Today's post, The Comedy of Behaviorism was originally published on 02 August 2008. A summary (taken from the LW wiki):


The behaviorists thought that speaking about anything like a mind, or emotions, or thoughts, was unscientific. After all, they said, you can't observe anger. You can just observe behavior. But, it is possible, using empathy, to correctly predict wide varieties of behavior, which you can't account for by pavlovian conditioning.

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15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:55 PM

If I remember it correctly, later behaviorists said that it is also scientific to propose the existence of "hidden variables", if the model needs it -- as long as one does not suggest what exactly they are, because that would be unscientific.

These behaviorists could explain an angry person by saying that punching them in the nose activated a hidden variable X, and that the hidden variable X can make the person punch back, or kick, or do something like this. It is all correct, as long as you avoid connecting the hidden variable X with anger (because anger is unscientific).

This kind of model could get just as close to reality as any other model, only without the obvious names for concepts. Which perhaps could be useful for building an artificial intelligence, because we would not make the mistake of believing that just because the variable has the correct name, it must work correctly.

How do you not connect with anger a hidden variable that correlates with punching, kicking, shouting, assuming a facial expression recognized as anger by independent judges, and saying "When you punch me in the face, I feel angry"?

the useful bits of "variable X" are the behaviors you expect to see because of it. The word "Anger" is just a tag for a particular grouping of phenomena.

Yeah, but it's very hard to predict what exactly variable X is going to do, unless you know that it stands for anger.

This old post conflicts with the recent post on The Power of Positive Reinforcement.

I wonder if EY2012 still endorses this analysis from EY2008?

Where exactly is the conflict?

I guess EY was not trying to say "Behaviorism bad" in one article, and "Behaviorism good" in another; but rather that in some places the behaviorist map is very useful, and in some places the (older version of) map is pretty funny.

Behavioral science and cognitive science had a turf war over control of psychology departments in the mid-twentieth century. We like to recite the criticisms that became tropes in that war in order to pat ourselves on the back.

I read the 2008 article as saying that a "map" of human psychology that does not including meaningful reference to internal mental states will be accurate enough to be useful only by coincidence.

Behaviorism does not include meaningful reference to internal mental states, yet the second article says that it can be a useful map.

To lie convincingly, it is necessary to first believe the lie yourself; in other words once you deceive yourself, convincing others is easy. The reason for this phenomenon appears to be the behavioral clues offered when one knowingly lies. Why is it that we offer these behavioral clues when we lie? Surely it would be advantageous to disguise our lies?

The only possible reason appears to be, that these behavioral clues are the only way we have of knowing of ourselves, that we lie. Without this metaphorical 'crossing of fingers', we would have no way of knowing that we lied. If this is the case, then behaviorism has a point; much as we might like to think otherwise, it appears that we may be nothing more than the sum of our behavior.

The only possible reason appears to be, that these behavioral clues are the only way we have of knowing of ourselves, that we lie.

Wait, what?
On what basis do you infer that this is the only possible reason?

On the basis that if one makes definite assertions, responses are more likely :-)

My question: Why is it an evolutionary advantage to betray our lies with behavioural clues? Until challenged with an alternative reason that makes any sense, my assertion remains the only possible reason.

Why is it an evolutionary advantage to betray our lies with behavioural clues?

I notice that when mammals hide from predators, or stealthily approach prey, they frequently betray their location and presence. For example, they frequently vibrate the air, radiate heat, and exude various chemicals, which some animals can sense.

To ask why it's an evolutionary advantage to betray our location with such cues is to ask a question so wrong that the attempt to answer it will systematically lead me away from understanding what's going on.

Now, it may be that lying is not analogous; that there really is a selected-for predisposition to be caught out in our lies, as you imply with your question. And if so, asking where that selection pressure comes from is a useful question.

But that's a significant "if."

... they frequently vibrate the air, radiate heat, and exude various chemicals ...

These signals appear to be unavoidable. When we lie, however, many of our behavioural signals appear to be avoidable: for example.

There is no dispute that we betray our own lies; but why do we betray our lies?

Until challenged with an alternative reason that makes any sense

Those who are unable to lie (e.g., because of involuntary behavioral cues) can credibly signal when they are telling the truth (through a lack of those involuntary cues); those who are good liars have no such credible signal. Related.

I don't buy that lying requires believing the lies even a little bit. Internalization may be important, but understanding religious thought and being able to speak about it convincingly doesn't require belief by any means.

It seems transparent that bad liars are exhibiting stress tics rather than trying to protect their internal narrative given the techniques for becoming a better liar (i.e. relax, practice, be confident) and the similarity to nervous people telling the truth when they're worried they'll get in trouble for it anyways (in the face of interrogation, for instance).

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