[Martin Taylor 2009.01.01.10.10]
[From Bill Powers (2009.01.01.0627)]
I declare this the Year of PCT.
“Possibly Conflicting Theories”?
The Wikipedia disambiguation page lists 32 different expansions of
“PCT” in seven domains of knowledge. So you are probably right.
I’ve probably written a lot more than I should in what follows, because
most of it is really agreeing with Bill, and expanding on what he says.
Martin Taylor 2009.01.01.01.01–
Being of use to “those
us who are trying to understand living control systems” is quite
different from “providing useful information about how living
control systems might work”. Yes, I thought it would be useful in
suggesting possible studies that might help understand why results like
theirs happen – why some people seem to change their overt behaviour
the presence of something that on the face of it would seem to be
irrelevant. No, I didn’t think that the results said anything about how
living control systems might work.
“On the face of it would seem irrelevant” is a private
assumption, which contradicts all the reasons the authors gave for
suggesting it might be relevant. But “relevant” doesn’t tell us
anything useful, either: it’s just a hint that some regular
might exist. Why should we be surprised if it either does or doesn’t
Yes, it’s a private assumption – a perception, if you will. There’s no
reason you should be surprised, at least not if you perceived a reason
for the behaviour (or if the possibility were uninteresting to you,
which opens another can of worms about “surprise”). The reason it would
be a surprise for me and not for the authors is that I come at it from
a PCT viewpoint whereas they didn’t. They expected the results, because
they set up the study to be analogous to what has been done in many
cities, where policies of cleaning up the streets has been accompanied
by reductions in crime.
I may have an unsophisticated appreciation of PCT, but I understood
that a change in the magnitude of the output is the usual result of
changes in the reference level or in the disturbance, and changes in
the nature of the output are the result of changes in the environmental
feedback function. I could see no apparent relation of the “disorderly
environment” with any of these, if the controlled perception was one
that had the “orderly-disorderly” action as its output. That’s why I
personally had the private assumption that the disorderly environment
was “on the face of it” irrelevant. It clearly cannot be irrelevant in
a correct analysis.
I felt that the situation demanded the functioning of at least two
control systems, one of which included the context as a contributor to
its perceptual variable, while a different one included the observed
“orderly-disorderly” actions as its output possibilities. My intuition
said that the way these interact was through conflict. Bill made
another suggestion, which at this moment seems to me to be equally
viable. Whether both offer equally viable solutions as to why some
people are affected while others are not is an open question. To test
between them would require experiments of quite different nature.
I think I’ve got it. You and Rick are talking about two different
You are saying that Keizer et. al. brought to our attention a
phenomenon that might be useful to explore using control
Rick reads what you said as a statement that these authors brought to
attention an explanation of the phenomenon that might be useful
PCT. When you say “useful information about how control systems
might work,” you must mean “how they behave in specific
circumstances,” not “what mechanisms underly their
behavior.” The article offers no suggestions about the latter
That puts in much better words what I’ve been trying to say all along.
I’ve known that Rick and I have been talking about different things,
but he hasn’t, and I haven’t been able to find the words to get him to
understand. I hope you have.
The experiment showed us that some people in an observed population,
exposed to the possible sight of disorderliness, are more disorderly
themselves. Not many of them, but some of them. When A is true, B
happens. That is simply an observation of an apparent fact. Since PCT
applies to all of human behavior, it might be interesting to see what
explanation of this fact we might come up with using the control-system
model. Of course we would have to do an extensive amount of additional
experimention, first to identify the individuals who do and do not
their behavior when exposed to disorder, then to find out how each one
perceived what the experimenters were calling “disorder” and
what their reference levels for that perception were, and finally to
out why some individuals became more disorderly, why others became less
disorderly, and why most showed no effect at all. Then we would have an
explanation of this phenomenon in terms of first principles, which
someone might use to design a program for decreasing the
“disorderliness” (or whatever) of urban environments.
Yes. It would be interesting to know whether the designed program would
be more effective than the ones in at least five countries that led
Keizer et al. to do their experiment. They identified as a problem that
the results in those cities were merely correlational, looking at
changes in criminality over time before and after cleanup campaigns
were introduced, whereas the experiment was set up to compare the
likelihoods of “disorderly” behaviour in two situations as similar as
possible apart from the “disorderly-orderly” contrast in the context.
This sequence is often the case. One might lay it out like this:
At least some of the public believe effect X exists -> a political
decision is based on this belief -> the politico-social effects are
(or are not) as expected -> experiments are done to test whether the
effect “really” occurs (my advisor in graduate school said that the job
of psychology was to find out whether what everyone knows is actually
true). I would like to add to this chain: -> PCT studies illuminate
the mechanism for the effect and the conditions in which it islikely to
affect particular individuals.
In principle, Martin is right in saying that we might learn more about
living control systems by looking into this phenomenon. But we would
learn anything theoretical from the article, because the article
no theory; it offered only a recording of unexplained observations.
Yes, although they thought they were testing theories, the theories
were not what we would be considered to be more than generalized
is no shortage of unexplained behavioral phenomena that have not been
analyzed using PCT, so any given theoretician, I for example, would
some pressing reason to investigate this one instead of some other.
If you remember the context in which I introduced this paper, it was to
suggest that “conventional” research can provide leads toward effects
that one (e.g. me) might well not have derived from a basic
understanding of PCT, and that therefore might suggest a fruitful
avenue for research. It was just offered as an example of the class.
Research can be “fruitful” in at least two ways. One helps advance the
theoretical foundations of PCT and the other helps the application of
PCT to socially significant problems. The Keizer et al. paper seemed to
me to address a socially significant problem and at the same time to
offer the possibility that there might be some theoretical advances to
be had in the investigation. (It helped that it appeared in Science at
the same time I was thinking of intervening in the ongoing “Statistics
in Psychology” to make the point that I felt was clarified by this
Did my post with the diagram make it through everyone’s spam filters?
shows a possible PCT explanation of the phenomenon – without many
details, but it’s at least a sketch.
Yes. It came through OK. It represents what I had understood from your
There’s nothing suprising in it –
it simply shows a diagram of how a higher-level perception made up of
lower-level perceptions can be controlled by altering the reference
of a lower-level control system. That could easily account for the
contextual effect observed, without requiring anything new in HPCT. And
it certainly shows that there is no need to imagine any direct effect
the contextual variable on the behavior.
I’d be happier with your diagram if I could think of a plausible
higher-level controlled perception with the proposed characteristic
connections. What is the “Perceived contextual effect”? As drawn, it’s
quite ad-hoc, like a perception of a salty taste combined with a red
chair. You don’t need to specify the controlled perception for the
explanation to be viable, but the explanation becomes more plausible if
you do. The experimental (or perhaps theoretical) issue is whether this
is a correct description, or whether the conflict-based description I
initially proposed (based on imagining myself in that context) is
correct, or whether something else entirely is happening.
Anyway, the point I was trying to raise has nothing to do with this
particular study, socially important though it may be.
The point is that over the years conventional research has produced
many observations that are believed to be widely applicable, even if
they are of the kind that “condition X leads to more of behaviour B
than does condition Y”. None of those say any more than that the
difference between conditions X and Y affect some people in a way that
leads them to produce different outputs. Quite often, at least in the
social context, experiments are done to test a popularly believed
effect, which often the experiment shows to be no more than
superstition (why is it good luck in one country for a black cat to
cross your path, while it is bad luck in a neighbouring country?
–England and Scotland, though I can’t remember which is which).
The conventional psychologist might see the correlation between change
of condition and change of behaviour as a causal effect. The PCT
psychologist would not, but if PCT is to become mainstream (as
suggested in Bill’s first line), PCT must be able to provide a natural
explanation of how the effect happens in those people who are affected,
why it does not happen in those who are not, and what is the difference
between those classes of people. In many cases, a PCT explanation is
obvious, though of course it isn’t demonstrably a correct explanation
without experiment (as Dick Robertson’s investigations on self-image
In the course of providing these explanations, it is not at all
unlikely that we might learn more about the structures of control
systems peculiar to humans than simply the assumption that there exists
an amorphous control hierarchy (which is presumably true of all living