What Constitutes a Behavior: Shouldn’t we all agree? – Part 2

Let’s take a look at a very popular definition of behavior from the field of ABA. Johnston and Pennypacker define behavior as:

that portion of an organism’s1 interaction with its environment2 that involves movement of some part of the organism3.”

Wow. That’s a mouthful. For the sake of non-geeky people (trust me, I am King Geek), feel free to say “person” instead of organisms, though realize that all living things can engage in behavior. Now we move to dissecting this definition:

  • Behavior is limited to organisms.
  • Behavior must be an interaction between the organism and the environment.
  • Behavior involves the movement of at least some part of the organism.

Okay, so if there is no organism, there can be no behavior. That’s fairly easy. The next two points require us to consider some things not historically called behavior. What is the environment? Where does it end and where does it begin? The American Behavior Analyst and Psychologist BF Skinner said the environment includes everything in our world, including those events happening inside of us. He talks about, what he labeled behaviors within the skin at length in his book About Behaviorism.

GASP!!!! “I thought Skinner didn’t believe in such things.” That is one of most widely accepted misconceptions about modern behaviorism. Trust me, there are many things people say and believe about behaviorism that are dead wrong. Skinner never rejected the existence of things happening within our own body, such as our anatomy and physiology, like the behavior or neurons (yes, I said behavior), emotions, thinking. Behaviorists believe in these things. We just do not give them some special non-physical status. It’s not that thinking isn’t real, thinking is behavior.  Currently, private behaviors and other environmental events within the skin of an individual, promotes challenges in measurement. From a neurological, anatomical, and physiological standpoint, advances in the tools used to measure such behavior and events continue to improve. But when it comes to “thinking” and “feeling,” those behaviors and private environmental events are only directly observable by the person experiencing them. This promotes a problem. If you engage in a public behavior, it now belongs to the community. We can observe it. We can directly measure it. Better yet, we can have other trained individuals observe and then compare to see if we all agree that something is happening. But with private behaviors, we have to go through the individual. People can lie. They could forget. People, in general, are the worst at observing themselves. So when we fully understand that the skin does not preclude private events from being considered as behavior, you can perhaps see the potential to help solve a number of problems across a number of settings.

Is your head spinning yet? This is indeed a very foreign way of considering the human experience for many of us. The vague, mentalistic, mystical approach is typically engrained in us at an early age. This approach refutes vague and ambiguous labels, such as “anxiety,” “frustration,” and the like for the pursuit of ever-increasing specificity. For some reason, we tend to reject the pursuit of precision and specificity when dealing with behaviors. Going back to our brain surgeon example, how many of you would like to hear this from your physician: “Well, the problem is in your head somewhere. We’re going to drill some holes and creatively explore.” I’m fairly confident that NONE of us would allow that doctor to even take our blood pressure, let alone perform brain surgery. We demand precision and specificity from our physicians. How many of you have left your general practice doctor’s office very unhappy because you were told your affliction was “viral.” What does that even mean? When it comes to our physical health, we do not want a collection of vague, ambiguous, gobblygook. Why should it be any different for our behavioral health?

So, in the pursuit of solving the behaviors that plague our society, we must first get on the same page about the subject matter itself. When we accept a general definition of behavior, such as the one offered above, then we must also realize that each individual behavior must have its own unique definition. You may be thinking, “this dude never stops with the specificity.” Just ask my children about that.

When a parent tells a child, “go clean your room,” what does this really mean? Again, if we all wrote this down, there would be obvious areas of agreement. But we would also have many differences. Some of you may include “dusting the furniture” in your definition, while others may label “room cleaning” as simply removing the clutter from the floor. How many of you with children have gotten into a fight with your child because their definition of cleaning the room did not match yours?

“But Dr. Jim, they KNOW what I mean.” Do they? How? How many of you have been asked to complete some new task with very incomplete and vague instructions? “But this is different.” How? Because you’re an adult and they are a child?

James Moore

Dr. Jim Moore earned his doctorate at the University of Southern Mississippi in School Psychology. Dr. Moore, BCBA-D is the director or the Applied Behavior Analysis Program at the University of Southern Mississippi! For over 15 years, Dr. Moore has worked in higher education and clinical settings. Dr. Moore has published in the leading journals on Applied Behavior Analysis. In his own words, he is a "Radically Behavioral Guy" : )

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