Some Ins and Outs of Private Events

No one can deny as an individual having experiences, most commonly described as thoughts and feelings, which are not shared with others. Nor can we unequivocally show that others have such experiences that are similar to ours; however, it is reasonable to assume that they do. These unshared experiences are described as private events. At some level, private events are physical events, in the same way that our overt responses are physical in that they relate to our anatomy and physiology.

Some have suggested that private events can be reduced to/measured as physiological events. This may be true, but it raises two other issues. One is that once measured a private event is no longer private. If the private event is a physiological event and we measure it then it is no longer private, it is observable by all. The other is that different private experiences may not be distinguished by physiological measurement. Many emotions, for example, share similar physiological states. It also is sometimes suggested that our verbal descriptions can be taken as evidence of a private event. As with physiological events, verbal behavior is not private – once spoken the verbal response is public. Furthermore, although verbal behavior used to describe private events can be taught, we often have no way of verifying the connection between the private experience and the verbal report of that experience. I may, for example, use the word “severe” to describe a level of pain that is physiologically identical to the pain another person would describe as “mild.” Many things can account for the differences in our verbal reports of what could be the same private experience.

Others conceptualize private events as being like any other behavioral system, but operating at a private level, observable only to the person experiencing them. Still others have suggested, that while private experiences exist, since we can’t measure or otherwise determine their status, they should be not be considered in a science of behavior based on understanding how observable factors in the environment affect behavior. These folks don’t want to place a private event in the position of mediating and modifying the relation between the external environment and behavior. The basic position is that if we can look far enough back in a person’s history of interacting with the environment, we don’t need to invoke a private event to explain what they are doing.

The critical question is not whether people experience things that others do not – we can reasonably assume that they do. It is whether these private events are part of a chain of events that cause behavior. That is, does the environment trigger a private event that in turn triggers a response? Or is it the case that the direct functional relations between present and historical antecedent events occasion the behavior without a mediating private event?

One thing private events cannot be is the fallback or fail-safe position. We can’t invoke them as an explanation or cause of behavior when we can’t find a cause in the external environment and exclude them from consideration when we can find an external cause. Theoretically speaking, private events either play a causative role in behavior whenever behavior occurs or they do not play a role in behavior at any time.

The role of private events remains a controversial, even contentious issue among behavior analysts. What role do you assign to private events in determining behavior? 

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.