Help Your Self

The self appears frequently in psychological literature. It is one of Freud’s three structures of human personality and appears in most other personality theories in one form or another, as well as in popular writings about psychology. Go to any large bookstore, bricks and mortar or virtual, and you will find a plethora of “pop psychology” advice about how to change one’s self or some troubling part of one’s self. The self also is a frequent topic of discussion among behavior analysts, although we put a different spin on it.

Freud and many other personality theorists consider the “ego,” or whatever other name they assign the self to be, an agent - something residing somewhere within us humans that guides and directs our behavior;a sort of Jiminy Cricket or Wizard of Oz pulling strings and levers behind the scene to move us hither and yon.  Behavior analysts generally question the utility of such a notion of self as agent. The self, however, frequently is referenced in behavioral circles.

There is, for example, an extensive literature on self-control, where the term describes how our choices are affected by long and short-term consequences and how environments might be arranged to optimize control by one or the other of these types of consequences. We also find a considerable amount written about achieving self-management of everything from exercise and weight loss to finishing that long unfinished book or painting.  Although this research is presented in the context of “self,” self is not an agent of change. The individual is indeed changed, but the change comes from rearranged environments to yield more effective or less disruptive behavior. When the arranging is done by the person who is being changed the reference is to self-control or self-management. In these circumstances, however, the individual is using techniques that have passed muster as having scientific validity under well controlled conditions.  What is being changed by these techniques is behavior, including the behavior of what the person says about the behavioral changes.

As for the help-your-self advice of pop psychology, it has to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. I would interpret the advice that works not in terms of changing an inner self, but as providing tools that allow a person to change their circumstances along the lines described in the preceding paragraph.  These powerful techniques derive not from anecdotal testimonials of success, but from solid scientific research. Arguing for changes in the self, versus changes in circumstances, is not simply a matter of semantics. Behavior problems are serious business for those who have them, and for those who interact with the person with such problems. It thus is important to understand why things that we try work. Rather than mindlessly (so to speak) attributing the change in behavior to the changes in the person, which seems hopelessly circular, seeing how changes in one’s circumstances lead to life changes can provide useful tools not just for the person being changed, but hold out the possibility of others implementing similar changes to change their own, similar, problem behavior.

(For more on a behavior-analytic view of the self, see: B. F. Skinner (1978), Reflections on behaviorism and society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.)


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.