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4. Contingencies

A proverb of Chinese origin says that even the longest journey begins with a single step. This is true also in respect of the evolution of a scientific framework.

As far as Behaviour Analysis is concerned some of the steps that mark its beginnings are conceptual in nature. Of these, two of the most important involve the notions of 'prediction' and 'control'.

These terms are central to the scientific methodology devised by behaviour analysts and they have their basis in two of the most fundamental and often glossed over facts about all forms of life.

First, along the continuum between conception and death (about 36,792,000 minutes for an average human life span) for every living entity patterns appear which make each life distinctive. These patterns include varieties of physical structures that develop over time as well as characteristic ways in which each living entity interacts with the world around it.

Second, these patterns are not static but involve varying rates of change once they have become established. In fact, change is a defining feature of life. These two facts, change and the development of distinctive individual patterns, are echoed by the results of scientific investigations conducted by natural scientists.

The questions they ask are usually concerned with how different bits and pieces of an organism develop (i.e., how different bodily structures develop), how they do different things (i.e., how they differ in function) and how all this activity is co-ordinated to produce a unique organism-environment interaction.

Across the different domains that make up the natural sciences, a variety of techniques have been devised to answer these questions. These answers are facts that constitute what are called ‘natural laws’.

They are not theories about what might be happening, or beliefs about what might have been responsible for something happening. Rather, they are facts about the ways in which changes in a biological system observed across intervals of time are related to the conditions which exist during those times.

The terms 'prediction' and 'control' play a rather simple and obvious role in the collection of these facts.

For example, if it is discovered that a particular organism reliably changes in specific ways under certain conditions, then we can talk about 'prediction' in the following manner. We can say it is to be predicted that similar organisms will change in similar ways under similar circumstances.

In effect, when an observation can be restated as a prediction that is verified subsequently we are a little closer to finalising our picture of how a particular kind of organism 'works'. We saw a simple example of this when we looked at a Fixed Action Pattern in a goose.

Throughout the experimentation that is necessary to clarify our understanding of how an organism works a simple strategy is adopted, the experimenter 'controls' the conditions under which the organism is observed.

In other words, when scientists are interested in finding out how an organism changes when certain conditions prevail, they arrange for those conditions to occur and then they observe the organism. Further experimentation proceeds from this beginning by changing only one aspect of the conditions at a time.

Any subsequent changes observed in the organism are related directly to the new changes made to the initial conditions. Notice, now, that the analysis is not of a person separated from their environment but of an organism (with a genetic history) interacting with, and inseparable from, the environment in which it is observed.

When a scientist is of the view that a certain general principle is responsible for some pattern of behaviour, an experimental procedure can be designed to assess the validity of this conclusion.

The way to do this is to arrange for the occurrence of specific organism-environment interactions to see if a specific pattern(s) of behaviour appears subsequently. The general principle that is uncovered will be phrased in such a way as to reflect how control of the organism-environment interactions produces a pattern of behaviour. In other words, a functional relation will be described thus:

Control - the consequence of controlling organism- environment interactions in a way called X

Prediction - is that a pattern of behaviour called Y is likely to appear.

To appreciate the significance of this way of conducting scientific investigations consider the following. Imagine a scientist had arranged for certain organism-environment interactions to occur and as a result had established a pattern of behaviour in that organism.

What do you think would happen if the scientist brought someone (i.e., someone who was not a natural scientist) to view this organism? How might this person talk about what s/he sees? Because s/he would not be aware that patterns of behaviour can be controlled their formulation of an explanation for the organism's behaviour would be entirely different from the explanation produced by the scientist.

To complicate matters, we have already seen how a common-sense view of the world leads us in the wrong direction when mentalism finds its way into the analysis of behaviour.

To help make this analysis a little more concrete, we’ll look now at some patterns of behaviour in two different organisms, a pigeon and a student.

Look first at this vintage footage of B. F. Skinner (Movie 4.1) as he shapes a simple pattern of behaviour in a pigeon.

Movie 4.1 Shaping a pigeon's behaviour

In this next piece of footage (Movie 4.2) you will see a student's behaviour being shaped in a similar way.

Now let’s examine the behavioural stream shown in each of the previous two movies. We’ll start with the behaviour of the pigeon (Movie 4.1).

Figure 4.1 shows that over a period of time specific consequences followed the behaviour of the pigeon.

In Figure 4.2 we see that the same analysis applies to Movie 4.2.

Figure 4.1
Figure 4.2

Regarding the explanation for the pigeon’s behaviour, we see that if consequences had not been arranged across time in the way that they were, the pigeon would not have turned in a circle!

This means that the pigeon’s behaviour is explained by referring to these environmental consequences. To be more precise, because the consequences were attached to behaviours via an IF-THEN relation (i.e., a contingency; IF this behaviour, THEN this consequence), it is the presence of this contingency that explains the eventual behaviour.

Logically, the same argument holds for the explanation of the student’s behaviour.

Although the behaviours in this instance were fairly arbitrary, they were real nevertheless. And what you saw was that when you know how to control contingencies you are in a position to be able to predict the behavioural outcome (see Movie 4.3 for more details on the design issues associated with shaping).

Movie 4.3: Organism

This is a huge leap beyond the sort of mentalistic analyses we discussed previously. Interestingly, in this instance the analysis of the behaviour of two different organisms with different genetic histories is conducted with the same logic.

Although this is an obvious conclusion, as we shall see later, the ramifications are extensive. From a scientific point of view, it means that we should bypass traditional kinds of explanations and develop a conceptual framework that incorporates reference to contingencies in the analysis of behaviour.

Figure 4.3 captures the essence of this approach. What it says is the following. In the analysis of behaviour, whatever the organism being studied (see Movie 4.4 on the use of the word ‘Organism’), once you understand the contingencies that operate you can then understand why the behaviour appears in the way it does.

Figure 4.3

There are, of course, more complicated contingencies in the real world than those shown here. For now, note the watershed we have reached.

We are saying that explanations are to be found in the way interactions with the environment are organised. It is a short step from here to exploring the practical and philosophical implications that unfold thereafter.

To conclude
Although you have been introduced to Mentalism and the role of Contingencies in the shaping of behaviour, the chances are that, given the opportunity, you will still be seduced by the familiarity of traditional ways of explaining behaviour.

Enjoy learning more in the additional video resources and readings.