Apology, Understanding PCT

[From Rick Marken (941028.1030)]

Bruce Abbott (941020.1815 EST) said to Tom Bourbon (941019.1000) --

Demonstrating control over behavior in EAB means identifying
variables that, when manipulated, can be shown to alter the behavior
in predictable ways. Usually the experimenter does not view himself
or herself as controlling; rather it is the environment that does the

I (941020.2245) added the following:

And such an experimenter would object to being classed, along with
the forest people of New Guinea, as an "animist" (one who believes
that objects such as rocks and trees are alive and have souls) even
though this is precisely what he (or she) is -- a "Skinnerean animist".

To which Bruce apparently took offense, as indicated by the following:

Bruce Abbott (941025.1025) --

What nonsense. Translate EAB into PCT and you have: environmental
disturbances alter [note: control in the EAB sense of the term] behavior in
predictable ways. Where is your animism?

and Bruce Abbott (941027.1000 EST):

it just blows me away to hear Rick interpret my words as if I had meant
"control" in its narrower PCT dress.

There has apparently been a serious misunderstanding here. In your
(941020.1815 EST) reply to Tom, I thought you were giving us an ex-insider's
perspective on what EAB people think, not what YOU currently think. I thought
you were saying something like "this is how the EAB people look at control of
behavior; too bad they don't understand PCT". I meant my comment only as an
addition to your point about EAB people -- illustrating the fundemental
problem with the EAB position. The basic problem, of course, is that the EAB
people don't really know what control is. If they knew what control is, then
they would not use the word "control" to describe what is done by
environmental disturbances, contingencies, reinforcements, schedules, etc AND
what is done by the experimenter who is manipulating those disturbances,
contingencies, reinforcements, schedules, etc to produce particular
behaviors. I thought you were simply pointing out (to Tom) a basic
misconception held by EAB people. I was surprised (to say the least) to find,
on my return today, that I had apparently misinterpreted your comment. So, I
sincerely apologize if what I said offended you.

I think that this discussion of what EAB people "really" mean shows that, at
best, EAB people play a little fast and loose with vocabulary. So I suggest
that we get on with the modelling to see what everyone REALLY means, and I
strongly support Bill Powers' (941027.1650 MDT) suggestion to you (Bruce):

Since you're a modeler, and also know authoritatively how reinforcement
is supposed to select behavior, perhaps you can come up with a
reinforcement simulation that will produce the E. coli effect. Perhaps
both Rick and I failed because we didn't find the right model. If you
could find such a model, that would be an important result, because it
would disprove what Rick and I thought the E. coli model proved: the
production of a systematic effect without any reinforcement as (we
thought) reinforcement is conceived.

If you are able to come up with such a model, it would be a wonderful help
because, since my first demonstration of the E. coli effect, EAB people have
been happy to verbally explain how reinforcement theory could account for it
(while politely implying that what I was claiming was "nonsense") but
they have never actually built a reinforcement model that produces the

Bruce Abbott (941025.1115 EST) to Tom Bourbon (941024.1338) --

Regarding my understanding of PCT, please don't hesitate to point out where
you think I've got it wrong.

This is a very nice attitude, Bruce. It is very hard not to be defensive when
someone else says "your understanding is wrong". It's even difficult when
observations or models say this. So if you can accept such critisicm I think
it is great.

Let me suggest one way people trained as research psychologists (like
myself) can tell that they undertstand the basics of PCT. They understand the
basics of PCT when they have what I call the "holy shit" experience. This
occurs when they suddenly see that behavioral scientists have missed the
point completely for the last 100 plus years. The "holy shit" experience
occurs when they "get" what it means to say that organisms control their own
perceptions; it means that everything they learned about behavior - - all the
wisdom of the famous psychologists -- is completely out the window.

The "holy shit" experience is NOT particularly pleasant. There is a large
component of disappointment and astonishment; people who were the icons of
one's intellectual world are suddenly seen to have been deceived by
superficial appearances (the appearance that behavior is a response to input,
selected by its consequences or a process of controlling output) that they
took to be clues about the nature of behavior. It's like Dorothy's discovery
that the Wizard was just an old huckster behind the curtain. They suddenly
see that the great edifice of the behavioral sciences -- an edifice that is
so scientific and rigorous, and so comfortably familair -- has been built on
an illusion, though, of course, not purposefully. The behavioral sciences
are built on illusion simply because no one (until Powers) understood the
nature of behavior -- that behavior is a process of controlling, and that
what is controlled is a perceptual representation of aspects of the external

The "holy shit" experience might not be one you want to have -- and
that would be quite understandable. But I warn you that it is a possible
consequence of investigating the phenomenon of control and trying to model

I hope you stick with the modelling and prove that I am wrong; that is, show
that behavioral scientists have not missed the point completely. Show, for
example, that a reinforcement model can account for the E. coli effect (or
for the data in operant condition experiments, for that matter). Show,
that is, that the "holy shit" experience is, itself, an illusion. It would
be very nice to find out that the Emperor's nakedness is actually the way
clothes look these days.



P.S. Thanks again, Tom, for the hospitality and the good weather in Houston.
It was very reinforcing, so I will probably emit some "coming back" behavior