By STEPHEN F. LEDOUX
A Los Alamos member of The International Behaviorology Institute
Why these columns? Because human behavior causes global problems and solving these problems requires changes in human behavior. So everyone needs to know something about the natural science of human behavior.
As described in a previous column, being able to spot fictional explanations for behavior provides a skill that prevents analysis errors when trying to understand the causes of behaviors, including problem behaviors, from local to global. Here we consider another type of explanatory fiction. Again, our most fundamental objection to fictitious accounts is not that they are fictional, but that such accounts are irrelevant to scientific knowledge and applications about behavior.
Today’s not–so–common, yet subtle as well as confusing, fictional explanation for behavior, is called teleology. The term refers to the study of “future causes.” These are causes that supposedly occur in the future with respect to the effect that they are causing.
But the future, by definition, has not yet happened, so no future event can cause a present event. This is not to say that the present has no effect on the future. This is only to say that an event in the future cannot cause an event in the present, because the future event has not yet happened and so cannot have the measurable status required of scientific causes.
We refer to these future causes as teleological causes, and they constitute yet another type of explanatory fiction that cannot explain anything. You often find teleological causes imbedded with a phrase like, “in order to.” For instance, “He cleaned up his apartment in order to keep his parents happy when they arrive for a visit.” Or, “She cooked a special meal in order to please her special friend.”
While not covering causes for the behavior, these examples actually describe good contingencies between some behavior and some consequence. Some parental happiness is contingent upon a clean apartment. Some pleasure of a special friend is contingent upon a special meal. But what makes the consequence work involves the effects of past, and usually unacknowledged, contingencies.
Again, when you see or hear, “…to…” or “…in order to…,” you very likely have a teleological fictitious account occurring. The example I used in my classes is one dear to my students’ hearts. They study a lot and, as a result, earn good grades (well, most of them anyway; after all, by design most behaviorology courses apply, in the teaching of the course, the same science that the course teaches to the students, the science about expanding behavior repertoires while also making them more precise).
Those good grades show a valid connection between present and future, between behavior and consequence. Good grades are indeed contingent on studying hard, and studying hard produces good grades. But just what causes students to study? When I ask them that, among their good answers is always some variation of the poor answer, “Why, to get good grades, of course!” But getting good grades later cannot be the cause of studying hard now, because the grades are in the future. They have not yet happened. (And will not happen, unless the students study hard. Confusing, yes?)
A claim that “getting good grades at the end of the term causes careful and thorough study now” is teleological, as is claiming that, “I study hard in order to get good grades.” Both statements exemplify teleological fictitious explanations of behavior.
Before discussing with my students some of the actual causes of their studying efforts, I provide them a more complete account for why good final grades at the end of the term cannot cause their study behavior during the term. This account relates events that could actually occur on their campus (but luckily never did).
Faculty submit grades by taking their grade sheet to the administration building where the registrar keys the grades into the most secure computer on campus. From there the students get the grades some days later. Consider the fall semester.
The campus entrance road has a fork where one way takes you past the campus maintenance center while the other way takes you past the administration building. Now, the term ends in December, often with a few feet of snow on the ground and some ice on the road.
A tanker truck arrives on campus to deliver a load of fuel to the maintenance center, but it takes the wrong fork and, slipping on the ice, crashes into the administration building while I am there turning in my grades. I am gone, the grades are gone, the computer is gone, even the records of the students’ enrollment in the course are gone.
The students never get the grades! Yet all semester long, on a nearly daily basis, they worked at their studies earning the good grades that never got delivered. Why did they study? The cause could not be getting the good grades, since the grades were in the future, and never occurred anyway. Such teleology is a fictional explanation.
When the students are done giggling over my fate, we discuss some of the possible real causes of their studying efforts. These pertain mainly to past causal variables, because many present ones, concerning mostly evocative stimuli particular to each student, involve complexities that we cover later in their course (just as they may occur in later columns).
The past variables are ones that affect essentially everyone who ever attended elementary school. By the time these students enter college, most of them have extensive conditioning histories, spread nearly daily over 12 or more years, wherein academic work of varying qualities produced a variety of consequences. Many consequences made such academic work either increase in rate, or at least maintain the then current rate (that is, these consequences earned the label “reinforcing”).
Those reinforcing consequences ranged from stars and stickers for attempts and improvements in cursive letter forms and simple math facts and problems, in early grades, to compliments and letter–grade marks on completed homework assignments and tests, and marking period grades and final grades, at high school levels.
Those are facts about how nature works. Like global warming, they still hold even if denied and, sadly, some educational commentators have tried to mislead teachers by denying them.
That history of educational consequences leaves students physically changed such that most assignments now successfully evoke, as real, testable causes, the appropriate study efforts that should produce, at the end of the term, good final grades.
The scientific inadequacy of teleological causes has no effect on the very real contingent connections between present and future events. Good grades are still contingent on good study. That is, because past good study produced good grades that occurred after the study, current assignments evoke present good study that produces good grades that may be delivered in the future.
That is what causes present good study. The future good grades are not causing the present good study. Saying so, as in “Students study in order to get good grades,” rates as a teleological fictitious explanation. Actually, the future good grades, if they occur, contribute to causing good studying after they occur.
Again, we sometimes talk as though our biggest objection to explanatory fictions is that they do not exist. However, our most strenuous objection is that they are irrelevant. They lack manipulable, independent–variable status. People have no access to change them in ways that bring about a change in the behavior they supposedly cause.
One can claim that changing something else, such as an environmental variable, changes the fictitious variable, which then changes behavior in the sense of A causing B, and B causing C. But then the relation is similar to relations in mathematics: A causes C, and the middle term is at least unnecessary.
Another problem for fictitious variables, perhaps the worst problem for society, is that they leave the analyzers who invoke them comfortable. The analyzers seem to have found the sought–after cause.
In reality, however, they have added nothing to their analysis. But, thinking that they have found the cause, they stop searching for real causal, independent variables. The result is that accessible causal variables that we might change to improve (control) the behavior in question remain unanalyzed.
We seldom continue looking when a convenient answer is available unless separate, practical contingencies for such looking behaviors are in force. The search essentially stops, because the fictitious mentalistic or cognitive analysis provides no compelling reasons to continue.
Such are reasons for developing the skill to spot and avoid fictitious explanations about behavior, and replace the fictitious explanations with the scientifically accessible causes discovered by behaviorology.
Writing these columns occurs separately from membership in The International Behaviorology Institute (TIBI, at www.behaviorology.org where you can always find more information and resources). The author is not speaking for TIBI, and the author and TIBI need not be in agreement. TIBI welcomes feedback, members, and donations (501.c.3). Write the author through this paper’s editor. Find previously published columns on this paper’s website. This is column 11 of 72.