Keep On Trackin' Keep On Trackin'

[From Rick Marken (971207.1230)]

Bruce Abbott (971206.0310) tries (once again) to minimize the
importance of the PCT-based behavioral research that has been
done to date by making the following comments about tracking

When you know that the person is controlling a particular
variable...and observe the person attempting to is
not terribly surprising (to me, at least) that one can predict
his behavior with high accuracy.

Bill Powers (971206.0459 MST) tries (once again) to explain the
importance of such research results by saying (among other

Why not say instead that the reason for success in all these
experiments and demonstrations was that we did, in fact, have
a good idea of what the people were controlling and their means
of control, and a model that explained how they did this?

Since I have been one of the main purveyors of PCT research
involving tracking tasks, I would like to share my own thoughts
about the difference between trivial research (like the tracking
type stuff I do) and significant research (like the rat
shocking/brain slashing stuff Bruce Abbott does):

1. I continue to be amazed by conventional psychologists (like
Abbott) who dismiss our PCT research as trivial because it involves
"tracking tasks". Have these folks ever looked at the kind of
tasks that are used in their "significant" research? Is pressing
a bar or pecking a key really more significant than keeping a
cursor on target? If one's idea of significant is "cognitive"
psychology, is identifying the components of a tachistosopically
presented word really more significant than controlling the area
of a rectangle? How about recognizing whether or not a nonsense
syllables was in a previous list? Is this really more significant
than controlling rate of movement of a line?

2. Not all PCT research involves conventional "tracking" tasks
anyway. PCT has taken "tracking" where no man has taken it before.
Bill mentioned PCT "tracking" tasks that are really just control
tasks -- where the goal is to see if a person can control variables
like shape, rate of rotation, similarity of line-figures in size
or proportions, color, pitch, symmetry of movement, etc.(See my
"Control of Perception" demo at my web site). I have had subjects
control programs, sequences, transitions and configurations (see
the "Hierarchy of Perception and Control" demo at my web site).
Nothing is really being "tracked" in these tasks; perceptions are,
however, being controlled relative to fixed or variable references.

3. Abbott has suggested that tracking tasks are trivial becuase they
are so easy to do -- all you need is a computer and a couple subjects.
The implication seems to be that research is only significant if
you have to clean cages, measure food in ml (oooh, metric;-)), and
shave the hair off off the backs of rats so they can't save
themselves from the volts (oooh, another scientific term) applied
to the bottom of those now sqeaky clean cages. But I think the
results of our tracking tasks are still significant event though
they are easy to do. I haven't done a bazillion of these tasks, by
the way, easy as they are, because I try to develop tasks that test
significant aspects of the control model. The difficulty of our
"trivial" tracking tasks is in the conception -- not the execution
(just the opposite of the way it works in with "significant" non-
tracking research). Timing balls as they roll down inclined planes
is easy; conceiving of this "trivial" way to measure gravitational
acceleration was the hard part.

4. Since our tracking experiments always work -- the results are
always perfectly predicted by the PCT model -- they must be trivial,
according to Abbott, who seems to think that the only significant
research is the kind that produces "surprising" results. But we
have made some "surprising" findings in our "trivial" tracking
studies. I can think of two that surprised me; the biggest
surprise was the "Marken Effect" (never published) where I
accidentally found that a person controlled better against an
"active" compared to a "passive" disturbance (the _same_ disturbance
waveform being involved in both cases). The other was the finding
that in a two-D control of position task the position of the
controlled variable is represented perceptually in cartesean, not
polar, coordinates. We do make some "discoveries" -- all of which
are consistent with the control model, by the way -- but the main
goal of "trivial" PCT research is to just keep testing the model.

I conclude that the people who talk about tracking or any of the
other tasks used in PCT research as being trivial are just
propogandizing; they are trying to belittle the basic discoveries
made by PCT research because the results of these "trivial" little
tasks demolish the foundations of their own "significant" research.

So, while conventional psychologists do research that is often very
significant (in the statistical sense), PCT researcher do researcher
that is always important (in the cosmic sense;-)




Richard S. Marken Phone or Fax: 310 474-0313
Life Learning Associates e-mail: