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3. Mentalism

There is a fairly simple but important point to be made when analysing the behavioural stream. What is happening inside an organism at the moment of observation is not to be treated as an explanation for that observation.

That is to say, the data observed at any point in time are to be treated as data, nothing else.

Strange as it may seem, though, this point is often ignored, with serious consequences for the development of explanations of behaviour. It is often the case, for instance, that events inside an organism are treated as explanations and not as data.

The cover picture above illustrates this way of thinking as the "wall of mentalism" stands in the way of a full "analysis" of behaviour.

Movie 3.1 summaries this point. When this basic argument is ignored the analysis of behaviour is additionally blocked by the circular reasoning of a language trap.

The next series of movies was designed to illustrate examples of circular reasoning that is the hallmark of mentalism. This time the focus is on you. We will show you how easy it is to slip into a mentalistic analysis. Watch Adam and Julia (Movie 3.2) and jot down a few words you might use to talk about the cartoon character called Adam as he interacts with Julia.

Now compare your words with those obtained from a class of 100 undergraduate students. Movie 3.3 was edited and we inserted the words that were used most often by these students.

The most obvious conclusion is that a lot of words were generated after watching the choreography of a very simple animation. Your own words may or may not have appeared. However, the words you used will have a bearing on how your own learning history has led you to use them when summarising your observations. Movie 3.4 picks up this point and shows you that the words used are called ‘summary labels’.

Movie 3.5 shows the circular reasoning that is typical of a mentalistic analysis. The mistake in mentalism as it applies to Adam in this scene is to use the same words to both describe and explain his behaviour. For example, firstly Adam’s behaviour might be
described as ‘cheeky’ and then his behaviour is subsequently explained by saying that he behaves that way because he is ‘cheeky’. In other words, it is said that Adam was cheeky because he was cheeky!

Clearly this is nonsense, but it is a powerful illusion nonetheless, and one that most of us fall prey to when explaining behaviour. Think, for example, of a time you may have noticed a child in a shop having a temper tantrum at the check-out because his mother wouldn’t buy some sweets. You could say that this is an example of ‘spoilt’ behaviour, but it would be a mistake to try and explain that same behaviour by saying the child behaved that way because he is ‘spoilt’. Another example might be a case where you watch a professional potter turning a beautiful vase. You could describe her doing this as an example of ‘skilful’ behaviour, but it would be a mistake to explain her behaviour by saying she did this because she was a ‘skilful’.

In each of these examples, notice what has happened as a result of the circular reasoning. The search for an explanation has halted prematurely. It appears as if you’ve gotten your explanation so there is no need to ask any further questions, for example, about the quality of training the potter had undergone.

Another aspect of the mistake of mentalism concerns the way we put explanations ‘inside a person’. We tend to ‘mind read’ and yet we know that nobody can really read another person’s mind. We don’t notice that it is our own thoughts we are ‘reading’, not those of another person; of course, we can feel empathy, but this is different from actually ‘reading’ another person’s mind. By way of illustration, look again at the lesson from the animation with Adam.

In Movie 3.6 the argument against looking inside an organism for an explanation is very striking. There is absolutely nothing inside this cartoon character (i.e., no nervous system, no brain). Consequently, it seems obvious that the use of these words in the attempt to explain his behaviour tells us more about the education of the people who used these words than about what is going on in Adam’s head; and if
you used any of these words, or similar words, this conclusion applies to you also.

When this simple animation was designed there were two goals. One was to create something that stimulated the
production of words by you! The second was to provide a context that alerted you to the role played by the learning history of the observer in a scientific analysis; more on this later. This argument holds true even if Adam had been a real person. Even if we had all the information we might ever need about what is happening inside a person at the moment of observation, in the context of the behavioural stream we would have to conclude that these data themselves would require explaining because they constitute part of the process of change recorded at that moment in time.

So, where does the mistake of mentalism come from? That is a difficult question to answer, but let us point you in one direction by looking at an example of how parents encourage mentalism in children. Look at Movie 3.7 showing a ‘Mummy turtle’ and her ‘Baby’ and write a few sentences outlining what you might say if you were using this toy in play with a child. Compare, then, your story with the examples listed below and see if you can detect examples of mentalism in these stories.

Stories produced by students:

"This is the mummy and baby turtle and they are running to each other to give each other a hug. The mummy turtle lifts the baby turtle to hug him and look after it. She is going to take the baby turtle to their home. She loves her baby and is looking after it like all mothers like to do. |

"This little green turtle is the mummy turtle and in her arms is her baby. The baby gets away from the mummy. Look, the mummy runs after the baby and brings her wee baby back safely into her arms. Mummy turtle doesn't want her baby to get lost or get harmed so she's minding him very carefully - just like I mind you."

In each of the above stories the impression created is that the toys are sentient beings. Even though the reasons given for behaviour are not always directly stated, a child exposed to any of these stories would be left thinking that some psychological phenomenon happening inside the turtles explained what was observed.

Movie 3.8 summarises the process involved in generating mentalistic explanations of behaviour.

Next we will look at the value of experimentation to expose mentalism. If you saw a goose reaching out to pull in an egg into its nest, what sort of explanation would you propose for its behaviour? Think about that for a moment and then compare your explanation with explanations produced by a number of students who were shown a video of this behaviour.

Explanations produced by students:
The goose feels a closeness with the egg and wants to protect it and keep it warm.

A goose is trying to encourage the egg to hatch out by the rolling motion and vibrating with its beak.

Mother puts the egg into the nest to protect it.

Click on the button 'Lorenz' to see an example of the value of conducting experiments to address what you consider to be an explanation for behaviour. The experimenter here is a famous Ethologist called Konrad Lorenz. In this clip Lorenz does something very simple, he removes the egg from beneath the goose's beak. (By the way, he was able to get this close to the goose because the goose had imprinted on him when it was a gosling.) The goose, however, continued drawing in the now invisible egg into its nest. This observation was entirely unexpected at the time because, like the students' responses shown earlier, scientists formulated explanations for the goose's behaviour by inventing some psychological term and then referring to it as an explanation (e.g., intentionality). As it turns out, this egg retrieving behaviour is genetically programmed. It is comprised of a number of components and is called a 'Fixed Action Pattern' (FAP). Importantly, the appearance of these FAP's depends on environmental cues being present. They sometimes appear when other behaviours are being trained (Instinctive Drift).

Go back now to the list of explanations provided earlier and examine the illusions created by a mentalistic analysis. At the very least, all the explanations suggest that the goose engaged in the behaviour BECAUSE it 'had an understanding of what it should do'. That is, the explanations produced by the students all point to some inner entity or process to explain the observation. But how do these suggestions fit with the findings from the results of Lorenz's experiment? In fact, the explanations produced by the students have all been rendered meaningless; their explanatory power disappeared when the egg disappeared. The goose did not feel a closeness to an invisible egg and was not bringing the invisible egg into the nest to keep it warm!

The lesson, then, is that we can be seduced into inventing explanations to such an extent that we fail to see the need to search for the real explanations of an observation. Experimentation provides an avenue to escape this dead end along with an understanding of mentalism. The button ‘Egg rolling’ shows further examples of behaviour that also challenge the assumptions of the students.

Clever Hans
What would you say to someone if they told you that they knew of a horse that could do Mathematics? Hopefully you would ask to see this horse for yourself to validate this assertion. Well, there was such a horse, Hans, who caused quite a stir in the late 19th century (see button 'Hans'). After much deliberation by a number of professionals, including scientists and a magician, the explanation for the horse’s apparent cleverness was uncovered. It turned out that the owner was unwittingly using cues to control the horse’s responses.

Again, the point to be made here is that people readily invent mentalistic explanations for behaviour but are not aware of doing so.

Mentalistic explanations of behaviour involve circular arguments that generate illusions, not explanations of behaviour. Importantly, by doing so they act as barriers to further analysis because the observer thinks s/he already has an explanation. The implications are quite considerable, especially for those who have some degree of jurisdiction over the lives of others. If a person cannot identify those occasions when s/he engages in mentalism, s/he may well end up with assumptions about the explanation for the behaviour of other people.

Mentalism is perhaps the greatest obstacle to the uptake of a Natural Science of behaviour.

Every introductory textbook in Psychology pedals myths about behaviour analysis because of the lack of training in the role of mentalism in science discourse. There are two common ones.

  • It is said that the science promotes the notion that people are born as blank slates, and the most misguided and offensive one is the suggestion that behaviour analysis promotes the idea that people are empty Black Boxes.

  • It is said that behaviourism considers 'what is happening inside' as unimportant. This view stems from a failure to appreciate that criticisms of mentalism are synonymous with criticisms of a failure to recognise circular arguments in the development of explanations.

Movie 3.9, 'Black Box', was designed to tackle head on the nonsense that is part and parcel of training for most undergraduate Psychology students. Movie 3.10 emphasises the problem with explanatory fictions.

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