behavior (noun) – 1) the manner of conducting oneself, 2) anything that an organism does involving action and response to stimulation, 3) the response of an individual, group, or species to its environment, 4) the way in which something functions or operates
Oh Just Behave – A Mediocre Measurement
Behavior is a response. Behavior is how something or someone functions. It’s the effect, not the cause. It’s what you see on the outside telling you something, but not everything, about what is going on inside. So is there really “good” behavior or “bad” behavior – or is it just behavior? Isn’t it merely the observable response to stimulation or environment? No more than the manifestation of the underlying programming of the organism, either through genetics or experience. According to the definition then yes, this is what behavior is. This is all that behavior is. Nothing more.
And yet, we’ve elevated the significance of behavior as if it’s more than that. Changing behavior is the focus of parenting young children. It’s a big part of how we run our classrooms. It’s what we measure in consumers. It’s what we try to extinguish through our penal system. It’s how mental illness is diagnosed and how the success of treatment is evaluated. It’s a measure of our morality. Ironically, all of our behaviors that attempt to change other people’s behaviors are based on something that is genuinely more significant – the driving force behind what we do. It’s our beliefs.
How Behavior Got Its Good Reputation
Most people don’t realize that focusing on the “importance” of behavior was not always a given. As a society, we had to be convinced that outward behavior was more significant than internal factors. In fact, it’s a relatively new way of looking at our human experience, but it feels very normal to many of us because we’ve either grown up during it’s heyday in the middle part of the last century, or we were parented, educated, or employed from this perspective.
So how were we convinced? Through a series of very scientific experiments, B.F. Skinner, the father of Behaviorism, showed that you could change the behaviors of mice, dogs, cats, and pigeons through variables controlled by researchers, essentially through either giving rewards or causing pain. Up until this era, the study of our human experience didn’t really line up with the rigors of the scientific method utilized by the hard sciences. Instead, it was a lot of intuitive theorizing by psychoanalysts, psychologists, and philosophers – seeing superficial behaviors as clues to the invisible forces behind our actions, such as thoughts, feelings, and motivations. The problem with this method is that “true” science is built around things that you can observe, measure, test and repeat. So when B.F. Skinner came up with theories about humans based on the observable and measurable changes in the behavior of animals that he could test and repeat, the “science-iness” of it made his ideas seem more reliably true. Skinner was very dismissive of the independent influence of the inner workings of the mind. To him, every human action was a result of an external force. Even thoughts and feelings came from some outside influence. He believed that persons in authority “ought” to exert these types of influences for the sake of positive individual and societal goals. You could say his heart was in the right place, but he wouldn’t, because based on his own theory he could neither take credit for his ideas nor his good will – because thoughts and motives come from somewhere outside of you. You could also imagine that certain people (i.e. parents, teachers, bosses, law enforcement, government officials) liked the idea that not only could you learn to control people (i.e. children, students, employees, criminals, citizens) but also that you were justified in doing so. Sounds tempting right? So you could see how a combination of science-iness, the appeal to people in power, and the promises of Utopia made this shift towards Behaviorism possible. The whole thing was a meta-proof that positive reinforcement actually works!
Except the problem for all the Behaviorism believers (Behievers?) is that once we started to actually study human beings in real world contexts (as opposed to animals in labs) with real scientific rigor (Attachment Psychology, Lifespan Psychology, Cognitive Neuroscience, Functional Neuroanatomy, Positive Psychology, etc.) then most of Behaviorism’s findings and theories should have been dismissed as irrelevant to us. Why? Simply because the sum total of all human research shows that our highly developed ability to think exerts control over our more primitive animal instincts to survive. In other words, for human beings, beliefs control behavior. Sorry Skinner, “true” science says the mind does matter.
Unfortunately, the subversive impact of Behaviorism remains integrated into our culture. Rewards and punishments are still a normal part of parenting, education, self-help strategies, relationship advice, law enforcement tactics, sales training, marketing, corporate organization charts, drug rehabs, diplomacy, political campaigning, and what a lot of people refer to as “common sense.” Part of its staying power is the seemingly consistent real-world evidence that human behavior sometimes isn’t that different from that of animals. However, when you think about it (see what I did there?) there’s a logical explanation – when you conduct experiments that are short enough with limited complexity by limiting the variables, then human behavior can be temporarily controlled by outside influences. For example:
- This explains what we see happening in our elections. You only get two choices. I will give you everything you want. The other candidate will hurt you. The fate of our country forever will be determined on Election Day. Your role has been made simple – just vote (for me).
- This explains why addictions are more likely to remain when people are isolated and don’t have meaning in their lives. Two choices, repeated over and over again every time the effects of the drugs wear off – fake happy or real misery. Makes sense that you would choose the former.
- This explains why people are sold time-shares when they are on vacation. Because if you act right now, you too can own a piece of this property and repeat this amazing vacation experience you are having every year for the rest of your life. You would be foolish to let this opportunity pass. And you can’t leave until the presentation is done.
- This is why sticker charts, bribes, time-outs, and threats of a spanking will absolutely work – for now.
However, with enough time and accounting for the actual complexities of being a human in the real world, it’s always what we think and believe that really determines our overall behavior.
- This explains why we all care less about politics between election cycles and in reality nothing much changes, except maybe a few degrees to the left or a few degrees to the right, which inevitably gets moved back to the middle over time.
- This explains why positive relationships and living a fulfilling life are highly correlated with people who successfully outgrow their addictions.
- This explains why people later regret buying time-shares.
- This explains why rewards and punishments need to always change to remain effective, and still inevitably they all fail. You’ll never see a teenager cleaning their room for a gold star.
In addition to research telling us that Behaviorism doesn’t work, we now have decades of perspective telling us how implementing these behavior-oriented strategies have fared in our modern society.
- Parenting built around positive and negative reinforcement has led to most of the characteristics that people criticize in Millennials – the need for constant superficial attention, wanting to be rewarded for meeting expectations, showing confidence without competency, having overly ambitious and unrealistic goals – while at the same time they also don’t do well with failure and are more depressed, anxious, and ashamed.
- Education continues to focus on measurement and testing at the expense of critical thinking and learning.
- Political campaigns built around big promises and fear-mongering has led to an increasingly adversarial and dysfunctional government.
- The mentally ill and those suffering with addiction are just as likely to be put in jail as other law breakers, because punishment is supposed to extinguish bad behavior, regardless of cause.
- Businesses need layers of management, performance bonuses, future vesting, and new titles to keep employees engaged or motivated.
Even if there’s some positive outcomes, when we look deeper or more broadly, we see that these behavior-based strategies are costly, unsustainable, short-sighted, deteriorating, and painful. That’s how I define unhealthy. How I define healthiness is the exact opposite: efficient, sustainable, authentic, growing, and fulfilling. So how do we do that?
Why Beliefs are Better
Let’s look past our behaviors (and the behavior of others) and examine our beliefs. Because that’s exactly what our brains are capable of doing. What makes the human brain different is that we have a larger frontal lobe, specifically an area called the prefrontal cortex. What we do with this extra cerebral real estate is what makes us uniquely human. This part of the brain coordinates the functions of all other parts of the brain and body. It allows for more sophisticated assessments of our environment. It has the capacity for more complex planning and reasoning. It allows for nuance in our emotions. It has the ability to be self-aware. It has the ability to correctly read other people’s minds. It has a broad sense of time, coordinating the experiences of our past and our projections of the future through the lens of the present. It assigns meaning and significance to our memories. If necessary, it can suppress our feelings, both emotional and physical. It’s also highly adaptable.
The end result of all these coordinated abilities is that compared to other organisms, there’s so much more that we consider before we act, including:
- an assessment of our own abilities
- an assessment of our present resources
- what help is available
- what hindrances exist
- how our actions affect us both now and in the future
- how our actions affect others both now and in the future
- how our actions affect our environment and circumstances both now and in the future
- a creative configuration of the various options available based on the complex inventory we just took
- an analytical judgment of what option is “best” based on integrating all these complex variables
- a value judgment of whether or not taking an action is worthwhile
- a temporal judgment as to when is the best time to take action
- a moral judgment of whether or not our actions are “good.”
You could say that all that I just listed, when integrated cohesively, describes our beliefs. One way to understand why beliefs are so important to our behavior would be to consider what we would do differently if any single one of these dozen thoughts was not considered in our decision making. What if we didn’t utilize our past experiences? What if we didn’t consider help? What if we didn’t consider what might get in our way? What if we didn’t think about the impact of our choices on others? What if our decision making was short-sighted? What if we didn’t consider other options? What if we acted without even considering if we should? What if we waited a little bit? What if it was the wrong thing to do?
With any single one of these considerations missing and even more so with the absence of a few, we would be reacting more impulsively instead of responding most thoughtfully. Doesn’t that thoughtfulness make a real difference? Isn’t that thoughtfulness the distinction that makes us human?
Being the Best Human Being
B.F. Skinner was right in that external forces can influence our behavior, but clearly it’s less than optimal. Just behave? I hope that when you hear that phrase now, you understand it for what it is – a request for the bare minimum of what we are able to do for the sake of someone else’s need, or an act of compliance with an absence of substance behind the action. Trying to control behavior dismisses the significance of the thoughts, feelings, and experiences of the person doing the behavior. Intentional or not, when we focus on behaviors instead of the beliefs behind them, we diminish the humanity of others. It undermines autonomy. People react rather than respond. Actions are short-sighted. Mistakes are repeated. We become self-focused. And if we are intentionally being manipulated, it’s someone else’s goals that are being fulfilled by our behavior, not our own needs.
The good news is that we all have the capacity to resist these outside influences when we use our minds and develop our inner self. It’s in this context that we can better understand why certain ideas are consistently validated (by research and in practice) as being part of living an optimal life, because these truthful principles all reinforce the development of our sense of self. Self-worth. Mindfulness. Authenticity. Emotional Efficacy. Empathy. Meaningful relationships. These are the beliefs, skills, and experiences that lead to true overall healthiness because they reinforce our autonomy, our competency, and our connections.
I’ve written about all of them previously, so I encourage you to read (or reread) some of these posts in this light, and it will make sense as to why they are so important in allowing you to live the most optimal life you can possibly live.
Self-Worth: The One Idea That Will Make You a Better Person
Mindfulness: Changing Your Mind – Part 1: What Is Mindfulness?
Relationships: The One Choice That Changes Us All
Our beliefs (and subsequently our behavior) change when: 1) we have brand new insights, and 2) these insights come alive for us personally when we reevaluate our past experiences or live through new ones with heightened awareness. I hope that what you’ve just read ignites that process, helping you to become the best human being you can be. Just behave? Why limit ourselves to mediocrity when we have the capacity to be so much more?