Explaining Why We Do What We Do: Reductionism as Passing the Buck

“Why is the sky blue, Daddy?” How many of us asked our Moms or Dads that one? “Why did she do THAT?” How many times have we asked that question as children AND as adults? Explanation is the Holy Grail of science, and with good reason. Explanations of our world and how it works are not only intellectually stimulating, they are useful in getting things done, from opening a checking account to sending a spaceship to Mars. That’s why I will be devoting several pieces to explanation.

Here, I want to talk about a strategy of explanation called reductionism. For me, reductionism is a way of explaining things by placing the cause at (or, in the case of behavior, passing the buck to) another level of understanding or analysis (Skinner called these “other levels of discourse”). Explanations of behavior often are made by reducing it down to brain activity (brain areas, neurotransmitters like dopamine), cognitive processes (like attention or arousal), or mental processes (like Freud’s psychodynamic mechanisms involving the id, ego, and superego). All of these are what I mean by other levels of analysis. They also can be false starts, with misleading outcomes that detract us from more useful explanations. 

“But,” you may say “surely you are not suggesting that behavior can occur without a brain?” “Of course not,” I would reply. I would add that the brain is as necessary a part of behavior as the eyes are a necessary part of seeing. “But,” I then would say, “eyes are not seeing.” As I note in another recent piece, more is involved in seeing than the mechanical physiology of eyes: one must have something to see, that is, stimuli within the physiological limits of the eyes; a history of reinforcement for seeing; and appropriate motivation for seeing. By the same token, the brain is not behavior. 

More is involved in behavior than just brain activity. Behavior requires a history of reinforcement, a supporting environment, and appropriate establishing or motivational conditions. It’s more than reasonable to say that behavior can’t exist without some kind of nervous system (controversial studies of simple learning by plants aside for the present). But to equate behavior with or to reduce behavior down to the brain is erroneous. No brain no behavior, but no environment no behavior, too. So, brain is necessary but not sufficient to account for behavior. Change the brain and you change behavior, certainly. But, change the environment and you change behavior, too! Psychotropic and psychoactive drugs change behavior for sure, but they do not do that in an environmental vacuum. Many experimental studies show how drug effects depend critically on environmental conditions. Mphetamine, for example, can stimulate or depress behavior depending on the conditions maintaining the behavior being observed. 

A tendency to reduce behavior down to something ‘else’ – to rely on reductionism to explain why we do what we do -- also raises the question of “where does it end?” So, we reduce behavior down to the brain, but where in the brain? When we find the appropriate brain structure, shall we look further into its anatomy and physiology to further reduce to the “true source” of the behavior? Or shall we change tacks and start reducing down to neurotransmitters as being the true source? Reductionism can become an endless regression, inviting questions as to its credibility as a way of explaining things. 

The very nature of explanation is another problem with reductionism. Reductionist thinking leads to searching for the explanation of behavior (e.g., in terms of a specific brain site or configuration of brain hardware or chemistry), which is to say the approach is structural. Examples of reductionist thinking abound in popular writings about business and business management, where cognitive, psychological, mentalistic and sometimes even neurological/neurochemical “explanations” of why good managers are good abound. I have written previously on the problems with deciding what constitutes an explanation of something. A pragmatic, functional approach to explanation is helpful.  Don’t look for the cause of behavior, but rather seek to find the variables that determine or control the behavior. This approach does not attempt to reduce behavior down to something else, but rather seeks to find out what things in the environment change the behavior under study, in terms of such things as the behavior’s frequency, magnitude, or quality.  

Writing in 1913, John Watson, the father of behaviorism, observed that, from his perspective “behavior must stand alone as a wholly separate and independent science” rather than allowing its subject matter to be reduced to mentalistic explanations based on the study of consciousness. Watson’s valuable insight continues as a foundation of the modern science of behavior. Rather than passing the buck by reducing behavior down to something decidedly nonbehavioral, the buck stops at the level of the environment in which the behavior is observed.     

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.