Exploring new ways to talk about the basics of behaviour

The following is one very rough way I have found useful lately for contextualizing what people do in real life.  It is not final: more like guidelines than rules; or a work in progress.  I am trying to explore new ways of talking about the basics of behaviour so I can stop using the vague words ‘learning’, ‘reinforcement’, ‘setting events’, ‘natural reinforcers’, etc., which are the best we have at present.  This explains why it is a little confused in places, but hopefully you can see what I am driving at and you can find a better way to talk about this.

There are two main themes:

  • what actually happens when an organism makes any sort of response?
  • there are three types of responding that are useful (but not factual) to differentiate.


People arrive in this world in certain contexts or settings not of their making which allow only some responses.  They do what they can for “stayin’ alive” in their contexts. People are in external contexts and all they do, all their responses, are just events which change that context in some way.

To say this again: whatever people do, however they respond, changes their contexts and this is ALL that responding does (we do not need to label some of these change events as ‘reinforcers’, we need to look at their change properties–see below).  Some responses block further events and some open up or differentiate new settings and possible events, but this is because the contexts have changed in some way through responding in the first place.  Many of our responses actually have minimal effect on the world so there seems to be no observable change in later responding, but this can depend upon how well we observe of course.

There are three major systems of acting or responding for humans: perceptual or discriminating responses, motor responses, and language responses.  In psychology terms these are sort of but not quite the same as perception, motor behaviour, and language.  These are not meant to be essentially different in any way but just useful groups I will use until they become un-useful.  They are not ‘facts’.

All three systems of acting or responding are still just events, that is, active responding by the organisms which produce changes in the world.  The responding depends upon what the human can do at any time in the context they are in, and the effects of what they have done in the past on the same context. But, when a person does something, in any of the three systems, the effect is just to change the context around them.  To say it yet again, this is all that ever happens in the universe. (Actually, the system as a whole gets changed but that is for another day).  We do not ‘learn’ to respond; our changes to the environment change that environment so we behave differently, and that is the ‘learning’ and the ‘’remembering.  So, the world learns and remembers for us, we do not need to (excepting that our behaviour systems change in context).

If the person does that same response again in that setting this is not because a property of ‘reinforcement’ has now majestically appeared in the system.  That is just a descriptive tautology which can be useful in some contexts (usually in simple contexts) but awkward or completely misleading in others (especially with ‘perceptual responses’ and language responding).  So even in these situations of the same behaviour occurring again or becoming more probable over time in that context, all that ever happens is that the world around them was changed by the action in a specialized way such that that action, rather than another, is likely to happen again in that context.  If your actions hardly change the context at all, for example, then the same responding is likely to occur again in that context.

A helpful metaphor might be: that if heavy rain gouges out a channel in the earth then future rain is also likely to run down this same channel.  This is not because the rain or the channel was ‘reinforced’ for the first gouging, nor because the water has learned or remembered to go in that channel. Responding only ever changes the external context which in turn changes future responding.  If the same response occurs again then that is because of the properties of the contextual changes which occurred, not because of anything added into the system such as learning, remembering or reinforcing.

Two properties of prototypical ‘reinforced responding’ contexts  (where the same behaviour is likely to be repeated or become more probable) are that (1) there is simple motor responding so the consequences are limited and precise (such as pressing a bar) which therefore (2) changes very little of the context for that organism (hunger gradually subsides over some hours but nothing else is altered in the physical environs when you press the bar).  Such situations are rare in real life, however, and are a specialist, experimental situation.  What we have learned from studying those situations has been useful (FI, VR schedules) but we should not expect to find these in real life circumstances. Rarely do those conditions occur, which means that in traditional words, ‘natural reinforcers’ outnumber ‘contrived reinforcers’ in real life.

The three responses system I currently call perceptual responding, motor responding, and language responding.  They are all active responses by the organism (the organism actually does something) which change the context in which they occur and nothing more. The perceptual system is a little different in that it changes the context for the other two systems but does not actively alter the physical or social environments around us (‘seeing’ a dog does not affect the dog). The motor responding system, on the other hand, does actively affect the world and can affect other people in a physical way (if I hug you).  The language system is also specialized in that it only does anything to people, and only those who also have a specialized historical context (they can ‘speak the language’).  Talking about cats only changes people in our contexts, not cats.

[More about this later, but most human adults also have specialized histories such that many of their responses can occur in contexts other than the original. We can have: perceptual and auditory perceptual responding occurring in the absence of the original contexts (images, dreams, songs in head, hearing voices); we can have motor responding occurring in the absence of the original physical environment (when we ‘go through the motions’, ‘rehearse’ tennis strokes, phantom limbs, bodily sensations in dreams); and we can have language responding without saying anything out loud and affecting relevant people (what we call thinking).  Note, however, that for these to occur specialized contexts need to be developed, or channeled, beforehand. These can also interfere with direct responding to our environments and cause problems.]

Perceptual responding corresponds to what J. J. Gibson called direct perception.  When we ‘see’ or ‘attend’ there are active responses occurring rather than a passive ‘reception’ of light stimuli. The responses are differentiating or discriminating rather than the processing of information. We do not ‘see a dog’ but have a series of perceptual responses occur which have the effect of changing the ‘context’ for further responding.  Each perceptual response does not change the physical environment around us (‘seeing’ a dog does not affect the dog) but it allows more and more differentiation of our contexts for us either to act upon (motor responding) or to name and talk about (language responding).  The responses themselves comprise of intricate mixtures of eye fixations, learned scanning patterns, saccadic eye movements, changes in ocular musculature, retinal visual persistence (<100 mS), moving the head, focusing the eyes, consequential differences between the two eyes (disparity), moving the body, all the above movements can be 3D, and colour differentials.

We do not know enough yet about this system because ‘perception’ has been mistakenly thought of as taking light or something inside us, whereas, as Gibson & Gibson pointed out in 1959, our perceptual responses allow us to differentiate or discriminate our contexts for other responses to change.  So it is the continual use of the actions listed in the last paragraph which provides active differentiation of our contexts which can be acted upon.  As an examples, in this sense intense focusing of the eyes differentiates a new context which makes new other responses possible (from any of the three responses systems).  To use Gibson’s term, we do not ‘see’ affordances in the environment, or ‘process’ what the environment provides us.  Rather, the constant differentiation of active perceptual responding provides the other systems with changing contexts.

So, while the physical environment is not changed by eye movements, focusing, or saccades, these active perceptual responses provide the contexts for motor and language responding which then do have effects on the physical contexts.  This is what has been called ‘association‘ for centuries now, but it is just our perceptual responses changing the contexts for other responses.  And it therefore does not take place in our heads as a network of associations (unlike computer association networks).  ‘Associations’ are the perceptual responses.

Motor responding is our bodily movements in our worlds which change the world. Motor responding is also part of perceptual responding in the way Gibson describes: that we ‘see with our whole body’.  What this means is that moving the body (like focusing above) also differentiates our contexts, although usually in fairly gross ways (moving my head changes the context for perceptual responding and language responding because I ‘see’ differentiate in new ways).

Finally, language responding is very specialized since it only changes our social world—it can only do anything to people who have learned that same language, that is its only effect on context.  Talking and thinking only affect people, not the objects they purport to reference.  So, this is mainly relevant to our social and cultural contexts but it is now probably our most frequent form of responding in modern life. Most of what we do as humans is language responding or differentiating contexts for language responding. We can do this in excess while sitting passively on a couch and not really ‘looking’ at anything except a screen.

Final comments and ideas.

  1. As adults we frequently use our language response system in lieu of motor perceptual responding. That is, when an adult ‘looks around’, the perceptual system is frequently about naming what we ‘see’ or telling stories about what we ‘see’, rather than carrying out a motor response. This can lead to certain problems in life.
  2. Situations of ‘reinforcement’ have very specialized conditions since most of the time what we do does not have the same effect on our contexts every time. This is very apparent in adult social and cultural behaviours, but less so with children and with acting in the world that is primarily motor responding. All it means is that we do some response which change the environment in a way which produces the original context almost exactly again. This is not frequent in real life, however.
  3. As adults, a lot of perceptual responding becomes routine and it takes ‘mindfulness’ training and similar things to (verbally) prompt new perceptual responding or at least, new differentiation of contexts.
  4. ‘Classical conditioning’ is when some perceptual responses directly change the context for other perceptual responses to behave in new ways (Guerin, 1991); for example, perhaps hearing  a bell and seeing food.
  5. More to come…or I will find a whole new way of talking about all this…



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