The Test, Perceiving Dewey

[From Rick Marken (960930.1000)]

Bruce Abbott (960928.1810 EST) --


I think the error is yours -- and I think it is a profound one. (But,
characteristically, it is quite consistent with your desire to see no
conflict between PCT and conventional psychology).


Rick, your ability to read other people's minds is not nearly as good as you
believe it to be. In the two years I've been subscribed to CSGNET, I've
never once indicated that I have a desire to see "no conflict between PCT
and conventional psychology." But thanks for demonstrating how the Test for
the controlled variable can fail miserably.

The Test can, indeed, fail miserably, especially if it is treated as a one-
shot affair. Your comments about The Test suggest that you may not have tried
the "coin game". I recommend that you try it with several different people as
subjects. I think you will find that your first guesses about the variable
under control can, indeed, "fail misreably"; you apply what you think should
be a disturbance (based on your guess about the controlled variable) and
you hear the subject say "no error". It's _very_ frustrating.

The coin game reveals several important facts about The Test. First, of
course, is the fact that it's not easy to determine what perception a person
is controlling, even in this apparently simple situation . You have to use
creative imagination to guess what variable is under control and, when
disturbances to this variable fail to be "disturbances", you have to be
willing to revise your guess -- based on the results of previous Tests and on
your own ability to generate hypotheses about controlled variables. Second,
you learn that The Test is an _iterative process_; it can take many guesses
before you hit on a description of the controlled variable that is correct;
one that let's you correctly predict what will and what will not be a
disturbance (lead to "error" and "no error" responses). This iterative
process can fail simply because you are human and can run out of patience.
Third, you learn that, even when you successfully determine a controlled
variable (because you can predict, say, three changes that will result in an
"error" response and three that will result in "no error") the subject will
not necessarily agree with your verbal description of that variable. The coin
game shows, however, that the verbal description of the controlled perception
is beside the point; once you can describe the variable well enough so that
you know what will and what will not be a disturbance, then for all intents
and purposes you know what variable the subject is controlling.

I know what I can say that will be a disturbance to what you are controlling;
I also know what will not be a disturbance. I call the variable you are
controlling "no conflict between PCT and conventional psychology". You might
not like that description; that's fine. But I still know that you are
controlling something to which statements like "there is no such thing as
reinformcent", "Simon did not come close to understanding purposeful
behavior", "the research methods described in conventional research methods
textbooks cannot be used to study purposeful behavior", etc, are a
disturbance to that variable.

I'm sure that, after being on this net for two years, you have a pretty good
idea about some of the variables I am controlling for. We might not agree on
what those variables should be called. You might say, for example, that I am
controlling for "a narrow minded view of conventional behavioral science"; I
might prefer to say I am controlling for "a clear contrast between the
conventional and PCT view of living systems". But whatever you call it, if
you know what I will and will not treat as a disturbance, then you have
detected a variable that I am controlling.

Bill Powers tells us that an inability to perceive error is simply a PCT
postulate -- an assumption to be tested rather than a known fact.

I hope that Bill's post [Bill Powers (960928.2036 MDT)] has cleared this up
for you. It is both a theoretical and empirical fact that we perceive what
"is" and compare it to what "should be"; we do not perceive the discrepency
between what is and what should be; we do not, in other words, perceive
"error" at any level of the control hierarchy.

Bruce Abbott (960929.1245 EST) --

It is interesting to think about where psychology would be today if Dewey's
view had been adopted.

My guess is that it would be exactly where it is today -- no difference. This
is because Dewey's view is really no different from the view of many of
today's conventional psychologists.

Dewey's main "revelation" in the quoted passage seems to be that sensory
effects cause actions _while_ those actions cause sensory effects; he
understood, in other words, that behavor occurs in a causal loop. The only
problem, of course, is that he had no idea this meant that behavior is the
control of these sensory effects. William James, writing five years earlier
(1890), seems to have understood control better than Dewey. There is a
wonderful quote from James at the beginning of Wayne Hershberger's
introduction to the _Volitional Action_ collection that he edited.
Unfortunately I don't have it here at the office but basically James says
something like "what is intended in intentional behavior is not movements
(actions) but the sensory effects of those movements".

Amazingly (from my point of view) James seems to have understood that
intentional behavior is the control of perception relative to an internal
specification. He even understood how one could study intentional behavior;
by applying disturbances to a hypothetical controlled variable and looking
for lack of effect. In the passage quoted in my introduction to the ABS
collection, James describes what is basically The Test to distinguish the
unintended result when filings are pulled by a magnet from the intended
result when Romeo is "pulled" by Juliet. Of course, James didn't get anywhere
with his insights because he didn't have control theory.

Although Dewey describes behavior in closed-loop terms, he clearly didn't
know how to deal with this closed loop because he falls right back into a
cause- effect description of the reflex arc toward the end of his discussion:

If the sight did not inhibit as well as excite the reaching, the latter
would be purely indeterminate,

Dewey is saying here that sight as the cause of reaching. Moreover, he thinks
that sight both excites _and_ inhibits. Dewey was discussing "reaching" so he
thought that the sight of the object to be grasped must excite reaching until
the object is reached at which point the reaching must stop. Dewey's
explanation is (curiously enough) based on the idea that people _perceive
error_. The sensory measure of the distance from hand to object is the
sensory effect that "excites" reaching. As the action reduces error,
reaching is excited less and less until it is eventually inhibited (when
there is an over-reach, I presume).

What Dewey didn't understand (that James apparently did) is that intended
results (like a grasped object) are controlled by the person, not by the
sensory effects of action. Dewey (like nearly everyone before and after him)
thought of sensory inputs as the cause of movements; James (with
extraordinary, but wasted, genius) correctly suspected that sensory inputs
are controlled relative to an internal specification for those inputs.
Dewey did manage to say that sensory inputs cause motor outputs _while_ motor
outputs cause sensory inputs. But he didn't understand (how could he have? he
had only words, and no control theory) that this closed loop relationship
changes the nature of the causal relationships between variables in the loop.
In particular, he didn't understand that the sensory inputs in a closed loop
can no longer be viewed as a causal variable; rather, they must be viewed as
a _controlled_ variable.

And, of course, Dewey's insights were given the same open-minded reception
by the scientific community then as they continue to receive today.

If Dewey was not given an open-minded reception, it was not for the same
reasons that PCT is not given one now. Dewey was ignored because he came up
with no science of behjavior. Watson and Skinner were not ignored because
they _did_ develop a science of behavior -- the wrong one, true, but at least
one that was more than "arm chair speculation".

I was out this weekend with some good friends of mine who are in the
publishing business; mainly social science textbooks, journals, and trade
stuff (yes, they think I'm a little weird about psychology but we mainly talk
about art and opera;-)). But we did talk a little about business -- getting
authors who could be "sold", going to conventions, publishing in the "hot"
areas -- and it made me realize how impossible it is to imagine PCT getting
an "open minded" reception from the social science establishment. PCT is
basically saying that this huge collection of professors, textbooks,
journals, tests, etc -- a multi- billion dollar industry, I imagine -- has
been taken in by an illusion. PCT is like the little dingy trying to change
the course of a huge oil tanker that is heading in a direction that enriches
all its passengers: the social science community. The inertia of this hugh
tanker means that the scientific community doesn't have to do much _at all_
to resist any minor disturbance from the PCT dingy. I'm quite sure that, by
and large, the social science establishment doesn't notice these
PCT disturbances at all.