From Ken Hacker 
To Bill Powers,
On the Differences Between Old Behavioral Science and the New
"Give me a premise to stand on and I will deduce the world."
I think that some control theorists are more like Archimedes than
It is tempting for those who work on new theories to see those
theories as more explanatory than they really are. This is analogous
to the Law of the Hammer (give a boy a hammer and everything needs
Of course, the more careful Perceptual Control Theorists note that
PCT does not actually undo much of what social and behavioral
scientists have done as much as it forces those scientists to
rethink what they have discovered. This is a positive view of PCT.
Let's keep straining those babies from the bath water!
Bill Powers claims that behavioral science is locked inextricably
into a stimulus-response paradigm. He says that no matter what we
study, we always assume that humans respond to stimuli, regardless of
how much we posit intervening variables or processes inside of them.
Thus, behavioral scientists, according to Powers, view the environment
as acting on the the human organism or living system and causing effects
effects we refer to as behaviors. The stimulus-response assumption,
whether inclusive of mediating factors or not, is taken to be a first
principle of human behavior; it is invariant.
He notes how
even those explanations that add complex internal mediating
factors, still assume that behaviors are responses to stimuli. He argues
that this fundamental assumption can be unmasked in every behavioral
science experiment. There we see that all variables except a treatment
variable are held constant and a control group is used to show that there
are treatment/non-treatment differences in effects. The model is always
the same: some treatment is assumed to have some significant or insignificant
effect on behaviors or cognitions. Despite denials of causality, the
reasoning is that if not A, then not B. Thus, if A, then B. Of course,
if A, then B reasoning does not, as he suggests, necessarily imply
causality. There are differences between necessary and sufficient
construct relationships. If A, then always B, despite conditions is
causal and deterministic. If A, then B, can be reversible and stochastic.
Nonetheless, the argument that the behavioral scientists are implying
causality is a good one to consider.
There is a problem with assuming that behavioral scientists all assume that
there is even a S --> O --> R paradigm. I am not sure that most of them
fall this category, although many of them most certainly do and all of us
should interrogate our research to see how much S --> R thinking may still
influence our study designs.
I cannot speak for any discipline other than my own, communication science.
In our discipline, many if not most researchers reject simply causal
explanations of any human behavior. For example, the ones who study the
connections of cognition and communication assume that social behaviors
are indicants of cognitive activities. They are not studying that stimuli
from social behaviors produce cognitions. They assume that cognitive
activities are interrelated with social behaviors and that what people do
in social behaviors reflects how they have organized themselves cognitively.
Perceptions of self are affected by perceptions of how people respond to
individual behavior, in their view.
Others like myself, believe that communication and cognition are mutually
dependent processes. We don't even see the internal-external splits of
behaviors and thinking that others do.
The point here, is that Powers makes a powerful (sorry...) argument about
MANY behavioral scientists still working in an S->R paradigm, sometimes
unknowingly. However, the generalization about all of them doing this just
does not match what people are doing and writing.
As for Perceptual Control Theory (PCT), Powers says that the theory assumes
that humans have preferences (internal) for what effects the environment will
have on them. Notice that effects are still present in PCT language.
I have found many references to "causes" and "effects," albeit internal,
in Bill's book, Behavior: The Control of Perception.
But individuals appear capable of choosing their effects.
There has long been a controversy over whether behavior is produced
from the outside or from internal forces. I think this is a strange
dichotomy is light of all the theories, including PCT, of human behavior
that have ever been useful in explaining one or more aspects of human
behavior. In short, we function as unified systems, but systems that
are fully dependent upon interaction with out environments and complex
means of understanding influences in those environments.
Choosing to have lunch when hungry may be a matter of simple signal
networking. Choosing which car to buy, which job to accept, which
journal reviewer to believe most -- these are far more than signals that
pass from one station to another.
There are some theories of communication,
such as John Greene's Action Assembly
Theory, which do not maintain a stimulus-response model of human action.
Like Greene, others relating cognition to communication, believe that
knowledge about what is cognitively structured (done inside) will help
us understand how people behave the ways they do. Thus, if people
produce flaming on this net, those researchers would examine what the
flamers are doing cognitively which appears to produce those behaviors.
In terms of stimulus and response, the stimuli are more internal than
external. But still, I think, no matter what goes on internally that
may correlate with external behaviors, we can never deny that the
environment is perceived by humans and that humans act within that
environment. PCT, like some other theories, helps us recognize how
control is internal and not external.
It is especially refreshing in light of various theories of cultural
and economic determinism which make individuals victims and pawns of
every imaginable social force.
Powers claims that if you accept the premise that human systems are
organized the way that PCT says they are, then all other, i.e. S->R
approaches to human behavior are wrong.
This claim involves a non sequitar in reasoning in several ways. First,
there are non - S->R approaches to studying human behavior which are
simply ignored. All behavioral science is lumped into the class that
is really old behavioral science. I can already here the question, but
where, where, where are such studies. In second response to that
question, I will say, check out the recent journals for disciplines like
communication studies and sociology. The work of Tucker and McPhail is
Second, the fact that humans control their perceptions instead of
responding to stimuli, does not negate the fact that humans are always
adapting to their environments and such adaptation is central to many
behavioral science studies. Now you can say that humans are really
adapting to their perceptions, but let's clarify this. If
I throw a rock through your window and you run over to the window to
the window to see what happened, you cannot say that the rock crashing
through the glass was inconsequential to you jetting out of your seat.
It was, but more in terms of what you were controlling for such as
watching TV in peace, etc. etc. BUT, please note that no matter what
you are controlling for and no matter what quantities are involved,
the disturbance was consequential and you will adapt to what you
perceive it as having done to your environment.
I think there is a large, looming fallacy on this net that you are
either for PCT or against it. This is the kind of logical fallacy
which denies the middle ground or the undecided ground or the
mixed ground on any issue, whether scientific or social. Thus, we
hear "love it or leave it, "you're either for us or against us," and
now, "choose -- are you S-R or PCT?!" Certainly, S -> R should be
laid to rest. But we must not kid ourselves in believing that only
PCT challenges S -> R views.
Behavioral regularities may occur in various forms. First, there
are personal regularities, what we call habits and routines. Second,
there are regularities of social interaction, such as politeness moves,
patterns of creating conversational coherence, etc. etc. Third,
there are social norms and cultural constraints.
None of these are trivial, inconsequential, or irrelevant to control.
Nor should any other them be considered necessarily linked to stimulus-
Behavioral regularities, such as patterns of social interaction studied
in my discipline, may be seen as reflective of assumptions about
people responding to stimuli in certain ways under certain conditions
in order to gain certain rewards. There are many studies like that.
I do not see those studies are very insightful. However, there are
also studies which attempt to describe and explain how humans
pattern their interactions in order to accomplish certain goals. For
example, some studies on group decision-making look at how group
members structure conversation and produce rules of communication in
order to accomplish tasks.
Some communication scientists are becoming more interested in looking
at how communication is related to self-organization. I am one of them
and that's why I participate on this net.
I accept the claim that behavioral outcomes are definable as the ways
that humans perceive their environments. I also believe that PCT is
correct in stating that are ranges of possible outcome forms that
are related to reference signals inside of the human systems.
Powers is absolutely correct, in my view, when he argues that the PCT
research and the S ->R researcher perceive different things when
examine the same behavior. I also think that important aspect of
human communication can be explained from a PCT approach that cannot
from other approaches. Basically, we can scrap the sending-receiving
ideas of message exchange and replace them with a model that shows
the centrality of perception and interpretation to human interaction.
We can also correct the error made when communication theorists took
Wiener's concept of feedback and pinned on to Shannon and Weaver's
depiction of electrical signal transmission.
However, despite the fact that I envision a PCT model and even theory
of communication, I also realize that there are many other dimensions
and layers of communication that PCT will not apply to, such as
large communication systems or culture analyses. I think we are looking
at the technical level of analysis here, and there are many aspects
of human behavior which are not amenable to technical explanations. A
clear example is how spiritual or religious beliefs affect what people
do and say within themselves and with other people. Still, the Waco
Koreshian incident can be described in interesting ways from a control
view. The FBI was probably controlling for variables like impatience,
wanting to do something, and some funny ideas about how to persuade
people. The Attorney General was controlling for being new on the
job and wanting to look tough and decisive. The Koreshians were likely
to be controlling for their goals as stewards of some special truth.
If you measure control without social influence, you will see only
control. If you measure control during social interaction, you will see
changes in control. Changes in reference signals based on social
interaction are fundamental human phenomena which cannot be trivialized.
The "negotiation" strategies of the FBI were disastrous, in part, because
they interacted with the cult members as if they had the goals that
non-cult members had. Thus, they cut off the electricity to the
cult's compound and then shined bright lights into it. The cult members
used the bright lights as a substitute for the lights cut off.
Bill makes an essential point about control and communication when he
states that some act of communication like a question is part of
a controlled relationship between perceiving one's own utterances and
and perceiving the utterances of the other person.
I fully agree agree with this and the next statement that the answer
to a question is not caused by the question, but rather along with
the question is part of a controlled pattern.
It is the controlled pattern, Bill, that those of us who study human
communication, are most interested in describing and explaining.
And for many of us, we are not looking for mere antecedents and
PCT says that behavior is a controlled pattern of perceptions. That
pattern includes what the human is doing as well as what the
surroundings are doing. Bill describes an action-environment
relationship which is a continuing pattern under control by the
individual. This patterns in kept close to a state preferred by the
individual. I agree and think that people who are interacting are
doing the same things at the same time, but are far more than mere
disturbances for each other, that they talk about the things they
are controlling for and influence various shifts in what is controlled.
The idea that behavior is maintained more than caused is similar to
Vygotsky's notions of a theory of activity and George Herbert Mead's
ideas about humans in motion.
PCT certainly explicates that control of outcomes as patterns of
perceptions, far more than any previous theories, however.
Bill Powers' response to me does not deny the importance of behavioral
regularities. It recasts the inquiry in a different mold. That is,
cause-effect patterns between environment and person should be replaced
with descriptions of how the human maintains constant patterns of
outcomes in relation to shifting changes in person and environment.
This is rarely done and I think is a productive suggestion.
The exploration of levels of control needs even greater attention.
Certainly, any human may make decisions, as discussed by decision
theorists like Simon, Janis, and others, on varying bases ranging from
emotional reactions to complex and near-rational sorting of alternatives.
I am glad to see that PCT does indeed recognize that other people are
involved at some level of control. Bill says that people become part
of other person's controlled patterns. There is a fascinating linkage
here between individual phenomena and social phenomena which does not
to mere summations of individual patterns.
How one control system controls for another and vice versa is Step
#1 in explaining social interaction. Step #2 is describing how the
interaction is related to individual reference levels. Step #3 is
explaining how, as suggested earlier, there are maintained states in
the face of changing patterns of outcomes. And I suggest that Step #4
is observing how reference signals are altered in various movements
toward both divergent and common goals.
In conclusion, human beings do appear to be more controlling systems than
responders to stimuli.
However, there are social origins for much of what a person uses as
goals and reference signals.
PCT offers solid new thinking about the critical nature of control to
Mary Powers recently asked me what I am controlling for in resisting total
acceptance of PCT as described on this net. Here are the first principles
which I am controlling for:
 Human beings are living systems which control their perceptions
in relation to reference variables.
 There is no such thing as a fragmented self, which is now a
construct in vogue for those who attack social science from a
Postmodernist viewpoint. All selves are unified and control
for essential and personal variables.
 Much of what human beings internalize as reference
variables/signals are accepted and/or created internally as
reactions to social interactions and other forms of
 Humans continually attempt to persuade each other of ideas and
actions to take. Such persuasion involves social influence. This
influence does not control anyone, but can act as input which an
individual uses in ways which will alter what they control for
 Power is never external force or influence that dominates in any
lasting manner. It is internally produced by humans controlling
their own perceptions. The ultimate power over others is to feed
their input or environment with limited choices so that while they
are free to choose, they are bound to the choices made possible by
 PCT explains the internal control of perceptions. It does not
explain memory, interpretation, social systems, culture, and other
aspects of human life that are important to all human beings.
However, it should not be held to the standard of doing so.
 PCT can aid various behavioral and social sciences, such as
communication studies, free themselves from outdated paradigms
such as S -> O - > R in psychology and Sender -> Receiver models
What Bill wrote was quite inspiring. It took me two to three hours to
figure out my perceptions so I could
then write this response. My thinking is still
forming on many of the issues we have discussed. Most of all, I think
that we are making progress on sorting out where the real issues are and
what PCT truly offers that is unique.
I close with a quote from Karl Weick, "How can we know what we think
till we see what we say?"
Best wishes, KEN