Talking about Intentions

My most recent Behavior Watch commentary described a scenario in which my eldest granddaughter was trying to persuade her pet Pug to cease disrupting our card game by plopping down on the floor in the middle of it with his stuffed toy chicken. Her solution to this problem was to take his stuffed chicken and toss it far from the playing field. Read the piece to see what happened thereafter! I described this part of the evening’s events thusly in the piece: “My eldest granddaughter whisked up the toy and tossed it into the other room.” I originally had added the phrase “to lure the Pug from the middle of our playing area.” I edited that italicized part out before posting the commentary. Why?

There were two reasons, one practical, and the other philosophical.

Practically, an attribution of intention seemed unnecessary because the story I was telling was about the effect of her action, not its intent. The effect was that the beast was lured off of the playing field. It didn’t matter why she did it, the fact is that her action was successful in allowing the game to continue.  

This is certainly not to say that what we call intentions do not matter in considering behavior. Of course they do, often anyway. It makes a difference whether I intentionally push you or my pushing you is because I am stumbling to catch myself from falling. Or whether the house flooded because your plumber intentionally used an inferior building product to save money versus having that massive flood because the plumber installed materials that he had no idea were inferior because the manufacturer failed to test the batch of widgets that he used to fix the original plumbing problem.   

My, second, philosophical objection is that intentions do not cause actions.  Intentions don’t cause actions because they are not entities or things or capable of causing anything, as we normally use the term “cause.” Intentions are just words that we use to describe certain kinds of relations between an organism’s behavior and its environment. They are indeed very powerful words because we assign such importance to them. As such they have a powerful effect on others. But, at the end of the day they remain just words, not homunculi or little Jiminy Crickets or any other kinds of agents residing inside of us, pulling our strings to action like some kind of behavioral Wizard of Oz in his magical control room.        

Intentions are simply words we use to describe environmental conditions or circumstances that lead to behavior. Whether a crime occurred depends not on the person’s mental state, but on the circumstances that preceded the action. Did the young man intentionally push his partner off the cliff or did he accidentally trip into her, causing her to tumble to her death? Oh, and by the way, three days ago he had taken out a $3,000,000 dollar insurance policy on her life and they weren’t getting along that well anyway. Rarely are intentions or the lack thereof quite so easily to establish, but you get the idea.

I don’t know what my granddaughter’s “intent” was when she tossed the toy. What I do know is that it had the immediate effect of moving her dog off of my cards, thereby allowing me to lose yet another game!     


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.