Alternative theories and alternative phenomena

[From Rick Marken (950608.1320)]

Bruce Abbott (950605.1210 EST) --

Reinforcement theory makes reinforcement the central explanatory principle
for behavior change; PCT makes it a side-effect of control. The argument is
not about the objective phenomenon of reinforcement but its theoretical

This statement suggests that the same phenomenon (behavior change) is
explained by both reinforcement theory and PCT; the two theories just explain
it in different ways: reinforcement theory says that behavior change results
from the "strengthening" effect of reinforcement; PCT says that behavior
change is a side effect of control.

I think Bruce is claiming that PCT is better (more accurate, simpler, etc)
than reinforcement theory as a model of behavior change. In other words,
reinforcement theory (like Ptolmeic theory) is basically OK but PCT (like
Copernican theory) is much better. Bruce is, therefore, understandably
puzzled by the response he is getting from those of us who presumably also
believe that PCT is better than current theories of behavior. This puzzlement
is obviously very frustrating for Bruce, as evidenced by:

  "O.K., O.K., you caught me. All this time I've been part of a top secret,
  high-level plot to undermine PCT and reestablish traditional reinforcement
  theory as the "top dog" in the field of learning and behavior..."
                                             Bruce Abbott(950607.1245 EST)

Clearly, Bruce sees himself as a friend of PCT who is being treated as an
enemy. I think other friends of PCT have felt the same way. What's going on?

It think what's going on is a conflict between two very different views of
PCT. One view (Bruce's) is that PCT is another theory of behavior -- like
reinforcement theory, various cognitive theories, motivational theories,
etc -- and is of interest to the extent that it can explain existing data
_at least_ as well as the other theories can. This is the "alternative
theory" view of PCT. The other view (mine) is that PCT is about the
phenomenon of control and that the goal of PCT is to understand this
phenomenon. According to this view, most existing data is irrelvant to
understanding control. This is the "alternative phenomenon" view of PCT.

These two views can sometimes become somewhat conflated. For example, in
his reply to Bruce's quote above, Bill Powers (950606.0000 MDT) says:

But PCT predicts that any externally-induced change in the rate of
reinforcement will result in an _opposite_ change in the rate of
behavior, while reinforcement theory predicts that the change in rate of
behavior will be _in the same direction_ as the change in rate of
reinforcement. This is a very clear and unequivocal contradiction.

This gives the impression that Bill sees PCT as an alternative to
reinforcement theory. In fact, Bill is comparing a _qualitative_ prediction
of reinforcement theory to a quantitative prediction of a PCT model. In
fact, there is no such thing as a reinforcement theory of control. A model
that actually produces a change in rate of behavior (output) that is in the
same direction as the change in rate of reinforcement (input) is a positive
feedback model; it doesn't keep the input (or anything) under control.

Once you know that the rat in an operant chamber is controlling food input
(you have identified the phenomenon of control), you know that only a control
model (like PCT) can explain the phenomenon; a reinforcement is simply not an

In general, when know there is control, then you know there is no alternative
to control theory.