Prediction and Control of Behavior

The year 2013 marked the centennial of the publication of one of psychology’s most important papers. In 1913, John Broaddus Watson wrote “Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist” (The Psychological Review, 20, pp.  158-177). It was the psychological world’s equivalent of the Declaration of Independence – a clear break with an older psychology with roots in Europe.  Just as America’s forefathers laid out their vision of America in that historical document, Watson laid out what he envisioned as the future of psychology. Writing in broad terms, he criticized a psychology mired in subjectivity and the problems of that elusive entity, the mind. Why not instead, he asked, focus on things we can know objectively, through the methods of objective science. Be bold, break with the old ideas and focus on what we can see: behavior. Just as did the Declaration of Independence, Watson’s article heralded a revolution, the implications of which still echo through the years (Click here for a collection of scholarly reviews of the impact of Watson’s work on contemporary psychology).

Watson said many prescient things in that article, now called the behaviorist manifesto, including a discussion of prediction and control. Watson’s opening salvo was that “Psychology as the behaviorist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science. Its theoretical goal is the prediction and control of behavior” (italics added). The italicized phrase has become anathema to nonbehaviorists inside and outside of psychology. Behaviorists, by contrast, hold to the idea of prediction and control as a defining feature of psychology, or most other experimental sciences for that matter.  Let’s examine what prediction and control are about.

First, being able to predict something doesn’t necessarily mean we can control it. Earthquakes and hurricanes make the point. To predict something, however, does seem to imply an understanding of its controlling variables - the things that make it happen or not.  Control implies prediction - if we can control something we can tell, that is predict, when it will occur. Prediction doesn’t imply that we can command the things (variables) necessary to make it happen, but we do understand those variables. Often if we know how to control something we can make it occur. Knowing about combustion (the controlling variables of fire) allows us to predict that if certain things happen, fire will be the outcome.

Second, prediction and control apply as much to human behavior as to other natural events, which, within limits at least, can be predicted and controlled.  Insult a man’s wife or girlfriend and, well, you know what is likely to happen! We also can control the behavior: insult the significant other and you may get punched or worse.  Hold your tongue and a different outcome is likely.

Third, there is nothing nefarious about prediction and control.  It is a simple matter of knowing what causes what, or, more appropriately, what the functional relations are between someone doing something and what happens next.  We predict and control all of the time: teachers, chefs, sous-chefs, Army colonels, teachers, bosses, practically everyone tries to influence someone in their lives in the manner of understanding their buttons and pressing them, speaking metaphorically. It’s just that we don’t talk about it in such direct terms.

The problem is not prediction and control, which are as much a part of our natural environment as is the sun. The problem is the potential for abuse once these functional relations are known. Teachers and bosses on power trips often make life a living hell for students and employees because they can predict and control behavior. Behaviorists recognize, of course, the potentials for abuse – potentials that did not come about because of Watson but existed in human interactions long before behaviorism was conceived by Watson. Casting aspersions on behaviorism for aspiring to prediction and control of behavior is like shooting the messenger – all Watson, and behaviorism, did is to clearly identify an important element in human social interactions.

So what is the solution to abuses of prediction and control? It is countercontrol, according to observers like Perry London, writing in Behavior Control (1969, Harper). Empowering the powerless restores an equilibrium to the behavioral system that is sorely lacking when one person has too much power, or control. 

It is precisely because of its understanding of the prediction and control of behavior that modern behaviorism has been able to contribute to bettering the human condition, be it safety in the workplace, enriched lives for children with autism, educating our young, or a host of other human activities. Behaviorists also have contributed significantly to the understanding of controlling prediction and control. And it all started with Watson and his behaviorist manifesto.

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.