on which a reference to talent is supposedly based.  However, if we say that the behaviors of grimacing, complaining, and such that someone emits while working on a difficult problem may be partly explained by the feeling of frustration, the explanation is not fictional to the extent that it has a real basis in the individual’s biology.


What is “___________?”

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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 is “___________?” August 21, 2014