Explanations for behavior

What counts as an answer to the question “Why did Person A do Action X”?

What counts as an answer to the question “Why did Person A do Action X?” Below is a first cut at a list of possible answers to that question.  The fact that it has only thirteen elements would make it interesting if it were comprehensive. I’m quite deliberately eliding the behavior/action distinction here, looking for a list that will include intentional, unintentional, and truly involutary behaviors.

1. Reflex (jumping at a loud noise).

2. Compulsive behavior (tics, stammers, etc.)

3. Need (air, water, food, etc.), including acquired needs such as addictions. Defined by unpleasant sensation of lack, relieved by doing X.

4. Habit.

5. Custom (others do X).

6. Pleasure (X is enjoyable).

7. Advantage (perceived gain accruing from doing X: material or ideal, including status or relational gain, for self or other).

8. Fear (of the consequences – again for selff or another – of not doing X, including status or relational loss).

9. Duty (as distinct from positive or negative social consequences of doing or not doing X).

10. Role aspiration (wanting to be the sort of person who does X, again as distinct from the social consequences).

11. Novelty.

12. Inadvertence (e.g., stumbling over something, or being pushed).

13. Misperception.

What did I leave out? And who has done this analysis  already?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

34 thoughts on “Explanations for behavior”

  1. 1. The list omits all external forces that influence behavior. I assume that this omission is intentional.

    2. The list also omits the reason most people would give if you asked them why they did something: that the action is a means towards some goal. For example, if I asked you, “Why did you post this anyway?” would your answer be any of these thirteen? More likely your answer would be that you wanted to achieve some goal (though I can’t figure out what), and you weren’t sure if your list was complete, so you blegged it in order to get more ideas. I don’t see that answer as fitting into any of the 13. Maybe #7, but that stretches the concept of “advantage.” If asked the “why” question, I doubt that you’d say or think, “because it was to my advantage.”

    1. Goal-seeking goes under “advantage.”

      As to analyzing my own motives for posting, I’d say (1) I was in the habit of posting stray ideas to RBC; (2) It was both my duty (to readers and fellow bloggers) and to my advantage (to maintain readership) to post from time to time; (3) It was also my duty (as an academic) and to my advantage to generate, disseminate, and improve ideas. Role aspirations (both as an academic and a blogger) stand beside duty.

      All of the outside influences (save custom, which is explicitly acknowledged) determine what someone needs, fears, desires, enjoys, perceives as advantage or duty, finds attractively novel, etc.

      I like the suggestions of spite, revenge, dare, and contrariness, but my first impulse is to categorize them under pleasure, fear (of seeming weak by not taking revenge or refusing a dare), duty (of revenge), social advantage (by seeming strong and adventurous) and role aspiration (to be strong and adventurous).

      1. Spite/revenge might more cleanly fall under category “3. Need (air, water, food, etc.), including acquired needs such as addictions. Defined by unpleasant sensation of lack, relieved by doing X,” excepting that the sensation isn’t relieved by doing X. Then again, isn’t it often a feature of addiction that the behavior doesn’t really relieve the sensation of lack anyway?

    1. I think a category for revenge, spite, and the like might be called for. I don’t think duty fits, because people can also seek revenge when they know they shouldn’t. It can be an acquired need in some people, but that hardly seems to be a universal element.

    1. In the presence of affection toward another, an action could be movtivated by advantage to the other, advantage to self (in maintaining/improving a valued relationship), pleasure, duty, or role aspiration (e.g., wanting to be a good friend or mate or parent).

      1. “In the presence of” emotions xyz, a lot of things fit into your boxes. But the emotions are doing the heavy lifting. Othello kills Desdemona by mistake, up to a point.

        1. Othello kills Desdemona by mistake, up to a point.

          This is certainly the best sentence I’m likely to read today.

    2. Are we sure love (all kinds, even) is not also partly a reflex? Especially if you consider the unconscious, which intrigues me and about which I know just about nothing, other than that it’s “there.”

      Also, why is need after compulsion? I would put breathing before a tic.

      1. I didn’t intend a strong ordering, but I can choose not to eat, drink, or even breathe (for a while) though the discomfort of not doing so may mount. But a tic is genuinely involuntary: the victim can’t stop it, even if offered inducements to stop or threatened if he succumbs. It’s important that adddiction is like hunger rather than like, say, the tremor of Parkinsonism.

  2. What about poor reasoning, caused by mental illness or distress? This may fall under misperception, but perhaps the label for that category should be broadened.

    1. Like misperception, poor reasoning may underlie any of these motives, but is it really a motive itself? You might incorrectly reason that doing X will produce some material gain. Your motive is that you’re seeking gain. The soundness of your plan affects your chances of success, but doesn’t really speak of your motive.

  3. Principle? It may make sense to broaden duty, because principle may cause people to act when they don’t have a duty to act, but from similar motivations, namely “because it is right”.

  4. I’d add obligation. Duty, to me, is internal. Obligation is external. (That’s not terribly coherent but I expect most people here will understand.)

    Most of my actions taken over the course of a work day are driven by my obligations to my employer.

  5. A lot of these categories seem to overlap (where does habit or custom end and addiction begin, what’s the difference between advantage and pleasure, or aspiration and duty usw), but what concerns me most is that most of them are of “That and a couple bucks…” variety. If you’re thinking about reasons, it’s important to know what kind of advantage someone thinks they will gain, or why something gives them pleasure, or how they come to construe their duty in a particular way. Otherwise it seems un-usefully tautological to me.

  6. Maybe “Misperception” should be struck from the list? I can think of several examples where misperception leads to some action, but in each such case one of those other 12 factors is present as well. Misperception, as I’m imagining it, is operated upon by a motive, but isn’t a motive itself.

  7. It’s a bit (or more than a bit) nit-picky, but it would be more accurate to rename # 9 (duty) as “moral reason” or something like that. After all, one may do X for moral reason without thinking that one has a duty or obligation to do it.

  8. Certain kinds of instruction-following. You’re sitting at the piano, sight-reading Well-Tempered Clavier. “Why did you play a C-sharp followed by a D?” asks Mark. Because the sheet music told you to, somehow, and you didn’t have to think about it. If it’s a conscious instruction-following (“Soldier, why did you leap out of your bunk and do 100 push-ups?”) it might fall under an “advantage” or “fear” category; if it’s totally unconscious (“Why did the pen make that loop when you signed your name?”) it might fall under habit, but it seems to be that there’s an intermediate case which fits neither category. (Zooming out, “Why are you sitting at the piano sight-reading Bach?” is pleasure, but “why was that a C-sharp” is not.) Other examples: Transcription typing, shorthand writing, simultaneous translation? The “follow” role in ballroom dance? Inking or coloring a comic-strip panel?

  9. I’ve been studying behaviorism so I’d say that if its non-reflexive or random (#1,12), then as I gather it’s anything that’s been reinforced for in the past. That takes care of #2-11,13. The really crazy part is the theory that thoughts are simply internal – “verbal” – behavior, and operate according to the same rules.

    I’ve yet to encounter any explanation as remotely systematic and empirically driven.

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