Why do we Control what we do?

[From Bill Powers (2003.02.27.1024 MST)]

Marc Abrams (2003,02,26) --

>I believe the "Decision", or maybe the "Determination", ( which may be a
better word.) >of what gets controlled, both consciously and unconsciously
is determined by "Anxiety" >or "Stress". (Using capitals to indicate nouns,
not adjectives) By "Anxiety" or >"Stress" I mean "anticipation" of "what"
should happen next after a Decision, or >Determination has been made by the
Control System at that level in the hierarchy. This >of course happens when
a variable is compared to the goal from the next highest level. >It becomes
CV ( Controlled Variable ) after error has been "determined" When
the >environment or imagination , affects it causing the new &/or old CV's
to become >input for a new round of control.

What you're investigating here comes very close to the thoughts I was
having in the 1950s about reorganization, or rather the so-called
reorganizing system. What is it that gives rise to the hierarchy of control
systems, the hierarchy that uses overt behavior to achieve its ends? And
why do individuals learn to control one set of variables but not a
different but equally possible set? Even more puzzling: how is it that
satisfying hunger can lead to learning how to operate a particular
unnatural piece of apparatus? The lever in a Skinner box, when properly
manipulated, causes food to appear not because of any natural law or
long-established property of the world that could lead through evolution to
such a skill, but because of the whim of a young professor of psychology
who wanted to control an animal's actions. We're talking here about
whimsical and arbitrary "laws of nature" -- yet animals are able to learn
even such nonsensical rules as walking in a figure eight to make bits of
food appear.The question on my mind was, "What kind of system could learn
what to do under circumstances as random-seeming as that?"

Clearly, this system could not _reason out_ what to do a priori. There is
no logical connection between alternating left and right turns while
walking and the withdrawal of a cover over a food dish. This kind of system
could not be inherited; until Skinner did the experiment, this situation
had never been encountered before (I would think) in pigeondom. And I am
extremely reluctant to conclude that pigeons have the same sort of logical
rationality that we have, so they can work out what is increasing the
probability of getting fed.

With regard to that last thought, it also occurred to me that we have to
account for more than the acquisition of feeding behavior. We have to
explain the growth of rationality itself, from the rudimentary form found
in neonates to the capacity for complex and abstract reasoning in the adult
human being. We have to account for the growth of perception and control at
_all_ levels. Control systems appear at a furious rate in babies -- see the
work of Frans Plooij and his wife Hedy. It was obvious to me then, as it
still is, that whatever system it is that produces new control systems, it
can't rely on the very capacities that it will some day build, such as

This is what led to the concept of _random_ reorganization. The insight was
that if the organism could simply alter its own neural connections at
random, it would have repeated chances at producing new systems that
controlled better than the old ones. But the main part of the insight was
how the right new organization could be made to stick rather than just
being reorganized away again. All that would be needed would be to monitor
the results of the random changes, and when a better result occurred, to
_stop the reorganization_ (or change its focus). It's as if you could base
your choices of action on a coin toss, but before you tossed it you could
see the results of the previous toss. If the results of acting according to
the previous toss were favorable, you just wouldn't toss the coin
again.This is the exact opposite of the concept of reinforcement.

Then came the 64000-dollar question, back when a thousand dollars was a
thousand dollars. How can this system know whether the result of a coin
toss was favorable or unfavorable? For this sort of system to work as
envisioned, there has to be some variable (or set of variables) that (a)
indicates whether the results were better or worse, and (b) can be sensed
by the system producing the reorganizing. We are now beginning to tie this
exposition to the subject of Marcs's post.

So what variables might there be that could indicate the status of the
organism as a whole? Well, we know of many of them: blood glucose
concentration, blood acidity, level of adrenalin and consequent
vasoconstriction, heart rate, blood pressure, respiration rate, and quite a
few others -- all of which are involved in one way or another with the many
inherited homeostatic (and homeorhetic) systems of the body. Some of these
variables can be directly sensed, neural or chemically, and others can be
sensed by reliable but indirect effects on other variables. What we are
talking about here are exactly the kinds of variables mentioned in
connection with the General Adaptation Syndrome.

Only one question remains: what determines that a particular state of any
one of these basic physiological variables is to be considered abnormal,
indicative of a need to reorganize? Any PCTer should be able to supply the
answer: a reference signal and its associated comparator. For each
variable, there is an inherited reference signal that specifies the
preferred magnitude. This could be a fixed inherited biochemical signal, an
inherited built-in bias or threshold in the sensor (neural or biochemical),
or an actual signal carried to a comparator from another system, in which
case we would have to consider homeorhesis (see Myrsovsky) and the
possibility that some intrinsic reference signals can vary over time. The
effects of these reference signals (with their associated control systems)
have been known for well over a century: they produce the stability of the
"milieu interieur" as Bernard called it, or the state of the systems that
Cannon called "homeostatic".

And what, then, is stress? If we're going to retain the exact engineering
meaning, we must distinguish between the force or influence applied from
outside, and the resulting changes, if any, that are observed. The external
forces are called "stresses" (or stressors, sometimes), and the effects
they have are called "strain." So withholding of food is a stress or
stressor, and the resulting fall in blood glucose is a strain induced by
the stress. But this is not a simple cause-effect system. Before the strain
becomes dangerous, the homeostatic systems release stored glucose to
prevent any further strain. Only when the stress has been present for a
long time, and the reserves of glycogen become depleted, does the strain
begin to increase according to the size and duration of the stress. The
blood glucose now begins to drop seriously, and the difference between the
actual concentration of glucose and its reference level starts a sharp
increase. The amount of strain, of course, cannot be estimated without
having an estimate of the reference state.

That, or in that neighborhood, is the situation when random reorganization
commences. It will not cease until the organization of the
behavior-producing central nervous system has changed in such a way as to
halt or reverse the strain, the intrinsic error, the drop in blood glucose.
If the required new behavior is simply to spot little dots of a different
color and ingest them, the reorganization may not last long. If what is
required is to walk, then turn left, then turn right, and finally to turn
left and right in alternation, the process may take longer and require some
help, such as giving food for any move in the right direction (Skinner
called that shaping).

As for most behavior, we end up with two answers to the question of what
causes it. One answer is the reference signal setting. If there were no
reference signal, no preferred level of glood glucose concentration, there
would be no error, no strain, and therefore no motivation to reorganize. If
you were faced by a life-threatening surgical procedure, but didn't care if
you lived through it, there would be no strain.

The other answer, of course, is the nature of the environment on which one
must act to have an effect on the error signal. In some environments, a
hungry pigeon can obtain grain just by searching a little further outside
the usual pecking grounds. In others, the pigeon might have to peck in a
special place, or walk in a figure eight, or peck on the image of a
battleship. If there is no action that can remove or at least lessen the
strain, and the stress continues, reorganization will simply continue until

This is the most basic level at which we can consider stress and strain,
for which read "disturbance and error". Similar things can happen, I
suppose, at higher levels, and it is quite probable that any real
reorganizing system will have to have added capabilities, such as the
ability to reorganize the right aspects of behavior, those that have some
effect on the error. Future workers will decide such questions.

There was a time when I heard the phrase "stress and strain" in the same
way as "cease and desist" -- as pairs of words from different roots meaning
the same thing. But stress is not the same as strain, I learned much later.
We can take advantage of the distinction here.

So, Marc, this is my expansion on the brief telephone comment. As you can
see, I do indeed see the GAS as being intimately related to reorganization,
at least when the errors get large enough to produce reorganization.



The book most relevant to your interest is Wayne Hershberger (ed.),
Volitional Control: Conation and Control (Elsevier Science Publishers,

David Heise


At 06:28 PM 2/26/2003 -0500, you wrote:

anyone know,specifically where to find this research on the web or

from [Marc Abrams (2003.02.27.0845)]

Thanks David. I am aware of the book. I did not know he dealt with GAS
directly. It's also out of print. I purchased Weyle's original book. _The
Stress of Life_


The book most relevant to your interest is Wayne Hershberger (ed.),

Volitional Control: Conation and Control (Elsevier Science Publishers,

David Heise

[From Rick Marken (2003.02.27.0950)]

Marc Abrams called me this morning. After our talk he asked that I post my
suggestion for an experiment that might represent a possible PCT approach to
studying the GAS. The idea was pretty simple and has probably already been done.
But here it is.

I suggested measuring GSR (Galvanic Skin Response) while a person is doing a
tracking task. The idea is that GSR, the measure of stress, should be related in
some way to the level of control error. I would just have a person do a tracking
task while hooked up to a GSR. The computer would be collecting time variations in
error (cursor-target) and GSR (volts) over time. After the subject is skilled at
doing the tracking (after two or three minutes of practice, say) I would do some
"test" runs where the average disturbance level is low for a minute or two and
then high for another minute or two and then low, etc. This would be the way to
vary control error. Once all the raw data is collected I would build models of
tracking that include systems that generate GSR as a function of error. Then I'd
compare the behavior of the model (in terms of the behavior of control error and
GSR) to the data.

One obvious variant on this experiment, to make it more "PCT-like", would be to
see what happens when people control different variables. For example, see what
happens when the subject is asked to control rotation rate, pitch, etc. According
to GAS, the relationship between error and stress (GSR) should be the same,
regardless of the perception controlled: error is error and stress is stress. I
think this would, indeed, be an interesting experiment. I guess the goal is to
show that it's not _what_ you control but how well you control it that matters, in
terms of stress, anyway.

I imagine that studies such as the one I described first may have already been
done. There may already be studies of the relationship between error (in the
control sense) and stress. What might be innovative is a study showing that the
same error/stress relationship exists regardless of the particular variable being

Best regards



Richard S. Marken, Ph.D.
Senior Behavioral Scientist
The RAND Corporation
PO Box 2138
1700 Main Street
Santa Monica, CA 90407-2138
Tel: 310-393-0411 x7971
Fax: 310-451-7018
E-mail: rmarken@rand.org

[From Fred Nickols (2003.03.01.1314)] --

It's a nit, I know, but the title of the book is Volitional Action:
Conation and Control, not Volitional Control.

Fred Nickols


At 08:53 AM 2/27/2003 -0500, you wrote:

>From [Marc Abrams (2003.02.27.0845)]

Thanks David. I am aware of the book. I did not know he dealt with GAS
directly. It's also out of print. I purchased Weyle's original book. _The
Stress of Life_


>The book most relevant to your interest is Wayne Hershberger (ed.),
Volitional Control: Conation and Control (Elsevier Science Publishers,

David Heise

Friends ( except for you Rick LOL ),

First, I am going to try and present some concepts. I am not a scientist nor am I an academician. I do not say this for any sympathy, leeway, or pity :-). I am saying this because the concept(s) is am proposing and explaining may not be explained as succinctly as possible. Please bear with me.

Second, the purpose of this post is not as a final declaration of an idea. I hope it’s the beginning of a new concept to PCT that will ultimately provide me with something to keep me busy for the rest of my life :slight_smile: This concept is not a new one. In fact it’s an old one, but it’s applicability to PCT has not been researched or studied as far as I know. So if in fact it has been I am sure i will be notified of that fact, with details to follow. :slight_smile: This goes both ways by the way. Meaning non-PCT people may find the connection very interesting.

OK, so much for the intro :slight_smile:

I feel that these concepts are applicable to both a practical and theoretic level. I also believe this concept is testable. ( at least Bill thinks so :slight_smile: )

The question I am trying to answer is; Why do we control what we do when we do? We know from PCT we control variables and we have some hierarchal system of control. The exact levels or names for them, are irrelevant to this post. Some variables are controlled consciously, some are not. How we control is also irrelevant to this post but certainly not to the concept in general.

I believe the “Decision”, or maybe the “Determination”, ( which may be a better word.) of what gets controlled, both consciously and unconsciously is determined by “Anxiety” or “Stress”. (Using capitals to indicate nouns, not adjectives) By “Anxiety” or “Stress” I mean “anticipation” of “what” should happen next after a Decision, or Determination has been made by the Control System at that level in the hierarchy. This of course happens when a variable is compared to the goal from the next highest level. It becomes CV ( Controlled Variable ) after error has been “determined” When the environment or imagination , affects it causing the new &/or old CV’s to become input for a new round of control.

That’s it folk’s. Now the implications are staggering. But MANY ( not shouting, just emphasing :-)) questions remain. To me this is exciting stuff:-)

To this end Bill pointed me toward The General Adaptation Syndrome by Hans Selye. http://www.nisp.org/gas.htm is given below for your convenience. It explains it a lot more succinctly then I could. :slight_smile:

"Stress and the General Adaptation Syndrome

Andrew Goliszek, Ph.D.

Dept. of Biology, NC A&T State University

In 1926, a young medical student named Hans Selye noticed that patients in the early stages of infectious diseases exhibited similar >symptoms, regardless of the type of disease they had. He later observed a set of three common responses that occurred whenever any >organism was injected with a toxic substance: (1) the adrenal glands enlarged, (2) the lymph nodes and other white blood cell producing >organs swelled at first then shrank, and (3) bleeding appeared in the stomach and intestines.
He called these three common responses the General Adaptation Syndrome and proposed that certain changes take place within the body >during stress that disrupt normal physiologic mechanisms and trigger an array of diseases. And no matter what type of organism he looked at, >from rats and monkeys to humans, he noticed that physical and emotional stress induced a pattern that, if left untreated, always leads to >infection, illness, disease, and eventually death. The figure above illustrates what Hans Selye observed.
As shown in the diagram below, there are three stages in Selye’s General Adaptation Syndrome. Let’s look at what happens during each >stage that makes us more susceptible to disease.

Alarm Reaction Stage of Resistance Stage of Exhaustion

>Stage 1. Alarm Reaction: Any physical or mental trauma will trigger an immediate set of reactions that combat the stress. Because the >immune system is initially depressed, normal levels of resistance are lowered, making us more susceptible to infection and disease. If the >stress is not severe or long-lasting, we bounce back and recover rapidly.
>Stage 2: Resistance: Eventually, sometimes rather quickly, we adapt to stress, and there’s actually a tendency to become more resistant to >illness and disease. Our immune system works overtime for us during this period, trying to keep up with the demands placed upon it. We >become complacent about our situation and assume that we can resist the effects of stress indefinitely. Therein lies the danger. Believing that >we are immune from the effects of stress, we typically fail to do anything about it.
>Stage 3: Exhaustion: Because our body is not able to maintain homeostasis and the long-term resistance needed to combat stress, we >invariably develop a sudden drop in our resistance level. No one experiences exactly the same resistance and tolerance to stress, but >everyone’s immunity at some point collapses following prolonged stress reactions. Life sustaining mechanisms slow down and sputter, organ >systems begin to break down, and stress-fighting reserves finally succumb to what Selye called “diseases of adaptation.”

The General Adaptation Syndrome is thought to be the main reason why stress is such an abundant source of health problems. By changing >the way our body normally functions, stress disrupts the natural balance - the homeostasis - crucial for well-being. It can also subtract years >from our lives by speeding up the aging process Resistance is the name of the game when it comes to disease. Stress is one of the most >significant factors in lowering resistance and triggering the various mechanisms involved in the disease process. By learning relaxation and >stress management techniques, you’ll improve your overall health as well as your odds of living a disease-free life."

Bill added something very interesting. He suggested that research has been done that showed when people experienced “stress”, “anxiety”, or “emotion”( all used here to represent the same concept )., and either “good”, “bad”, “happy”, or “sad” certain enzymes and chemical levels in the body changed. And the changes were the same regardless of the adjective used. I searched Google and got 10,433 hits on The General Adaptation Syndrome so it might be a while before I find that research :-). (But I will search that list for research, even if I have to look at all 10,433 cites :-), and Bill knows it. LOL ). I will follow up on the net with what I find.

Does anyone know,specifically where to find this research on the web or library?.

So what do you think folks?

How can we test this from a PCT perspective? I got some ideas, but I am going to wait and see what I come up with first on what has been done

Thanks for taking the time to get to this point. :-). I do appreciate it. As I would your input.



(Attachment img116.gif is missing)