The Value of PCT

[From Rick Marken (970821.0840)]

I've been having an off-line discussion with Chuck Tucker
about (what else?) PCT. I thought the following exchange
(slightly edited and expanded) might be interesting to people
on the net and Chuck said I could post it so here it is:

Chuck:

None of the "model building" or the "demos" seem to convince
very many people (even my students who are forced to believe
what I tell them!) that the theory is correct. Do you think
this is case simply because others are resisting PCT ideas or
does it have something to do with the way the research is
presented?

Me:

I think both are involved. But I think the biggest problem is
that most people are not really very good at scientific thinking.
They don't understand the power and value of a simple model (like
Newton's or Powers') that works. The PCT model (like Newton's) can
be a powerful tool. We use Newton's model over here all the time
as an essential tool for launching and flying satellites; I use
Powers' model all the time as an essential tool for understanding
various aspects of purposeful behavior (mine and that of other
people). People have to learn how to apply these tools to real
phenomena; I think this should be an inportant part of what is
involved in "learning PCT".

But even teaching people how to use PCT is not the whole solution.
Many people who see how the PCT model is used still find PCT
exlanations too simple -- I think because the phenomena explained
seem so complex and intense (personally). For example, take the
PCT explanation of interpersonal conflict. Conflicts (wars,
business competition, divorces, etc) look pretty complicated and
they feel (when you are in them) pretty intense. But the PCT
explanation of conflict is basically very simple; conflict
occurs because different control systems (in different people)
are trying to keep the same or a similar perception in different
reference states.

You can demonstrate the PCT exlanation of conflict with rubber bands;
when two people are trying to keep the knot on two different dots
they are in a conflict; and you can clearly see the PCT predicted
results of this conflict -- both people pull on the rubber bands
until the bands break or until one of the participants accepts a
perception that not exactly what is wanted.

The people pulling on the rubber bands are in exactly the same
situation as, say, the Israelis and Palestinians. But the Israeli/
Palestinian conflict seems so complex; so "real". I think people
just can't believe that, at its core, the Israeli/Palestinian
conflcit is the same as the rubber band conflict; different
control systems want the same perception (the relationship between
themselves and the geographical area on the east side of the
Mediterannean) in two different states; the Israelis want to
perceive themselves alone on that land and the Palestinians want
to perceive themselves on it, period. All the rest is just
efforts to make those perceptions happen.

Of course, PCT also provides ideas about the source of the conflict:
higher level goals that are achieved by setting the references
for the perceptions in conflict. But, still, the PCT explanation
of conflict looks pretty simple -- compared, for example, to
Homer's explanation of the conflict between the Acheans (Greeks)
and the Trojans. I think many of us confuse great literature
(eg. the Illiad) with great explanations of behavior.

I have seen people reject PCT exlanations of many interesting
phenomena simply because the explanations seemed too simple. I
think this is also why the demos don't make that much of an
impression. People can't see that the simple process of keeping
a simple perception (distance from know to dot) in a goal state
(on dot) is exactly the same as maintaining a friendship, keeping
a job, making a living, composing a symphony, writing (or
singing) an epic poem, etc. It's all control.

I don't know how to improve the situation except by teaching
people how science and scientific modeling works. Maybe if people
learn how Newton's very simple model of motion (three little
equations) was able to account for _all_ motion in the universe
(from the motions of the planets to the motions of a suspension
bridge) they can see how Powers' very simple model of purposeful
behavior can account for all purposeful behavior in the universe
(from the purpose of keeping a knot on target to the purpose of
keeping the land that god personally gave to his chosen).

I still think that unless PCT can show that it does a better job
of explaining problematic behavior (e.g., violence) that any
other theory it will not be accepted. But I find a resistence
on your part to do this. Why is that?

The only reason I resist it is because I have found it so hard
to pin down the "other theories" to which PCT is to be compared.
Look at the problem of showing that PCT is a better explanation
of operant behavior than reinforcement theory. People who believe
in reinforceent theory will do anything, including declaring that
reinforcement is not a theory, to prevent a direct, head-on
comparison. We have tried -- lord knows we have tried -- to show
that PCT is better than various others theories of behavior. But
when we talk about these studies or try to publish them we are
told that our version of the non-PCT theory is a "straw man".
When we ask for a non- straw man version of the theory we either
get _nothing_ (the typical result) or we get PCT called by another
name (though this has only happened once that I know of).

Most of the "other theories" that compete with PCT are verbal
theories. It's very hard to compare PCT, which exists as a
working model, with theories that exist mainly as "notions"
in people's heads. We could make qualitative comparisons of
the predictions of PCT to the predictions of these other theories;
but I don't think it's worth it because such comparisons give
too much of an advantage to the other theories; whatever is
observed, the advocate of the verbal theory can say "that's
what I predicted".

You can't force people to be inquisitive seekers after truth.
So if people want to defend a theory, they'll defend it, data or
no. We have tried to show that PCT is better than other theories;
we have found that we can't do it because the advocates of those
others theories will always cry "straw man" when their theory loses.

I think the best approach to showing the value of PCT is to teach
people how scientific models work and how to USE the PCT model. In
other words, we have to teach people (who are willing) how to take a
scientific approach to life. Of course, many people will not want
to take such an approach to life; they will prefer intuition and
faith. In fact, many people seem to be actively opposed to taking
a scientific approach to life -- in particular, they seem to
be opposed to taking a scientific approach to understanding life
itself. I think we have to try to help people understand that
taking a scientific approach to life doesn't require looking at
humans as passive, souless objects. It just means being skeptical
and willing to test theories (models) against observations and
to reject a model if it doesn't fit the observations.

I think scientists themselves have been largely responsible for
the fact that many people find a scientific approach to life
to be distasteful. I think it has to do with the desire many
scientists seem to have for finding non-purposive (cause-effect)
explanations for all phenomena -- including the phenomenon of
purpose itself.

Many scientific psychologists (like Skinner) think that, in
order to be a scientist, they have to explain phenomena in terms
of causes and effects. But it's not the _kind of explanation_ that
makes one a scientist; it's one's _attitude_ toward explanation
that can be scientific or not. A skeptical attitude toward _any_
explanation is what I consider "scientific". If psychologists had
had a skeptical attitude toward their explanations they would
have seen that cause-effect and "selection by consequences"
explanations of purposeful behavior simply don't work; they would
already be doing PCT.

The only way PCT will make it, I think, is by helping people
(partricularly behavioral "scientists") understand how to
develop a scientific _attitude_ toward life.

Best

Rick

···

--
Richard S. Marken Phone or Fax: 310 474-0313
Life Learning Associates e-mail: rmarken@earthlink.net
http://home.earthlink.net/~rmarken

[From Bill Powers (970821.1044 MDT)]

Rick Marken (970821.0840)

A nice discussion of the problems of teaching/learning PCT. I especially
like the part about PCT explanations being "too simple." Of course they are
too simple in one sense; the details of any actual situation are
multitudinous. But the _principle_ is simple, letting us see how all these
details are really just repeated examples of the same process.

When respect to thinking scientifically, I agree that skepticism is a big
factor. But in the past few years it's become evident to me that language
itself is a huge problem. It's not so much that people have to learn
mathematics, but if they want to think about relationships that are even
somewhat complex, they have to learn how to use words without letting their
meanings slip and slide and morph into each other. The mathematical _style_
of reasoning can be done in words, but hardly anyone does it. Maybe it's
really necessary to learn how to work with mathematics first, before the
same kind of discipline can be used with words. But if this way of thinking
precisely can be taught to people through mathematics, why can't it be
taught through any language, including ordinary language? And why do some
people who DO know how to reason mathematically seem to forget everything
they have learned when they switch into ordinary language? Can't they stand
the strain of defining their terms and then sticking to the definitions?

Best,

Bill P.

CHUCK TUCKER 970825
       Here is the post I sent to Rick "off-line" when he mentioned
       what we should do to convince others of PCT. I think Phil's
       post gives the same message.
                                        Regards, Chuck

···

----------------------------Original message----------------------------
Dear Rick,

Sure post to CSG - it is great. But I must confess that it sets up
a very difficult task for us - teach people to be scientific! I have
been doing that for 25 years and don't think I have been successful
with more than a few people. I know I have failed completely with
my own family!

Regards, Chuck

[From Bruce Gregory (970903.1410 EDT)]

Rick Marken (970821.0840)]

I have seen people reject PCT exlanations of many interesting
phenomena simply because the explanations seemed too simple. I
think this is also why the demos don't make that much of an
impression. People can't see that the simple process of keeping
a simple perception (distance from know to dot) in a goal state
(on dot) is exactly the same as maintaining a friendship, keeping
a job, making a living, composing a symphony, writing (or
singing) an epic poem, etc. It's all control.

I don't know how to improve the situation except by teaching
people how science and scientific modeling works. Maybe if people
learn how Newton's very simple model of motion (three little
equations) was able to account for _all_ motion in the universe
(from the motions of the planets to the motions of a suspension
bridge) they can see how Powers' very simple model of purposeful
behavior can account for all purposeful behavior in the universe
(from the purpose of keeping a knot on target to the purpose of
keeping the land that god personally gave to his chosen).

My hunch is that the problem resides at the level of 'whose
problem is this?" PCT is not a solution to the problems most
behavioral scientists deal with. (Since they don't recognise the
phenomenon of control, they don't worry about explaining it.)
This is probably true for many people who are not impressed by
the demonstrations. In order to be impressed you must have a
problem for which the demo suggests a solution.

We've been trying to educate future science teachers about the
way science works and have made little progress. Seeing the
world in terms of models seems alien to a substantial fraction
of otherwise quite intelligent people. I suspect that to be
successful we must be able to demonstrate that adopting a model
such as PCT enhances the student's ability to exercise control
in a domain where she or he truly wants to exercise control.

Bruce