Simple and Complex Behavior

It’s not unusual to hear behavior or the circumstances surrounding it described as either “simple” or “complex.” Used to describe our human interactions, these terms often substitute in various ways for what we can and cannot do about behavior.

It’s often the case that, at given points in time, multiple aspects of the circumstances surrounding our actions interact to yield an effect. This strikes me as being a functional, experimental approach in which the behavior is empirically shown to be under the control of multiple variables. I would score this use of “complex” as appropriate and useful.

At other times one reads about “complex human behavior” as if such behavior is being contrasted to something “simpler,” but the dimensions that make human behavior complex as opposed to simple are not identified. When the dimensions are not identified this becomes a structural or formal approach to conceptualizing behavior: simply because a human does it, it is complex. Then there is the case where “complex” is used in an almost dismissive way as a substitute for taking the time to look closely at behavior and the conditions that surround it. 

Apropos to this last usage, complex and simple often too are matters of context and skills of the observer. Like a steep cliff free-climb or a 30-foot putt, something complex for one person may be less so for another with particular types of experience. A seasoned manager of people may be well-equipped to handle what she sees to be a simple personnel problem, while a less-experienced one may be overwhelmed by the complexity of the situation. Simple classroom problems in learning or computer code can appear much less simple to inexperienced teachers or computer programmers, respectively.

Labels like “simple” and “complex” too often serve to confuse and discourage rather than enlighten. Labeling something as simple can be dismissive and punishing of a person’s own efforts to solve a problem that proves anything but that for them. Labeling something complex can be a barrier to even trying to do or understand something.

Although these labels may have a small, useful place in our science, in general they are more harmful than helpful in advancing our understanding of behavior, substituting pat and dismissive or discouraging value judgments for a systematic analysis of the behavior that is needed to understand what humans say and do, and the conditions that promote or inhibit such actions. The skills of observing, analyzing and changing behavior for the good can be an important tool for whatever role we play in life. 

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.