Behavioral History

The current behavior of living creatures is determined by four things: the creature’s phylogeny (evolutionary history), its current physiological state, the current contingencies impinging on it, and its behavioral history. Let’s take a look at this last one. It is sometimes used casually as a catch-all category for “explaining” behavior when we can’t relate current actions to current circumstances (i.e., contingencies). As such it is a throw-away category that nominally accounts for everything we can’t otherwise “explain,” but therefore “explains” nothing.

The real problem with behavioral history is that we can’t see it. And that’s, obviously, because it is no longer there – gone with the wind, as it were. This is where part of the problem lies, because we tend to infer history from present circumstances in relation to behavior. Can’t understand why you aren’t getting the behavior you want and the person needs even though you’ve tried a dozen things to make it happen? Must be something about the person’s past that is the reason. And it is here that one takes a critical turn: the inference is that it is the history that is responsible for (that causes) the present behavior. When this happens, behavioral history takes on the same form, and function, as cognition (thinking). An inference from behavior that then becomes its cause. Hmmm - been there, done that. Inference is not good enough—but understanding past behavior and its effects on present behavior is important.

So, what can we do about it? One thing is to conduct an experimental analysis, a functional analysis, of the relation between past circumstances and present behavior, something that some of us are doing. This is good in a scientific sense, because it allows us to map the direct connections between the past and the present. It isn’t a practical solution, however, because there is too much history (and it increases with every passing moment of our lives) to study in this way. But the approach is a useful path to a better understanding of how, in a general sense, historical variables really work on present behavior. It also should be noted that is that in many instances, though certainly not always, current contingencies trump past ones in terms of their contributions to present behavior. Sometimes, though, the more interesting cases are those where the past trumps the present, as in post-traumatic stress disorders.  

Besides an experimental analysis, maybe we should rethink how we think about behavioral history. Instead behavioral history being a “thing” that exists somewhere in the nether land pushing and pulling the strings of current behavior hither and yon, history is our current behavior. It often is said that people respond differently because of their different histories, but all that really is said by this statement is that people respond differently. The fact that they respond differently simply means that we need to arrange current circumstances/contingencies differently to help different people. Unless we can isolate a functional relation between past experience and current behavior, we don’t add anything useful to the equation by either inferring a hypothetical history or attributing behavior to it.

The experimental analysis of behavioral history is a very important topic because it will allow us the opportunity to better arrange current contingencies to help people. But to make behavioral history a “thing” that reaches across time to control behavior or to look for behavior in a “place” is no better than looking for the mythical Shangri-la. 

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.