Agency, Labels, and Changing Behavior

“You don’t pay attention.”   “You are not paying attention.”

There is a subtle but important distinction between these two descriptions. Can you identify the difference?

labels and changing behaviorIn the first case, the lack of paying attention is treated as a general attribute of the person – the person is inattentive, while in the second the lack of attention is treated as behavior that the person is not engaging in. In the latter, there is no characterization of the person as “inattentive,” it is simply a matter of not doing something (that, in this case, was expected). It is the difference between telling someone “he is a bad boy” versus telling them “what he did was bad.”

I have discussed before the problem of person-labeling and the importance of distinguishing between labeling the person and the behavior as “bad” or “inattentive” or whatever other label one might apply. Beyond the problem of setting up self-fulfilling prophecies about the person such that many of their actions are interpreted within the framework of the label (“Well, I am not surprised Billy broke it, he is careless and inattentive”), labels have another adverse effect. As in the quotation in the last sentence, the label becomes a thing that is the agent or cause of the behavior. Billy broke the object because he does not pay attention to what he is doing.

The logical problem here is that the evidence of Billy’s inattention is breaking something. But the reason he broke the object is because he is inattentive. Why is Billy inattentive? Because he breaks things. We therefore must conclude that Billy is inattentive because he is inattentive. This circular reasoning is illogical and unacceptable as an explanation of Billy’s behavior.

When the label becomes the cause of the behavior, it is said to be the agent of the behavior. Many people commonly attribute behavior to internal agents, both general and specific: “snootiness” or “aloofness” can be the agent of failures to respond to social cues of others, “intelligence” or the lack thereof can be the agent for being able to solve complicated math problems or construct intricate models of things, and “creativity” can be the agent behind someone composing a symphony or painting a memorable scene. In fact, these presumed agents are not agents at all – they are merely labels for what the person has done, in the same way that Billy’s inattentiveness is simply a label for behavior and not its cause.

Considering the person as the agent of their own behavior means that to change the behavior we have to somehow change the person, or maybe “the person within the person” that is causing the behavior (often described as the “self”). Because these “agents” really aren’t anything more than labels for behavior, it makes far more sense to focus on changing behavior. Sure, it is the person who is “doing” the behavior, but the causes of the person’s behavior are in the environment, not in some mysterious inner agent that no one understands. If anything, the environment is the agent of the behavior, not a little person inside the person pulling the strings in some Wizard of Oz-like scenario. By recognizing that the environment that surround the person, the consequences, the behavioral history reinforced or punished by conditions of the environment, we have a much more effective way of changing behavior—all without blaming the person. If the behavior is inattentive or bad or whatever, the first question to ask is “what is the behavior I would like to see in this situation?” Once we know that, then we can go about the business of identifying how we might change the environment to bring it about.


Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.