Round and Round

A pigeon landed on the balcony of our 15th floor apartment tonight. In my response to my wife’s musing as to why it keeps coming back to our specific balcony, I casually replied “habit.” In so saying, I made what scientists call a “nominal error.” “Explaining by naming,” of course, is not really an explanation at all. Our only evidence of habit is returning to the balcony, so he returns to the balcony because he returns to the balcony. Sounds silly, no?

And yet, how many times a day do we all fall into the nominal fallacy trap at work and play. Our grandson is a good athlete because he has athletic ability and our office manager is a good manager because she has managerial ability. The clear implication is that ability is causing the behavior. But what is the evidence for that ability? The fact that the grandson is a good athlete and the manager is a good manager. So good performance on the soccer field and in the office occurs because good performance on the soccer field and in the office occurs! Sounds silly, no?

Examples of explaining behavior by renaming it can be found in oh so many places of work and other human endeavor. We avoid tasks because they take a lot of effort, making the effort the cause of our avoidance. But, how do we know the job is effortful? Why, because we avoid it. Gregarious people are often said to have good social skills, and these social skills are the basis –that is, the cause-of their gregariousness. But how do we know they are socially skilled? Well, because they are so gregarious. And round and round we go, using made-up psychological traits to explain the very actions that define them.

Words like “leadership,” “athleticism,” “social skills,” “gregariousness” “habit,” and “effort” can be useful ones for summarizing groups or types of behavior. We use them all the time, as we do others like “memory,” “personality,” “emotion,” and a host of others that are part of everyone’s everyday vocabulary. Their use is valuable and inescapable in our society. Their use, however, is one of summarizing groups of interrelated human actions. Using these words to “explain” behavior really explains nothing. A more productive strategy is to search for the causes of behaviors that carry such labels as safe practices, leadership, and business savvy in the environment in which the behavior occurs. That environment includes not only the present circumstances, but also the history of both individuals and institutions. Thus, a manager’s leadership is not caused by a “leadership skill” but the skill itself is caused by a history of reinforcement of  a complex of behavior that we label “good leadership.” 

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.