Blogger: Andy Lattal, Ph.D.
Psychologically speaking, an agent is an entity responsible for a course of action. Some psychological agents with which many of us are familiar are “personality,” “conscience,” “self,” and “stress.” Each of these agents is said to be responsible for behavior:
- “She behaves that way because she has an outgoing personality” (the outgoing personality is the agent of her behavior);
- “He didn’t call her because he felt guilty” (the guilt is the agent of the behavior);
- “He is confident because he has a great self-concept (the self-concept is the agent of the behavior);
- “His high level of stress caused him to fall apart” (stress is the agent of falling apart).
Or, consider this observation I read recently in an experiment involving human participants:
“This procedural difference proves to be advantageous for positive reinforcer assessments because it allows participants to choose between concurrently available options, but only allows interaction with the selected stimulus.”
The part of relevance to this discussion is the bolded part about participants (the person on whom the experiment was being conducted) choosing between options. In a descriptive sense, it could be that one of several choices is being selected. But the statement seems to imply more than that, namely that the participant is making the choice. The participant weighs the options and selects from among them. The participant is the agent of its actions, in this case, choices. (Choice is a question for another commentary – assume for the moment that “choice” is simply descriptive for one response being more likely than another.)
How might we say the same thing but without implying the participant is the agent of his or her choices?
“This procedural difference proves to be advantageous for positive reinforcer assessments because it allows choices between concurrently available options, but only allows interaction with the selected stimulus.”
In this sentence, there still is a choice response (as defined above), but the agent is not the participant. The focus in this sentence is on the behavior itself in relation to environmental circumstances. Here, it is the environment, specifically the dimensions of the positive reinforcer that are driving the choice behavior. Thus, the environment itself, present and past, is the agent of the choice behavior.
The differences between the two ways of saying the same thing are subtle. Some might say pedantic, but I would strongly disagree. The differences are critical because they distinguish a behavioral approach from all the others represented by the psychology spectrum. It is the difference between a science focused on the self or personality as an initiating agent of action and a science focused on behavior-environment relations. It is the latter that defines what is meant by a “science of behavior” – a way of understanding the actions of living organisms that result from functional relations between environmental circumstances and those actions. It is not a science of the relation between the actions of living organisms and an internal agent guiding and selecting those actions. In behavior analysis, it certainly is no secret that the environment and not the organism is the agent of its behavior.
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