The Problem of Focusing on Behavior

My wife asked my daughter to put her dishes in the dishwasher. That's fair. My daughter asked why. That's a fair question. My wife said she was trying to teach my daughter responsibility.

Wrong. That does not teach responsibility.

My wife is forcing my daughter to produce a behavior which seems responsible. But "being responsible" is a trait, or skill, not a behavior.

This essay is about the problem of focusing on behavior, which you can probably now figure out, and a little about behaviorism.


When psychology started, psychologists studied thoughts. This didn't work out well as a science. The behaviorists solved the problem by making the data of psychology behavior instead of thoughts. This was a lasting contribution to the science of psychology.

The behaviorists went one step further and constructed theories about behavior rather than than about thoughts. This was a giant step in the wrong direction. The pinnacle was Skinner's theory of reinforcement, which said that if an animal is reinforced for a behavior, it is more likely to repeat that behavior.

Behaviorism has had a very unfortunate impact upon parenting. Parents use simplisitic behavioral techniques to attempt to change behaviors, thinking that changing behaviors accomplishes something. This option is seductive: The behavioristic techniques are simple to apply and seem like they should work, though they do not. There are no other obvious alternatives available to parents.

The problem, as described in these essays, is that it doesn't work, and in many ways is counter-productive.

The (Technical) Problem of Reinforcement

Skinner's theory is circular, because a "reinforcer" is defined as anything which increases the frequency of a behavior occurring. Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem. I will talk about things being rewarding and punishing, which is how you probably think of the issue anyway.

The Problem that this is a Bad Theory

With this problem solved, Skinner's theory of reinforcement is a simple and elegant theory of behavior. With this one principle alone, you could construct an organism that learns. However, as experiment after experiment has shown, this is not an adequate theory of humans or even animals. It is an important rule-of-thumb for any organization or interaction, but it is only that. When you look in the brain/mind, there is no basic process of reinforcement occurring.

For example, if a rat is thirsty and it put in a maze where the rat gets water for turning right and food for turning left, the rat will "learn" to turn right. The rat's behavior can be said to be shaped. But if you put the rat in the maze and the rat is hungry, the rat will turn left. The rat wasn't "shaped" into turning right at all. Instead, the rat learned that the water was on the right and the food was on the left.

The Problem of Confusing Traits and Skills with Behaviors

There is an even deeper issue here. What do we mean by being responsible? I could be wrong, but being in the habit of putting dishes in the dishwasher is not really what we mean by being responsible. If putting dishes in the dishwasher has become a compulsion or obsession, then it certainly is not being responsible.

It is not easy to say what we mean when we say we want our children to be "responsible". But clearly, it is a mental state, or thoughts, or mental action. It then leads to "responsible" behavior, but it is not a behavior. When we try to teach it as a behavior, we are not teaching it (even if our kids could learn it.)

Now lets' consider "sharing". That is a behavior. We would like to teach our children to share. To do this, parents usually force their children to share with other children. Let me state, uncategorically, that being forced to share is not the mental state we envision when we talk about our children "sharing." Where is the virtue in being forced to share?

From a behavioral perspective, when you reward your child for sharing but you child does not share when you are not around, it is a learning problem. The reality is, there is a spirit of generosity (or wisdom) that underlies sharing. If you child doesn't have the trait of being generous, or the skill to see the wisdom of sharing, then your child hasn't learned what you want. If your child had learned these underlying traits and skills, the behavior would "generalize" to when you weren't around.

I tell my girls to hang up their coats when they come in the house, because I think that's a fair rule. I don't care if they hate it. If they grow up, have their own apartment, and throw their coat on the floor, that's fine with me. I am not trying to shape behavior, I am insisting that they hang up their coats. I tell them to go to bed, or get off of the computer. These are not learning experiences.