Why Do We Do What We Do? Analyzing Environment for Behavioral Clues

Jun 4, 2019

Starting with Freudian psychology of the early 20th century, the blame for behavioral issues has often fallen back on the individual exhibiting the problematic symptoms. More recent studies show the environment might be to blame. Murray State professor of psychology, Michael Bordieri, Ph.D., visits Sounds Good to discuss the ABCs of behavioral psychology. 

The question of 'why humans do what they do' is often met with gray answers. "Depending on who you ask, you get very different approaches to the question," Bordieri explains. "This is not a new question. We could trace [it] back millennia." Freudian psychology of the early 20th century often credits the unconscious part of the mind as the root cause for most behavioral abnormalities. This area of the mind is inaccessible and is only analyzed through inference. Bordieri explains that while this perspective 'made for interesting writing and dense theories,' it did not generate technology or clinical procedures that could be used in every day life for behavioral correction.

Bordieri suggests an environment-based focus might be best in identifying and correcting psychological issues. "Maybe the environment can influence how we behave, and maybe if we then understand the way the environment is functioning, maybe we can change it in a way and help people behave differently." This environmental focus can be summarized by the ABCs: antecedents, behavior, and consequences. Bordieri uses a child acting out at the dinner table as an example: 

A child is sitting at the dinner table, feeling ignored and excluded from the conversation, and decides to act out by cussing. After this behavior, the attention of the table is shifted to the child to address and correct the inappropriate language used. The consequences of this action provided the attention the child sought in the first place. Similarly, a bored child who wishes to leave the table might exhibit the same behavior for different reasons. In this case, the child is sent to their room with their devices, toys, etc. -- exactly what the child sought initially. While the behavior is the same, Bordieri explains, the function is different. "If we can understand how behavior functions in the world -- maybe it gets us attention or gets us something we want or gets us out of something -- then we can help think about how we could change the environment to support more appropriate behaviors." 

This perspective also relieves the individual of undue personal responsibility. "If we think about function, it can help us better identify the behaviors we want to see and the function of the behaviors that are giving us some trouble. The nice thing here is that it gets us away from blaming the person. The 'why' in these behaviors wasn't in the [child at the table]," Bordieri says. "It was that the environment was supporting the behavior we didn't like. By changing the environment, we can get behaviors that might be better for the child and better for us." In the case of the two potty mouth children at the table, their environment could be changed by including them in the conversation or by teaching them better ways of asking to be excused from the table. 

"Sometimes we think about behavior analysis, or the idea of changing the environment, as evil. That it's fundamentally wrong to manipulate people's behavior. But the way I would look at this is, we're doing this all the time anyway. We're always creating an environment for someone else to behave and we're always behaving in an environment. Just thinking about it a little and creating scientific technology that can help us design better learning environments is really just harnessing what's already out there and making sure we do so in an ethical way," Bordieri concludes.