Vacuous Concepts

[From Fred Nickols (970913.0750 EST)]

Bill Powers (970912.0400 MDT)

Suppose we change the contingency: now a _different_ behavior will produce
the _same_ consequence. We observe the same thing: behavior will change
until it produces the same consequence as it did before. What we usually
find is that whatever behavior will produce certain consequences, that
behavior will eventually be produced.

I have no intention of "duking it out" with the master here, but I'm really
puzzled by the paragraph above. What it says to me, loudly and clearly, is
that "behavior is a function of its consequences," which is about the most
fundamental behaviorist statement I know. I totally agree that behavior
will be varied until it produces the desired consequences (which, I think,
is why I'm a believer in control systems).

Putting all these observations together, we can arrive at a clear
conclusion: the consequence produced by a given behavior has no particular
amount or direction of effect on behavior. We can show that the same
consequence will be produced by one behavior as by a different one, and
that it may even be produced by one behavior or its opposite.

Maybe there's a word missing in the paragraph above. To say that "the
consequence produced by a given behavior has no particular amount or
direction of effect on behavior" seems to me to contradict the earlier
assertion that "behavior will change until it produces the same consequence
as it did before." However, if you say that "the consequence produced by a
given behavior has no particular amount or direction of effect on THAT
behavior," then I would agree--except that I think the consequences of
specific behaviors do affect the likelihood of their use in similar
situations in the future.

The only factor that remains the same across these different conditions is
the consequence. Whatever the form of the contingency, the behavior will
change until the same consequence as before is produced by it. No matter
what behavior must be performed (within the limits of possibility), the
food pellets will be delivered and eaten.

Since the production of the consequence remains the same over a set of
different behaviors and contingencies, its occurrance cannot explain _any_
of the behaviors that produce it. If taken as a cause of one behavior that
does occur, it can't also be taken as the cause of a different behavior
that didn't occur this time but did occur at another time, or as the cause
of a behavior directed oppositely, which also didn't occur. Its causal
properties would have to change with each change of contingency, so as to
cause exactly the behavior needed to produce itself, no matter what that
behavior might be.

I think there's some important wording in the paragraph above. I agree that
the occurrence of a contingent consequence does not EXPLAIN the behavior
that produces it. But it seems clear to me from what you're saying that the
occurrence of a contingent consequence does in some measure ACCOUNT for the
behavior that produces it (over time, not in that specific instance). In
plain language, I engage in this behavior instead of that behavior because
this behavior has a better track record of producing the consequence(s) I'm
after. To me, that accounts for the rat's behavior in BruceA's theory-free
description. Thus, to me, there seems nothing wrong with saying that the
consequences of our behavior shape our behavior patterns--and that's a
pretty basic behaviorist notion.

This renders the concept of the consequence as a cause vacuous. It is a
cause that has the property of being able to cause whatever effect is
observed, and that means it is not a cause at all. What we actually observe
is that behavior changes in such a way as to keep producing the same
consequence, whenever a change in environmental properties occurs.

For what it's worth (probably not much), I agree 100% with everything said
in the paragraph above. The concept of the consequences of behavior as a
cause of the specific behavior that produces them is empty. I also agree
that behavior changes so as to maintain constancy in outcomes (within
limits) in the face of changing environmental conditions. Again, it seems
to me that the consequences of behavior shape our perceptions of the
effectiveness of our behavior patterns. We tend to do this and not that
because this is more effective than that in producing the outcomes or
consequences we seek. I see here no inherent conflict with my understanding
of the behaviorist view.

The essential vacuousness here is not visible when one considers only one
contingency and one consequence, so there is only one behavior that can
produce the consequence. Nor it is visible when different consequences are
made to result from a given behavior. The critical case is where different
behaviors are necessary, because of different contingencies, to produce the
same consequence. Only when we consider the proposed effect of consequences
on behavior across different experiments related in this way can we see
that consequences actually have no causal relation to behavior.

Agreed; which is why I'm of the opinion that the consequences of our
specific behaviors shape our behavior patterns only over time. We need some
kind of track record of effectiveness so as to selectively engage in
behaviors that produce the outcomes we're after. (Why does Phil Runkel's
"Casting Nets and Testing Specimens" come to mind right now?)

Regards,

Fred Nickols
nickols@worldnet.att.net

[From Bill Powers (970913.0923 MDT)]

Fred Nickols (970913.0750 EST)--

Suppose we change the contingency: now a _different_ behavior will produce
the _same_ consequence. We observe the same thing: behavior will change
until it produces the same consequence as it did before. What we usually
find is that whatever behavior will produce certain consequences, that
behavior will eventually be produced.

I have no intention of "duking it out" with the master here, but I'm really
puzzled by the paragraph above. What it says to me, loudly and clearly, is
that "behavior is a function of its consequences," which is about the most
fundamental behaviorist statement I know.

Not so. If behavior were a function of its consequences, then the same
consequence should always produce the same behavior. If b = f(c), then
given c we can calculate b when we know the form of the function f. That is
what "a function of" means.

However, the same consequence seems to be able to produce many different
behaviors. This is impossible in the logical-physical-mathematical universe
we usually assume. The only way it can happen is for a _different_ function
to exist for each different behavior. That is, b1 = f1(c), b2 = f2(c), and
so on, where c is the same in each case but b and f are different, with f
being different in _just the right way_.

Suppose we set up a simple contingency, playing the part of the apparatus
ourselves. If the pigeon turns left, we will reward it with a bit of food.
After a while, we find that the pigeon is walking in a counterclockwise
circle. So, by the premise, giving the food has increased the tendency to
walk counterclockwise. Walking counterclockwise is a function of the food
consequence.

Now we change the contingency, so we reward turning right. After a while,
the pigeon is walking in a clockwise circle. So giving the food has
increased the tendency to walk clockwise. The same premise now says that
walking clockwise is a function of the _same_ food consequence.

Obviously, the "function" can't be the same in the two cases. We can't have
the very same food increasing the probability of acting in two exactly
opposite ways. Whatever makes the difference between walking clockwise and
walking counterclockwise, it can't be the variable that is exactly the same
in the two cases.

This is enough to prove that behavior is not a function of its consequences.

I totally agree that behavior
will be varied until it produces the desired consequences (which, I think,
is why I'm a believer in control systems).

Yes, and to explain this effect we must look into a model of the organism,
not at the consequence. It is the _desire_, not the consequence that is
desired, that determines when behavior will stop varying. And when
different kinds of behavior (not just different amounts of one behavior)
are needed to generate the behavior that will make the perceived
consequence be the desired one, the organism must contain some mechanism
for varying the _kind_ of behavior until a kind is found that will get the
consequence to its desired level.

Putting all these observations together, we can arrive at a clear
conclusion: the consequence produced by a given behavior has no particular
amount or direction of effect on behavior. We can show that the same
consequence will be produced by one behavior as by a different one, and
that it may even be produced by one behavior or its opposite.

Maybe there's a word missing in the paragraph above. To say that "the
consequence produced by a given behavior has no particular amount or
direction of effect on behavior" seems to me to contradict the earlier
assertion that "behavior will change until it produces the same consequence
as it did before."

I am fascinated by this reaction. Maybe you are revealing exactly where
Skinner's trolley went off the track. If you observe that one variable, b,
can have many different values for the same value of c, what you are
actually observing is that b _doesn't_ depend on c. Skinner, of course, was
convinced before he ever did an experiment that the consequence c controls
the behavior b. So when he observed that no matter what the contingency, b
assumed whatever form or value it meeded to produce the same consequence c,
he concluded that he was right; that c was in fact controlling b. In fact
he had proven that c does NOT control b.

I can't help wondering whether, despite Skinner's prejudices, he might
actually have realized this. It's not a hard point to grasp in other
situations. In any other situation, with other meanings for b and c, if b
varied while c remained the same, you would conclude that there is no
relation between them. But in this case, Skinner could well have seen this
problem, and asked "Then why, for God's sake, does the organism always end
up producing just the behavior that will generate the right consequence?"
The only obvious answer would be that the organism wants that particular
consequence to occur, and out of its own inner resources searches for and
finds whatever behavior will produce that consequence.

But that would be a horrifying conclusion as far as Skinner was concerned.
It would mean that organisms are actually purposive! For anyone who
figuratively worshipped at the shrine of Pavlov every day, that would be an
unthinkable heresy. So think, man, think! How could it be that the
environment always controls behavior, yet behavior has no relation to the
variable that most obviously affects it?

And then comes the blinding illumination: of course! The consequence,
_because it is created by the behavior_, increases the probability of the
behavior that has produced it in the past! The answer lies somewhere in the
fact that the behavior produces the consequence through the contingency.
Just HOW that solves the problem is immaterial -- what matters is that it
_sounds_ as if it solves the problem, and since we already know that it is
the environment that controls behavior, there's no need to look any
further. Now we have an answer that agrees with something we know is true,
so why rock the boat by looking more deeply into the reasoning?

Unless Skinner was simply insane, he must have gone through some such
rationalization as this. I can't see any other way he could have ignored
the fact that _across contingencies_, behavior varies even if the
consequence does not. No matter how complex a web of words you weave, that
fact, that fundamental observation, remains.

I can see from the rest of this post that you're still struggling with the
reasoning here. All I can say is, keep going back to the basic fact:
behavior varies from one situation to another, even if the consequence it
produces remains the same. Therefore behavior is not a function of the
consequence. The explanation of the observations does not lie in any aspect
of the environment. The right way to state the observations is that the
organism will vary its behavior in any way needed to produce the
consequence it wants.

Best,

Bill P.