I’ve spent hours observing and recording the actions and reactions of insects and humans. I’m a behavioural observer, but I don’t consider myself to be a Behaviourist. Despite the usefulness of Behaviourism for training animals (including humans) to perform particular tasks, I find that school of thought to be too limiting for understanding and helping people.
Some years ago when I was taking my MSc in entomology, I studied insect behaviour. One of the professors introduced us to Miller & Strickler’s “rolling fulcrum” model* for how insects respond. Essentially this idea states that there are internal factors (of varying strengths) that affect how much an insect responds to of excitatory or inhibitory stimuli. The example given was that even if you smell something really appetising, if you’re not hungry then you’re not going to eat it. It was presented as something profound, but my internal response was along the lines of, “Duh!” (My external response was to continue doodling triangular pursuit curves on the margins of my lecture notes.)
In other words, even with their very tiny brains, insects are not just stimulous – response animals, and you cannot simply predict that X amount of stimulous will produce Y amount of response. For example, on my end this meant that in a lab experiment to measure feeding response, I would have to deprive my research subjects of food long enough to be sure they would be hungry, but no so long that they would be getting weak or dehydrated.
But sometimes subjects will exhibit aberrant behaviour, simply because they are individuals. A few will have outlier responses in choice or non-choice experiments, and sometimes even in classical or operant conditioning experiments. They demonstrate the fabulous Harvard Law of Animal Behavior: “Under carefully controlled experimental circumstances, an animal will behave as it damned well pleases.”
At first glance, these outliers seem to be “badly wired” — they don’t respond to things they way they “ought” to, totally ignoring how the behaviourists, entomologists and ecologists expect the animals need to behave to optimise their “4-F” abilities (feeding, fleeing, fighting, and um, fornicating). But the point of behavioural ecology is figuring out how organisms’ behaviour adapts to different ecological conditions.
When conditions change, so must the responses. One of the main tasks of a successful organism (or species) is to find its niche. And as we learned in ecology, if there’s too much competition in the existing niche, then one has several options: change location on the macro scale (emigrate), change location on the micro scale (use a different part of the plant or environment), change time on the macro scale (migrate), or change time on the micro scale (different time of day). Sometimes organisms engage in niche-partitioning where they divvy up resources, and sometimes they create whole new niches. (Once Upon A Time, a dung beetle said to another, “I know! Let’s take a chunk of this dung, roll it into a ball, and then bury it in a hole to feed the kids!” /joke)
But conditions are not the only things that change. So do the frequencies of genetic traits in a population, which (if consistent among numbers of individuals) sometimes give rise to what the taxonomists will variably call breeds, races, biotypes or subspecies. Genetic diversity can lend the opportunity to offer different ways of responding to the environment, whether that’s a changing environment or a relatively static one.
Beyond the 4-F abilities and the niche, there is the task of managing stresses. Beyond the obvious physical issues, it would be hard to guess what things stress out insects. (Although when I dump a dozen crickets into Rosie’s habitat, I suspect that they tend to freak out, “OMG a giant spider!” because they end up clustered on the far side of the rock. Right now one is looking over the edge of the flowerpot where Rosie is parked inside, and I imagine him blowing a raspberry at her as he waggles his antennae, but that’s just anthropomorphising.) On the other hand, a wide range of things stress out humans, and some of those stressors are things that affect only small percentages of humans.
Of course, humans should be included in the animals cited by that Harvard law, and the more complex the range of behaviours that an organism has, the more complex and variable the responses will be. Not even B. F. Skinner thought that people were simplistic stimulous-response organisms. But even though he tried to explain mental processes simply as more behaviour, his behaviourist methods can be too limiting. If all one looks at is observable behaviour, then the processes and motivations are likewise limited.
Even in the world of functional behavioural observation, there’s the dichotomous view that people are doing things either in an effort to “get / obtain this” or to “protest / escape / avoid” that. We have internal factors of changing perceptions, opinions, biases and other cognitive events. We also have (referring back to that rolling fulcrum concept) highly variable sensory levels. Some people have much more variable or sensitive sensory worlds, or even frequently-changing levels of perceptual-channel processing that affect the interactions between their inner and outer worlds. A lack of understanding of this in the observer can yield some lopsided or erroneous perceptions about the environmental Antecedants, much less the resulting Behaviour-Consequences.
At first glance, these outliers seem to be “badly wired” — they don’t respond to things they way they “ought” to, totally ignoring how the behaviourists expect them to behave. But again, the point of behavioural ecology is figuring out how organisms’ behaviour adapts to different ecological conditions. Human genetic diversity yields people with different ways of responding to the environment, whether that’s a changing environment or a relatively static one. If one person out of a hundred reacts differently to the same situation, their reaction probably serves some functional purpose for them. Different doesn’t necessarily mean wrong, just different — any behaviour that serves a functional purpose is adaptive!
There’s nothing like spending hours observing students to realise that the same situational antecedants don’t necessarily produce the same behaviours or consequences. And when observing the results of various attempts to train, shape, fade, extinguish or instill specific behaviours, we find that our students are not nearly as tractable as lab rats. Frankly, it is not easy, nor always desireable to shape or manipulate our student’s behaviours with various positive & negative reinforcers (or punishers). Such methods do have their uses, but we need to be mindful that intrinsic self-motivatione is something the student will always carry with them, whereas our extrinsic modifiers may not.
More so than any other animal, humans spend a lot of time changing their environments. We can more successfully work with students’ individual wants and needs by engaging them in shared ownership of the learning process. We do that by giving them more choices in how they acquire and then demonstrate their learning, so they can adapt their environments to better fit their individual needs. Too often we try to make all the students fit the same niche, and then don’t understand why they cannot all succeed. (The reason we have “special” education is because “normal” education is too narrow of an environment to provide enough niches.)
Sometimes we forget that one of the important basics of education is figuring out what you are good at doing, and how to use that to achieve your goals — we don’t want to spend too much of our time endlessly trying to improve our weak areas. We also want our students to be able to learn how to identify what their own needs are, and different ways of meeting those needs.
So why do I end up spending so much time observing people, even when I’m not doing so for an official assessment? Because one of my own needs is making sense of people, and figuring out how people determine what their needs are, and how they work to achieve them.
* Miller J. R., Strickler K.L. (1984) Finding and accepting host plants. In: Bell W. J., Cardé R. (eds) Chemical Ecology of Insects, pp. 127–155. Chapman and Hall, New York.