What is Behavior?

This is a web site largely concerned with the advancement of behavior analysis, but what exactly do we mean by the word behavior? Dictionary definitions indicate that behavior is something an organism does. Simple enough. Doing is action, so action sometimes comes into the definition, such that behavior is the actions of organisms. 

We breathe. Is breathing behavior?  We say that we metabolize food, does that count as behavior?  What about other processes related to maintaining our physiology? Is the pupillary constriction that occurs when light is shined in our eyes behavior? You can begin to see some of the complexities of defining behavior, and we haven’t even talked about what are described as our cognitive functions – things like thinking, perceiving, and emoting. 

The complexities of defining behavior have long been appreciated by philosophers and psychologists alike. The French philosopher-mathematician Rene Descartes may have had the greatest influence on the modern definitions of behavior. For both political and scientific reasons, Descartes distinguished between involuntary and voluntary behavior, reserving the latter largely for humans so that they continue to be somehow “special” and more than mere “animals.”  He conceived of the reflex, a stimulus that invariably leads to a response – the proverbial knee-jerk response being but one example, another being the pupillary response to light noted above. Reflexes were seen as automatic or involuntary. 

Somewhere along the way, people added innate behavior to the mix, and innate behavior eventually became refined to fixed action patterns. Their separate status from reflexes had to do with the fact that they had more parts than reflexes and also were somewhat (a small somewhat in most cases) than simple reflexes. 

The voluntary-involuntary behavior distinction has always been a hot-button topic among psychologists, with some claiming that all behavior can be categorized as one type or the other (depending on who is doing the categorizing). Others find it useful to continue distinguish between the two, though the labels of “voluntary” and “involuntary” have, for many reasons, gone out of vogue.

The part of behavior of greatest interest to behavior analysts is that which historically been labeled voluntary, but it is now called operant behavior. Skinner picked the name because the behavior operates on the environment and consequences result. The label “voluntary” is not appealing in behavior analysis because it (a) implies that somehow the organisms chooses whether or not to emit (“volunteer”) the response and thus (b) fails to consider the role of environmental factors outside the person in originating behavior. Indeed, if the behavior is strictly initiated “at will” (or willy-nilly) by the person, then there is no need for an environment at all. I can simply decide, for example, to walk down the street naked if I so choose. Mmm, probably not. Environmental, cultural, and historical constraints make it unlikely that I will do this (much to the relief of many people, I am sure). Thus my behavior is not simply a function of my own internal self, but of a host of circumstances and consequences that exist outside of me the person. 

The distinctions between the three types of behavior I outline in this commentary are just the tip of the behavioral iceberg when it comes to understanding what we mean by the term “behavior.” I’ll follow up on these ideas in subsequent pieces where we will examine further whether internal states can be counted as operant behavior and the relation between innate behavior and operant 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.