Behaviourism is not what you think it is. Despite the caricature of the behaviourist as a “stimulus/response” man, modern behaviourism is nothing of the sort. Even Skinner was not a stimulus/response man, but rather he was interested by how our environment shapes our behaviour. Most people wouldn’t argue with the statement that our environment (physical & verbal) shapes our behaviour, so how Skinner’s psychology managed to become so highly discredited, so much so that behaviourism is largely treated as a dirty word within psychology departments, perhaps has its origin in different *cough* Chomsky *cough* areas. But I digress
The goal of any science is a map, that when layered over an aspect of the natural world contains a structural similarity to what we observe happening. That is to say, while the map most certainly is not the territory, because of its similarity in structure to nature, it should be able to make predictions about its domain. Consider language. Language is a map that all of us use to understand our place in the world. Unfortunately, because many aspects of ourselves are mysterious to us, that is to say, because there is not a structural similarity between most theories of the human condition, and the human condition, when we speak of our experience, and when we speak of ourselves, we are not really talking about ourselves, but rather about the maps that we have created about ourselves. This is what Korzybski was talking about in Science and Sanity when he said the map is not the territory. What we think we are, and what we are. Interestingly enough, this is what the Buddhists, and other Eastern philosophies have been telling us for several thousand years, however we tend to dismiss it because, y’know, what do they know? But I digress.
A conditioned association is a connection that you hold between something “out there” and your experience of it. Take for example cake. Most people like cake, the author included, and to say that one likes cake is to make a conditioned association, that is to say, to layer a map over an aspect of your reality, that is based on the context of your reality. What is interesting about these connections that we make is that when they are made, they generally don’t just apply to the specific experience that we had, but rather they also transfer over to other related objects and events. Take the example of cake (because I like running with things). After experiencing your first cake, and assuming that you liked it, it is likely that you took the conditioned association liking cake and then proceeded to transfer that across all domains cake. This absolute behaviour should be familiar if you have any young siblings or cousins. It is also likely that after experiencing different kinds of cake that preferences are made, certain kinds are preferred, other kinds are not liked etc. The key point to take from this is that a verbal map, that of liking a particular class of object, becomes layered over an aspect of your reality, because of a similarity, along certain lines, within the class of object. Please note that the choice of liking this particular class of object is only based on one aspect of that object. Cakes, like all other objects, can be categorised along a seemingly infinite number of lines; along with taste, there is colour, shape, membership of the class food, membership in the class objects containing flour/sugar/icing/raisins etc. To the baker, cakes become equivalent to the class money; to someone suffering from anorexia, cakes belong to the class things to be avoided.
Let’s talk about the case of someone with anorexia. Assuming that they weren’t born with this predisposition, it is likely that their anorexia arose as a result of an emotionally painful events or series of events in their lives. That is to say, it arose as a result of emotional wounds that were not allowed to heal. Maybe they were bullied, maybe they lived in an abusive family. The particulars are not important here, what is however important is the general behavioural patterns that lead to suffering, and a drastic fall in quality of life. How these things generally work is that the person who is in psychological distress made a negative conditioned association about themselves, such as I am ugly, or my parents never loved me, or I’m a bad person and then because they believed this, and took it to heart, this negative evaluation about one aspect of their lives transferred – like the evaluation of cake discussed earlier – across multiple domains of their experience. Admittedly, this is simplifying things somewhat, but the general process should be familiar to people.
This will be continued in my next blog post, in which I get into the science of human verbal behaviour, particularly Relational Frame Theory, a science that explains how the above processes operate, and explain how as a conseq we view the world through a verbal lens.