Mechanics and Behavior

We’re a combination of levers; that’s how we move. 

Paul Vanderburgh, U. of Dayton Physiologist; Quoted in NY Times, November 5, 2012 (“Why Women Can’t Do Pull Ups”)  

Is man a machine? It’s an age-old question in philosophy, physiology, and psychology. Physiologists early on were divided into mechanists and vitalists, the latter being those who believed in a nonmechanical force that gave the body “life.” As you can imagine, this is a hot topic for philosophers and psychologists as well. A wellspring of thinking about the behavior of humans was the writing of sixteenth century French Philosopher René Déscartes. He suggested a distinction between mechanical and self-controlled behavior of humans.  In modern psychology, those distinctions became points on a continuum rather than a one-or-the-other dichotomy. Those with a neuroscience bent anchor on the mechanistic or reflexive side of the continuum and the so-called “humanistic” psychologists anchor on behavior as voluntary, under self-control. But what about behaviorists?  

Déscartes’s ideas about the reflex appeared in the early experimental work of Ivan Pavlov in Russia at the beginning of the 20th century. It wasn’t long after Pavlov’s work was reported in English that the father of behaviorism, John B. Watson, was supporting Pavlov’s methods in behavioral psychology. Enter B. F. Skinner, who distinguished reflexive or automatic behavior from operant behavior in 1937. The word ‘operant’ is important. It implies that the performer’s behavior operates on the environment. Skinner never considered man a machine or the behavior of humans as automatic or mechanical in the way we think about robots or characters as portrayed in the novel The Manchurian Candidate, conditioned to kill “reflexively” or automatically at the sight of the Queen of Hearts.

So, operant behavior is neither automatic nor mechanical, but what is it? It is orderly and not random or capricious. It is predictable. However, it is not predictable in a simple automatic way such that “if stimulus A occurs, response B will occur” kind of way, as in the way that a knee-jerk reflex occurs (tap the knee in the right spot, the leg kicks up).  Operant behavior is more subtle than that. In the presence of some stimulus (the letter A, for example), a predictable response  occurs (saying the letter “a”), but the relation between the two is not biomechanical like the knee jerk reflex nor is it “mentalistically mechanical,” occurring through some other-worldly mechanical connection between letters and sounds. The response “a” occurs because the environment in which we live (that includes parents, teachers, and others who instruct and reinforce actions on our part, including matching letters and sounds) selects certain responses for reinforcement in the presence of certain stimuli. The cause of operant behavior, then, is not mechanical connections but differential reinforcement through shaping.   

The sneaky and often confusing thing about behavior is that it can appear mechanical when in fact nothing could be further from the truth. We talk about doing things automatically or mechanically or “without thinking about them,” like brushing our teeth or dialing a phone number, but they are mechanical only as we describe them. The real force behind them is a history of learning as outlined above. We sometimes also refer to such automatic behavior as habits, which is an interesting topic on its own to be considered in a future commentary. 

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.