The Uses of PCT

[Dan Miller (930412.1330)]

(Rick Marken 930410.1345)


Unlike others on the net, I am going to have to disagree with you.
PCT is invaluable to me in the classroom and in my research. Without
it I could not explain individual and social action, purposive social
interaction, or how propaganda might work. My students have very little
difficulty with these ideas. My colleagues get glassy eyed. If I wanted
to control for a career in sociology (a categorical designation that I
only grudgingly accept), then I would find what plays in socbiz and
do it. I choose to not play this game. Still, here we are with the
real serious game afoot.

I just returned from Chicago and the Midwest Sociological Society meetings.
There, Clark McPhail read his presidential address on purposive social
violence. It was the best I've heard for 20+ years. People are beginning
to talk about us, perhaps taking us seriously. I am sure that some new
net subscribers will sign on. Who knows? We may gain academic respect
in sociology of all places.

Dan Miller

[From Bill Powers (930412.2000 MDT)]

Ken Hacker (930412) --

In your post to Tom Bourbon, you said

... it seems to me that PCT should not reiterate what is
already being said with new language and then attack the uses
of old language for having the entire set of concepts wrong!

Many people in many disciplines -- not just yours -- have felt
this way. If PCT merely confirms ideas that are already public
knowledge (even if the "public" is rather restricted), why should
it be considered as anything more than a belated echo of what is
already known?

The basic problem here is not recognizing where PCT stands in
relation to other approaches to behavior. Perhaps something of
the nature of the problem will come through if I say that very
similar remarks have been made by sociologists, linguists,
neurologists, biologists, clinical psychologists, experimental
psychologists of several breeds, social psychologists,
cyberneticians, psychotherapists, counsellors, educators, piano
teachers, and more who don't come immediately to mind.

Now this is somewhat strange, isn't it? How could it be that PCT,
which is basically one simple theory of behavior, could be saying
things that to at least some people in all these disciplines are
no more than statements of the obviously true? Certainly the
specific conclusions drawn from PCT in the field of neurology
aren't anything like those drawn in the field of psychotherapy or
biology. Could it be that all these fields, in their own ways,
have anticipated what this one theory would happen to say when
applied to a particular aspect of human behavior?

It gives one even more to think about to realize that the basics
of PCT were developed close to 40 years ago, and grew from roots
that are now over 60 years old, yet the ideas that are "already
being said" could have been developed from PCT, had anyone tried,
at almost any time during that span.

Consider the idea of purposive behavior. This is no longer the
mystical concept it was 20 or 30 years ago, but it never was
mystical within PCT. Over the years, one person after another has
"discovered" that there is something goal-directed, intentional,
purposive about behavior. Does this amount to rediscovering the
same thing that PCT says? No, it does not.

The reason is simple. It's one thing to observe natural behavior
and realize that its goal-directed nature is too obvious to
overlook. It's another thing to say what you mean by goal-
directed behavior and explain how such a thing could possibly
work in a physical universe. PCT is not a naturalistic theory; it
is not a generalization from observations of many instances of
individual behavior. It is based on first principles,
considerations than are more basic than any instance of behavior.

From the PCT model, it _follows_ that behavior will appear

naturalistically as goal-directed. It _follows_ that organisms
will act on their environments to control their perceptions of
what happens to them. It _follows_ that organisms will respond to
disturbances so as to stabilize variables in the environment
outside them, and inside themselves. These conclusions are not
the basis of control theory; they are its predictions, its
logical implications. PCT is a model of the basic organization of
living systems, from which these features of observed behavior
necessarily follow.

In most of the behavioral sciences, a "theory" is simply a
proposal that some regularity can be observed in ongoing
behavior. Theories of communication, I suppose, have to do with
suspected regularities in the way people talk to each other,
influence each other through words, try to transmit meanings and
knowledge to each other. In most of the behavioral life sciences,
this is where theory begins and ends. There's no explanation for
most of these observed regularities; they are themselves used as
explanations and predictors of behavior.

To see PCT as a theory of this same kind is to miss the point
entirely. The PCT model is not simply a statement of observed
regularities. It is a statement of underlying principles from
which observed regularities can be predicted.

I'm sure you realize that in most of the behavioral sciences,
even in the field of communications, the phenomena that are
accepted as real have little to do with PCT, because the world is
sliced in such a way that the phenomena have no clear
relationship to control processes. In many fields, also, the
conclusions of PCT about the autonomy of organisms and the way
they control inputs are flatly contradictory to accepted ways of
interpreting experimental results. People who hold such views see
nothing in the conclusions of PCT to match with their own
conclusions; they do not come pounding on the door to learn more.

But there are many people in many disciplines who read about the
conclusions of PCT, and find a striking match with their own ways
of observing behavior. These are generally the people who already
accept the purposiveness of behavior, who have already noticed
that behavior involves closed loops of cause and effect, and in
general who have already noticed control-specific phenomena. Most
of these self-selected people, at first, are satisfied with the
congruence of conclusions. They feel vindicated because someone
else has noticed the same phenomena.

Of these people, some fraction goes a little further. They learn
about the simple relationships between perception, comparison,
and action, and begin to understand the logic of control, the
underlying principles. It's only then that they begin to
understand that they have been comparing conclusion against
conclusion without seeing WHY the phenomena exist to be observed
in the first place. Most people trained in conventional sciences
of behavior are taught that asking WHY is futile; one merely
accepts that events progress as they do, and tries to find
regularities in them. What PCT does is move the WHY to another
level, the level BELOW observation. The raw material of PCT is
not a set of observations of behavior, but a set of proposals
about underlying mechanisms that _produce_ behavior. Those
mechanisms, true enough, are taken as the ground level of
explanation. But they are at a level more fundamental to
understanding than simply recording what has happened in the

It takes most people several years of trying before they realize
where the power of PCT lies. Its power is not in its ability to
create generalizations that people in various disciplines
recognize as fitting their experiences. It lies in the ability to
generate explanations of ALL behviors of ALL kinds under ALL
circumstances. From the standpoint of PCT, there are no
"disciplines." Communications, linguistics, psychotherapy,
biology, and all the rest are all simply different viewpoints one
can take toward living control systems. The same underlying
principles apply, because they apply to all aspects of living
systems, no matter what they are doing.

One reason that the Control Systems Group is so exciting to the
people in it is that each of them gets a look at the way control
theory applies in other disciplines. This breaks them free of the
idea that the generalizations apply _only_ in their own fields.
They begin to see that their generalizations about behavior are
really almost identical to the generalizations that others in
other fields have developed, because in all cases they are simply
instances of the properties of control systems. In one sense this
is a disappointing discovery, because it means that one's own
insights are not unique. But in another sense it is tremendously
exhilarating, because one also sees that this specialized insight
in one specialized field is really a facet of something far
larger and more important: a fundamental aspect of life itself.

When control theorists object to some way of explaining a
phenomenon, it isn't because there's any disagreement about the
phenomenon itself. It's because the explanation unwittingly
violates the underlying model. To a person who doesn't grasp the
underlying model, there seems to be no great difference between
saying, for example, that perception guides behavior and that
behavior guides perception. Which way you say it just seems to
depend on your emphasis at the moment. But "guiding" is an idea
that unpacks into specific relationships, and there is only one
way to express these relationships correctly under PCT. There is,
in fact, only one arrangement of them that will actually work. So
the control theorists sees a huge difference in the meanings of
the words where the person who still theorizes strictly by
generalizing from phenomena sees no important difference.

You can claim to understand PCT when you see that generalizations
at the level of phenomena are simply instances of the ways in
which a control system can work -- unimportant in themselves,
theoretically, except as they test the underlying principles.

To say that the observations are unimportant theoretically is not
to say they are unimportant. The whole point of theory, in the
long run, is to emable us to understand what we observe. Where
theory lags, and circumstances press, we have no recourse but to
look back on accumulated experience and try to guess at the
rules. If everyone became a PCT theorist right now, we would
simply stop coping, as a species, with all the problems we must
somehow solve to continue in existence. Coping on the basis of
past experience is not very efficient or reliable. But as far as
the species is concerned, it is a lot better than the
alternative. Most people -- sometimes I would say most _sane_
people -- find their fulfillment in dealing with life's problems
as they come up, not on the theoretical level but simply on the
practical level: Feeding the hungry, curing the sick, earning
enough to educate one's children, working toward greater
understanding among strangers, striving to feel worthy and loved.
It is only this background of coping that maintains the
conditions under which theoreticians like me can opt out of the
practical life and delve beneath the surface, hoping to come up
with an understanding that will replace coping with something
more effective, and thus of greater practical importance.

Some want nothing more than to look beneath surface appearances
to find underlying order. Some want nothing less. The world needs
the former, but could not get along without the latter.



Bill P.

From Ken Hacker [930413] -

Bill, your response to my last post was awesome. I think you are right
about theory versus descriptions of behavioral regularities. My discipline
fits the latter more than the former, but to quote Mick Jagger, "I like it."
The reason I like it is that we can explain much about human behavior once
we see what it is doing and what problems it engenders (almost said causes).
More importantly, PCT does, in my view, have the qualities of a true theory.
There are few, if any, theories of human behavior or communication. Shannon
and Weaver gave us a theory of electrical signalling, not communication.
We have some theories in the making, however, which look promising. One is
called Action Assembly Theory. It is rigorous and is constructed of tested
propositions and logic. The bottom line for me is that I see PCT as highly
explanatory of control, but control as a necessary but not sufficient
explanation of human behavior and communication.