PCT and its critics

[From Bill Powers (940922.1035 MDT)]

Jeff Vancouver (940921) --

I am glad to see that you all have the corner on truth. I suppose we
should all take the perspective that our way and our understanding is
the correct one. We would not be bothered by gaps in our understanding
or differences of opinion.

Anyone who understands the PCT model is welcome to tear it to shreds if
they see something wrong in it. Unfortunately, the people who try
hardest to tear it to shreds are those who have given it the least study
and who, as a consequence, have leaped to a lot of erroneous conclusions
about it. They're criticizing a creature of their imaginations, not PCT.
But PCT theorists suffer the effects nonetheless when they try to make
their views known.

I had written to Locke some time ago; with his reponse he sent a
preprint of a paper titled "The Emperor is Naked", to be published in
_Applied Psychology: an international review_. Here is his theme
paragraph from page 3:

    I must conclude at this point that control theory, as presented by
    those who claim to be control theorists, is so diverse in meaning,
    so all-encompassing in scope, and so devoid of specific, consistent
    content that it is everything in general and therefore nothing in
    particular. That which is nothing in particular is: nothing. I feel
    obliged, therefore, to play the role of the little boy in the
    children's story and declare the emperor to be naked. I believe we
    would do well to abandon control theory altogether.

What Locke terms control theory is what he has picked up from reading
Carvier and Scheier, Hyland, Lord, and others writing in his own field.
With that understanding, I tend to sympathize with his opinion. It would
be better not to mention control theory at all than to present it in a
distorted and superficial way. The outcome of such presentations was
evidently not impressive to Locke and others in his coterie. I was not
impressed, either.

However, PCT now stands discredited by a major player in the field of
personality research (if that is the right term for Locke's field). If
past experience is any guide, we can predict what will now happen if a
PCT researcher sends a paper to Applied Psychology. The referees, having
read what Locke and Bandura and Binswanger have said about control
theory, will realize that control theory has no content and has been
abandoned by right-thinking scientists; they will cite these scientists,
add a few irrelevant criticisms, and reject the paper. With luck, the
referees will not be Locke et. al. themselves, but if they are not, they
will still have no knowledge of control theory of their own, and will
take the word of experts in their field. Since few scientists read much
if anything outside their own journals, that will be that for PCT --
once again.

Jeff, don't forget that you have just started learning PCT. You have a
year or so to go before your understanding of it will be complete enough
to see what is wrong in the way both Locke and the people he lambastes
are treating it. It is to your credit that coming from a different field
and feeling strongly challenged by PCT, you have stuck around to learn
more and do your own thinking about it. But that simply puts you in the
same position that nearly all current PCTers were once in. Nobody on
this net was conscripted and forced to read all this stuff. Every person
was self-selected and came from fields built on ideas that clash in one
way or another with PCT.

Tom Bourbon and Rick Marken did not begin life as PCTers; they were both
conventional psychologists who learned and taught all the things that
conventional psychologists learn and teach, including statistical
methods. They were granted PhDs by mainstream psychologists. Rick Marken
even wrote a textbook on statistical methods in experimental psychology.
Almost all of the old PCTers except me were once just like you, your
brethren in psychology and sociology and so on. All of them had the same
problems you are having, accepting parts of PCT with great excitement
but finding other parts in conflict with important things that they had
accepted as truth.

PCT requires re-thinking essentially everything in the behavioral and
life sciences, because it introduces a new kind of organization that was
never part of those sciences. The phenomenon of control has always been
present in the behavior of living systems, yet for at least 300 years
the life sciences developed without one mention of it. How, we have to
ask, did scientists manage to explain behavior while ignoring the most
central aspect of it? The only way we can answer this question is to
look at parallels in other fields. How did people explain the way ships
disappear over the horizon while they believed the world is flat? How
did they explain the movements of the the sun, the moon, the planets,
the stars, and comets while they believed that the universe revolved
around the earth? How did they explain combustion while they believed
that combustion required giving off phlogiston rather than combination
with oxygen?

What's most important to realize is that THEY DID FIND EXPLANATIONS.
Furthermore, the best scientific minds of the times found these
explanations to be complete, plausible, and convincing. Scientists wrote
in learned journals about these explanations, and applied the
explanations to all sorts of aspects of life and nature. We know little
about dissenters from these mainstream ideas; our experiences with PCT
may give some insights into why. There were surely always dissenters,
but dissenters do not write the history of science until they have
prevailed. And then they, too, become the stodgy mainstreamers, fending
off new dissenters.

Remember that life scientists DID FIND EXPLANATIONS of behavior without
ever considering the phenomenon of control. This means that no matter
how plausible their arguments seem, how water-tight their reasoning
sounds, how much experimental evidence they have amassed, _there is
something wrong with what they say_. They have explained behavior
without mentioning its basic organizing principle. The more we learn
about PCT, the more things about behavior that we see it explaining
simply and clearly, the more obvious it is that the life sciences have
not been playing with a full deck. A great deal of self-delusion must
have been taking place. Important problems must have been ignored,
explanations must have been offered which are as flawed as those the old
flat-earthers used to explain why you can see only the topmast of a ship
eight miles out to sea, yet can see the whole ship again if you just
climb a hill. How simple it is to propose that the earth is a ball, and
how stoutly people insisted that their own complicated explanations were

And how simple it is to say that organisms behave in order to control
what happens to themselves. Yet look at all the complex, fuzzy, hard-to-
test ideas that people have offered in place of this simple idea. Look
at all the terms like motivation and aspiration and traits, tendencies,
propensities, proclivities, and habits that have been offered as
explanations. Look at the unending attempts to trace the causes of
behavior back to external stimuli, to inborn characteristics, to
influences from situations and events and cues, to complex mental
calculations. Look at all the experimentation in which even the vaguest
relationships are seized upon as if they gave us the secrets of life.
The sciences of behavior have been floundering in confusion since they
first began, all because they did not notice a simple, and now easily
explainable, phenomenon.

The problems that PCT has had with conventional scientists are nothing
new to science. We can only be encouraged that there are 150 or so
scientists interested enough in PCT to keep tabs on what is going on,
and even to participate in discussions about it and attend meetings
about it. Who knows? There may be many more from whom we never hear, who
are waiting to see which way the ball bounces before committing
themselves. There are over 5000 copies of B:CP floating about somewhere
in the world, not subtracting the ones hurled angrily into trash bins.
Even though PCT has not figured prominently in the literature (it has
been mentioned more often in refutation than in support), there is
obviously some pressure felt in the scientific community from this idea.
Why else would an author writing about something else insert a
gratuitous objection to PCT in a paper? The only thing that stands in
the way of widespread acceptance is the magnitude of the changes that
are implied by PCT. It is not what PCT has to offer that is the problem;
it is what has to be given up in order to understand it.



Bill P.