Back in grad school, when I was learning to be a special ed teacher, I became versed in behaviorism a la BF Skinner. Skinner has a bad rep, largely related to the infamous Skinner Box (which was really a high-tech crib) and assorted misuses of his theories (like using electrical shocks to punish behavior deemed “unwanted.”) But the basic concept is simple and powerful. ABC.
Antecedent: the stimulus that evokes the behavior
Behavior: the action done in response to the stimulus
Consequence: the direct result of the behavior
Changing behavior involves manipulating A or C or both. Understanding behavior requires analyzing environmental factors and other inputs that may serve as the stimulus and examining the aftermath: what did they get out of that?
This framework is extremely useful in teaching individuals with severe disabilities and in raising children. Toddlers have basic and obvious needs and wants, and managing both the inputs and the consequences can be done by an attentive adult.
With adults, however, a behavioral lens provides little insight. By the time you’re a grown-up, you have patterns of behavior that are so entrenched you could not possibly trace their origins back to the A’s and the C’s. Adult motivations are often difficult to discern and indeed, we may not even know ourselves what drives us. And that is, in large part, why dealing with other people can be so maddening. They don’t make any sense.
I am frequently perplexed by people who say—sometimes even strongly assert—that they want or intend something, but then act in ways that clearly demonstrate the opposite. In some cases people may do that to deliberately deceive. But others, I think, really believe they want what they say they want. Or they think they should want it, even if they don’t, so they claim they do.
I have experienced this enough times that I pretty much don’t believe anything anyone says to me. (I know I told you I have trust issues, but just because I have trust issues doesn’t mean y’all aren’t lying through your teeth.) I protect myself by not believing, and I recognize that by doubting your sincerity, I am in some sense being insincere as well.
Is this any way to relate to people? My behaviors, like yours, have been set in stone by long years of experiences you don’t know about and I hardly remember.
What would Skinner do?