The Lawfulness of Behavior

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This is one of the big concept pieces seen in Applied Behavior Analysis, and Behaviorism in general. The Lawfulness of Behavior. What does that mean, exactly?

Let’s pick the concept apart. To be lawful, something has to follow some kind of order.

It comes from the philosophy of Determinism in which behavior, like any other natural phenomena, is affected and caused by external events, including its history; and that behavior is something that can be studied, just like other natural phenomena. Behavior follows rules, and can impact and be impacted by other phenomena that we can observe and track. The Lawfulness of Behavior is a foundational precept of behavioral science, and has roots in one of B.F Skinner’s earlier and seminal works “Science and Human Behavior” where he states:

“Science is more than the mere description of events as they occur. It
is an attempt to discover order, to show that certain events stand in
lawful relations to other events. No practical technology can be
based upon science until such relations have been discovered. But
order is not only a possible end product; it is a working assumption
which must be adopted at the very start. We cannot apply the methods
of science to a subject matter which is assumed to move about
capriciously. Science not only describes, it predicts. It deals not only
with the past but with the future…If we are to use the methods
of science in the field of human affairs, we must assume that behavior
is lawful and determined. We must expect to discover that what a
man does is the result of specifiable conditions and that once these
conditions have been discovered, we can anticipate and to some
extent determine his actions.” (Skinner, 1951).

That was just in the first ten pages of the book too. Imagine, if you are not already, reading that concept for the first time. It is a strong statement to make about humanity. The same scientific method and principles which can reasonably predict an object falling to gravity, can understand and predict human behavior as well. That is, behavior, is lawful. Science itself has been known to have three main purposes; Description, Prediction, and Control. It’s a process. It’s how we test and replicate our hypotheses about the world.

For this to work, the universe has to be a lawful, orderly place where everything occurs as a result of other events. Events occur because they have had factors leading up to them that contribute to a change, or action (or inaction). The universe around us, then, is not completely random. It is not a bed of chaos where anything and everything can happen at any minute without order. In science, the scientist assumes lawfulness first and then moves on to find the lawful relations between variables. This process, according to Skinner, can be applied exactly the same way in behavior.

With enough understanding: Behavior can be described. Behavior can be predicted. Behavior can be controlled.

The idea of the Lawfulness of Behavior has, and has had, some critics. When taking this principle and thinking about the free will of human beings, we can begin to see some discrepancies between the two. If behavior is subjected to the same laws as anything else, is determined by cause and effect, and it can be described, predicted, and controlled; what might that mean for the place of true independent choice and personal agency? What about something that can not be observed, like a thought, or a dream.

Take a thought, for example. Can an external observer describe a thought in someone else’s head? No. Then how could they predict something like a thought? Control something like a thought? It sounds impossible.

Behaviorist philosophies, such as methodological behaviorism, and radical behaviorism, both see ideas and thoughts as what are called “private events”. Methodological behavioral philosophy refuses to tackle these as legitimate phenomenon, as they are seen as tangential to external causes of behavior which are much more reliable at prediction. Radical behavioral philosophy, coined by B.F Skinner, do not deny “private events” specifically in scientific exploration, but they consider them behavior that can not be seen by outside observers. They exist, have impact, just as any behavior, but can not be studied as reliably as an event that can have multiple observers. Also, as a behavior, ideas and thoughts can come under the same lawfulness and order as any other phenomena, just more difficult to objectively observe.

What do you think?

Sources:

COOPER, JOHN O.. HERON, TIMOTHY E.. HEWARD, WILLIAM L. (2018). APPLIED BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS. S.l.: PEARSON.

Skinner, B. F., & Skinner, B. F. (2012). Science And Human Behavior. Riverside: Free Press.

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