From: "John A. Johnson" 
Date: Wed, 01 Sep 2004 09:18:36 -0400
Subject: Re: [evol-psych] What is "behavior"? What is "actions"?

On Tue, 31 Aug 2004 19:24:45 -0600 Jay Feirman wrote:

>Why do ethologists
>want the definition of behavior to be purely descriptive or phenomenological
>and the cognitive and evolutionary psychologists want to add other
>properties into the definition? What would change in cognitive or
>evolutionary psychology if behavior was just defined descriptively? Or, is
>this just a dominance issue with each field of study trying to get the other
>field of study to use its definition?

I would say it is a dominance issue. In this entire thread on definitions 
of behavior and actions, I didn't see much recounting of the history of 
power struggles on this issue amongst schools of psychologists and 
philosophers. I would like to recall a very small portion of that history.

John B. Watson revolutionized psychology when he declared that psychology 
is the study of observable behavior rather than mind, and Watsonian and 
Skinnerian behaviorism dominated psychology in the United States from the 
1920s through 1960s. When the computer provided an alternative paradigm for 
the emerging cognitive perspective in the 1960s, psychologists began 
talking about the hypothetical behavioral events that might be occurring in 
the black box between stimulus input and behavioral output. This led to 
funny definitions in psychology textbooks; one of my favorites is 
"Psychology is the study of overt and covert behavior" ("covert" referring 
to unobservable events in the brain, not the activities of spies). 
Psychologists, with their historical worries about their scientific 
inadequacy, hoped that use of the seemingly objective word "behavior" would 
somehow substantiate their discipline. The behaviorist legacy is still with 
us and is evident each time someone defines behavior (overt or covert) as a 
*response* to the environment. Even the apparently counter-revolutionary 
cognitive perspective in the 1960s assumed that behavior begins with 
"inputs." S->R psychology lives.

A less visible, dissenting view in the 1960s was led by philosophers such 
as T. Mischel, who wished to distinguish actions from behavior. Whereas 
*behaviors* represented relatively mindless, mechanical, Pavlovian-like 
reflexes to the environment, *actions* were defined as the outcome of 
internally-generated intentions, based on internal beliefs and desires. 
Without denying that behaviors occur, these philosophers claimed that 
actions are infinitely more interesting than behaviors because actions 
distinguish human beings from other animals. This philosophical movement 
led to the Ethogenic Psychology of Rom Harre and his followers. Despite the 
label "ethogenic," this school of thought is a lot closer to social 
constructivism than ethology. Evolutionary psychologists don't pay much 
attention to ethogenic psychology because we don't want to draw hard lines 
between humans and other animals, but I think we might want to pay more 
attention to the notion of actions that are purely internally generated.

>Also, what are the properties of a good definition? One criterion might be a
>definition which contains the fewest assumptions, as I stated in a previous
>posting that scientific definitions that contain assumptions often have
>relatively short half-lives. And that's why I like the simple, descriptive,
>ethological definition of behavior as the self-directed movement of the
>individual or part of the individual through space and time.

I'm less sanguine about finding a theoretically neutral definition of 
behavior. I think we will always have dominance struggles amongst 
scientists who wish to establish their own definition in order to impose 
their theoretical predilections upon others. But I like Jay's definition, 
particularly the "self-directed" portion. Although ethologists, like 
behaviorists, study behavioral responses to environmental stimuli, they 
also study a body of behaviors that are wholly directed by inner mechanisms 
("self"): appetitive behavior, explorative behavior, in vacuo behavior, 
etc. I'm less concerned about owning and imposing a particular definition 
of behavior or the subject matter of evolutionary psychology as I am about 
including behaviors that originate from within the active organism as well 
as those that originate in the environment.

John A. Johnson
Professor of Psychology, Pennsylvania State University
Penn State is not responsible for my behavior. Nor am I for the university's.

Real Utilitarianism: Moral Goodness as Causal Efficacy: