Why this Behavioural Observer isn’t a Behaviourist

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.

12 Comments

  1. qw88nb88 said,

    26 April 2008 at 14:26

    Suzanne, yes you may!

    Here is how you cite this blog posting; for the “cited” space you use whatever date you accessed the page, e.g. 2008 May 1.

    Andrea. Andrea’s Buzzing About: Why this Behavioural Observer isn’t a Behaviourist [Internet]. San Francisco: Andrea’s Buzzing About: c2006-2008 – [cited ____________ ]. Available from: https://qw88nb88.wordpress.com/2007/12/12/why-this-behavioural-observer-isnt-a-behaviourist/

    More details on citations to blogs may be found here.

  2. Suzanne said,

    26 April 2008 at 7:52

    May I quote you?
    “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.”

  3. Ettina said,

    13 December 2007 at 15:27

    “I think what’s needed is the abolition of both “normal” and “special”, and the creation of a truly inclusive education system, but i have absolutely no idea what that would look like…”
    Like this, maybe:
    http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?sec=health&res=9B07E3D71639F93AA35752C1A9659C8B63

  4. abfh said,

    12 December 2007 at 18:30

    Andrea, I’ve tagged you for a blogging award.

  5. Tysyacha said,

    12 December 2007 at 16:44

    Niches are very interesting things. I have been told that my “niche” is working in the disability field and speaking up for people with disabilities. As much as this construes my working life, it is definitely NOT my one and only “niche”. Just because I do have a disability does not mean the place I fit in this world necessarily has to do anything with disabilities. I see my “niche” as more of a faceted crystal or river than a slot in a pegboard or computer chip.

    I write, I read, I relate to others, I sing, I think, I breathe, I exist. My contributions to society are many, not all of them physical or mental. Whenever anybody expects me to “behave” in a certain way, I usually do not, or do not perform up to their expectations, because they usually do not tell me what they mean by “behaving”. To me, “behavior” is how something or someone acts and responds to life, and there is really no such thing as “misbehaving.” There are more extreme reactions than others that people can exhibit in response to their environments, but “behavior” is natural.

    Thank you for yet another phenomenally insightful post!

    Tysyacha

  6. shiva said,

    12 December 2007 at 14:24

    Another great post. I love your ability to effortlessly link neurodiversity to evolution and ecology, in a way that celebrates rather than pathologising it (while not uncritically clebrating it, but also acknowledging that it has its difficulties)… :)

    Thanks forthe message about the Blog Carnival. The previous ones that i wrote stuff for had posts appearing on the host blogs about them before they happened, which is how i found out about them, then i missed a load because they were hosted at blogs i don’t check on a frequent basis. Is there a Disability Blog Carnival homepage?

    Re the special education bit, this is something i’ve been turning over in my head a lot recently. I’ve always been opposed to “special” (in the sense of “segregated” education), as i believe that non-disabled kids need to grow up relating to disabled kids as equals and friends rather than as “Others” kept hidden away somewhere, or disablist prejudices will inevitably be perpetuated. On the other hand, many parents of disabled kids in the UK are protesting against special schools being closed and the pupils transferred to mainstream schools, because the special schools were in many cases poroviding a better (by academic standards) level of education and the mainstream schools are often simply not (physically or attitudinally) accessible. And for some kids, like me, neither “normal” nor “special” schools could possibly have provided a happy or even tolerable childhood (regardless of academic achievement), because, as a child, i simply couldn’t stand to be in the presence of other children… so, i dunno…

    I think what’s needed is the abolition of both “normal” and “special”, and the creation of a truly inclusive education system, but i have absolutely no idea what that would look like…

  7. Steve D said,

    12 December 2007 at 14:08

    Andrea-
    Okay, I stand corrected about food and bugs.
    One more anecdote:
    Many of my employees are Mexican immigrants, largely from the state of Oaxaca. Periodically, some of them will return home to visit family and, upon their return, they bring some of their favorite foods. Most commonly, this food is Chapulines. Chapulines are small black grasshoppers, fried and salted. The guys just munch them right out of little plastic baggies like I might eat potato chips. Inevitably, to embarrass the boss, they jokingly confronted me one day and challenged me to eat some (knowing full well that most Americans wouldn’t consider it). So I ate some. They’re not bad, really.

  8. abfh said,

    12 December 2007 at 13:41

    The reason we have “special” education is because “normal” education is too narrow of an environment to provide enough niches.

    Exactly. “Normal” education is like the front yard of a home in the suburbs, with a lawn mowed every Sunday and a few bushes along the side of the garage. It looks neat and well-kept, but you won’t find any wildlife there.

  9. qw88nb88 said,

    12 December 2007 at 13:13

    Steve, autism does present difficulties, so it’s not a wholly “good” thing. But then neither is it a wholly bad thing.

    One of my goals is to help people realise that not only are things in life more than just these false dichotomies of good/bad, right/wrong et cetera, but also that both of those “answers” are not the only answers — there are many other, non-linear answers. That in itself is probably one of the more uncomfortable things in the world; many people would probably prefer that everything be black and white (especially conservatively-minded people who get more polarised during times of social change).

    Another point I make is that acceptance is not resignation. Nor does acceptance mean blind gratitude. Everything in life has its plusses and minuses. When someone is one the cusp of that statistical bell curve, the plusses and minuses are more extreme, which is what creates the difficulties.

    But hell, we ALL have difficulties — some of us have rather different difficulties, and to people who are focused on normalcy, we have the “wrong” difficulties, instead of the “right” difficulties, meaning the same kinds they do.

    BTW, if your brain’s not thoroughly stretched out yet, check out how many things in your pantry are colored with carmine/cochineal.

    andrea

  10. Steve D said,

    12 December 2007 at 5:40

    I’m afraid I poorly worded my comment, so thanks for the invitation to explain.
    That I can’t insert the word ‘autism’ is a GOOD thing, not a bad one.
    What I am trying to say is that I am particularly appreciative of your ability to universalize autism while I, by contrast, am still at a point where I need the word to frame my reference.
    I realize this is a pretty abstract thought, so please bear with me.
    When you write your posts, as with this one, you very comfortably move through the content without needing to reference autism specifically. To me, this implies a complete level of comfort with autism-related issues, and it is something I am working to achieve but have not yet done so. As you so aptly put in your comment, “…anyone who is on the cusp of the bell curve would also be a candidate for being misinterpreted.” You, by not feeling the need to categorize and classify as I do, exhibit a much greater degree of understanding – one that I can aspire to and model my own attitudes after.

    Last, I LOVE your entomology references. I have been keeping a picture of a magnificent, huge, irridescent spider in my hardrive (I put ruler next to its body for the picture) that I have been meaning to send to you.
    Please feel free to use food references, but not in the same breath as entomological references, as my cultural background renders those two fields as being irreconcilable :) In other words, bugs and food don’t mix.

    Summary: I poorly worded my comment, and I hope this clarifies my thoughts on this and your other posts, which I appreciate tremendously.

  11. qw88nb88 said,

    12 December 2007 at 5:06

    Steve, I’m afraid I’m having trouble following your lines of thought here. Why is the first often a fruitless effort? Maybe because not all my posts are related to autism? (-:
    In the second, autism is indirectly referenced many times in this post, but not just autism; anyone who is on the cusp of the bell curve would also be a candidate for being misinterpreted.
    And in the last, I use entomology analogies because my experience lies there; since you love cooking, perhaps some things would be easier for you if framed in cookery analogies? Just a thought.

    Looking forward to hearing back,
    andrea

  12. Steve D said,

    12 December 2007 at 4:20

    I often challenge myself to insert the word ‘autism’ when reading your posts. Most of the time, it is a fruitless effort.
    In the case of this post, I see the opportunity to reference autism numerous times.
    I look forward to the day I can understand the concepts the way you do without requiring use of the label the way I do.


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