Association for Behavior Analysis International

The Association for Behavior Analysis International® (ABAI) is a nonprofit membership organization with the mission to contribute to the well-being of society by developing, enhancing, and supporting the growth and vitality of the science of behavior analysis through research, education, and practice.


36th Annual Convention; San Antonio, TX; 2010

Event Details

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Symposium #79
Understanding Agency in the Context of Radical Behaviorism
Saturday, May 29, 2010
3:30 PM–4:50 PM
Bonham C (Grand Hyatt)
Area: TPC/VRB; Domain: Theory
Chair: Gordon R. Foxall (Cardiff University)
Discussant: Jay Moore (University of Wisconsin- Milwaukee)
Abstract: A feeling of agency (of being in control, of making a choice) is an apparently genuine element of humans’ “private events,” or, as some would put it, “subjective experience.” These papers propose three ways of incorporating the apparent human need for a belief in agency with a radical behaviorist approach to science in which the environmental consequences of behavior alone are admissible as causes of choice. They consider the possibilities that belief in agency, although it refers to an illusion, is not simply a cultural artifact but an evolutionarily-consistent adaptation which is strengthened by cultural and linguistic pressures; that reference to agency, like other uses of intentional language, is a necessary means of accounting for some complex human behaviors; and that a radical behavioral approach to agency can push forward the feminist (and behavior analytic) agenda for a better world. Theoretical discussion of this kind is not only of central interest to the intellectual development of our discipline but points to ways in which radical behaviorists interact with the wider community.
The Experience of Agency: Biological and Cultural Determinants of the Illusion
RICHARD F. RAKOS (Cleveland State University)
Abstract: The enlightened, engineered use of consistent positive reinforcement and carefully designed learning programs as the primary mechanisms for behavior control, such as depicted in Walden Two (Skinner, 1948), is a relatively new social invention. In such an environment it is conceivable that a sense of agency might be non-functional. However, historically as humans evolved, punishment and aversive control were the principal strategies utilized in the haphazard process of socialization and behavior control, making a belief in agency a highly adaptive, functional stimulus (e.g., increasing the emission of counter-control and choice responses). Thus, I argue that the illusory belief in agency is an evolved psychological mechanism, with an adaptive function, rather than a cultural artifact that impedes social progress. I also argue that our verbal capacities and limitations inevitably force socialization processes to prompt and reinforce the belief in agency. However, cultural variations in socialization select differing content that comprises the belief in agency. I suggest that behavior analysts should ask if the cultural selection theory of agency is falsifiable, and whether its empirical support is as strong as the conceptualization of agency as a biologically-selected evolved psychological mechanism.
The Ascription of Agency
GORDON R. FOXALL (Cardiff University)
Abstract: Agency refers to being in control, initiating action, being the source of one’s own behavior (rather than merely a locus for its occurrence). Often it inheres in the view that beliefs and desires are the causes of behavior. As such agency has no part in a behaviorist explanation but it should be of interest to behaviorists that most people nevertheless report a sense of agency when it comes to the ordering of their affairs. I argue that such a phenomenological sense of agency is not causal but that our feeling it gives a clue to an element of explanation that is often missing, at least formally, from our accounts of behavior. In instances where we cannot appeal convincingly to the contingencies in order to provide an explanation of behavior – e.g., in explaining the continuity/discontinuity of behavior – it is necessary to use intentional language. Many radical behaviorists do this in their work already; others are strongly critical of the practice. To the extent that such linguistic usage is inevitable, however, it needs to be undertaken with great care: criteria need to be set for (a) the identification of instances of behavioral explanation where intentional usage is indicated, and (b) the procedures by which intentionality is actually ascribed. With respect to (a) the paper argues that intentional explanation (i.e., the use of intentional language including that referring to agency) is necessary when environmental stimuli that account for the continuity/discontinuity of behavior cannot be identified. With respect to (b) the paper argues that both the observation of molar patterns of operant behavior and a neuroeconomic foundation for appropriate evolutionarily-consistent afferent-efferent neuronal linkages are necessary for the proper ascription of agency.
Personal Agency and Resistance: A View by Third Wave Feminism and Radical Behaviorism
MARIA R. RUIZ (Rollins College)
Abstract: Feminist theory, broadly defined, and radical behaviorism converge on many conceptual issues and share common goals, and I have argued that a mutually informing alliance could be highly productive (Ruiz, 1995, 1998). One thorny issue, however, that often impedes progress is agency. Feminist scholars’ explicitly stated political agenda includes dismantling social structures that exert disempowering control over various social groups based on gender, race, ethnicity, sexual preference, etc. However, they must appeal to personal agency in order to explain how resistance, (or in behavioral terms, countercontrol) is not only possible but also necessary. A radical behavioral approach to agency can push forward the feminist (and behavior analytic) agenda for a better world. When we speak of agency from this perspective we speak of acts in context, and agency is best viewed as a characteristic of acts, not individuals. In this view, agent acts incorporate a verbal repertoire for tacting stimulus conditions that set the occasion for the act and its functions. I will link this view with poststructural feminism and its thesis that a visceral understanding (Hayes- Conroy & Hayes-Conroy, 2008) of everyday events by the body is related to beliefs (e.g. agency) and decision/choice making.



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