What Is Behavior?

Natalie Angier has another href="http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/21/science/21angier.html?sq=behavior%20what%20animals%20do&st=cse&scp=1&pagewanted=print">interesting
article in the NYT.  In the article, she discusses the meaning
of the word behavior.  Apparently, this all came from the
realization that even standard works on the subject did not contain a
"point-by-point definition." 

The realization came to href="http://dlevitis.org/dlevitis/Research.html">Dan Levitis, a
grad student in zoology at Berkeley.  Levitis happens to have a
Blogspot blog: Blog of
; he's also href="http://blogofscience.blogspot.com/2009/07/ego-boost-of-science.html">posted
about the NYT article.  He decided to study the question. 
This led to the publication of an article in Animal Behaviour:

biologists do not agree on what constitutes behaviour

Daniel A. Levitis, William Z. Lidicker Jr., and Glenn Freunda

Animal Behaviour

Volume 78, Issue 1, July 2009, Pages 103-110

Behavioural biology is a major discipline within biology,
centred on the key concept of 'behaviour'. But how is 'behaviour'
defined, and how should it be defined? We outline what characteristics
we believe a scientific definition should have, and why we think it is
important that a definition have these traits. We then examine the
range of available published definitions for behaviour. Finding no
consensus, we present survey responses from 174 members of three
behaviour-focused scientific societies as to their understanding of the
term. Here again, we find surprisingly widespread disagreement as to
what qualifies as behaviour. Respondents contradict themselves, each
other and published definitions, indicating that they are using
individually variable intuitive, rather than codified, meanings of
'behaviour'. We offer a new definition, based largely on survey
responses: behaviour is the internally coordinated responses (actions
or inactions) of whole living organisms (individuals or groups) to
internal and/or external stimuli, excluding responses more easily
understood as developmental changes. Finally, we discuss the usage,
meanings and limitations of this definition.

The definition is good.  However, it probably will do little
little to settle various questions.  Levitis is a biologist,
mostly studying non-human behavior.  The definition suits him just
fine.  However, when it comes to human-only behavior, the
definition is going to be tougher to nail down.

The definition, as Levitis et. al. put forth, would suit a behavioral
psychologist fine, even one who just deals with humans.  In a
clinical realm, however, the problem is going to arise between the
behaviorists and the cognitive folks.  (The analytic folks
probably won't bother to address this.)

Behaviorists tend to think of thought as a subset of behavior. 
This puts behaviorists in a superior position, in that it means that
their theories encompass the theories of the cognitive folks; from this
point of view, cognitive therapy always will be based upon an
incomplete model.

Devotees of cognitive therapy, on the other hand, tend to see
behavioral therapy as being suited only to a few, uninteresting
clinical problems.  An example would be a simple phobia, where a
simple exposure therapy with response prevention (ETRP) protocol would
be appropriate.  Any problem that is more complex surely will
require devoted attention to cognition, in their view.  And, by
the way, thoughts are not behaviors.

This complication in refining the definition of behavior arises for two
reasons.  One is that the two schools of thought have different
traditions.  So they use the language differently.  The other
is that we have access to human thought, whereas we can only infer the
thoughts of nonhuman animals. 

Levitis et. al. decided to exclude thought from their definition of
behavior.  As href="http://differ.raysend.com/what-am-i-studying-what-the-hell-are-you-stud">pointed
out elsewhere:

While behaviours necessarily rely upon internal information
processing by the individual (e.g. cognition and endocrine signalling),
we do not consider the processing alone to be a response, and therefore
do not include it as behaviour. Shettleworth (1998, page 5) defines
cognition as 'the mechanisms by which animals acquire, process, store
and act on information from the environment'. In behaviour, we include
the action, but deem the processing as necessary but not sufficient.
While this runs counter to the views of 80% of our respondents, we
think it is illogical to include cognitive processing while excluding
other forms of internal information processing such as genetic
expression cascades or endocrine feedback. Information processing may
be a necessary substrate for behaviour, but we do not consider it a
behaviour by itself.

There are problems with that.  I do not see a clear dividing line
between pure processing of information, and any other kind of
activity.  That is because processing of information is done over
time, with continuous feedback between thoughts, feelings, behaviors,
and perceptions.  Behaviors that are outwardly observable do have
an impact on what is going on inside the brain.  It is not
possible to separate the two processes. 

And by the way, the act sitting perfectly still is a form of
behavior.  There never is a time when an organism is not
performing some behavior. 

The way I see it, human (and animal) activity can be divided into four
domains: thoughts, emotions, perceptions, and actions.  But this
division is one of convenience.  I organize my approach to
clinical interviewing, as well as my approach to clinical
interventions, using those four domains.  It is how I organize my
mental model of clinical problems. 

I use that model because it is helpful, not because it reflects any
fundamental truth. 

The truth is that your brain does not care if particular neural
impulses result in -- or result from -- movement, thought, perception,
or emotion.  Neural impulses are neutral impulses.  One one
level, they are all the same.  We classify them into different
domains, based upon various traditions.  Those traditions reflect
truth, only to the extent that the truth arises by definition. 
Choose different definitions, you get a different truth.  But the
underlying reality (if there is one; I'm still not convinced) has not
changed.  As Neuroskeptic pointed out href="http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2009/06/nobody-knows-what-behaviour-is.html">here,
"It's surprisingly difficult to define most words."

Levitis et. al. are proposing a change in how the word behavior
is defined.  If their definition becomes the one that is embraced
by tradition, then it becomes the truth.  But there are many
different disciplines that study behavior.  They study it in
different ways, for different purposes.  It is unlikely that they
ever will come to any sort of universal agreement about how to define
it.  In saying this, I do not mean to disparage Levitis et. al.,
because what they've done is important.  They have laid down a
marker, that can serve as a helpful point of reference to the various


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Interesting, what would be your dividing line between thoughts, emotions and perceptions? Actions have a clear line: once we get non-neural tissue involved. But the three cognitive differences seem to have no clear biological diffrence. Rather, we would have to base restrictions on neuroanatomy, which seems to be a bit overly percise for thise type of distinction.

I would say that the best distinction would be to separate behavior into two groups: cognitive/neural processing, and action, then to subdivide each of those major groups according to their own principals. You might well subdivide cognitive processing into thoughts, emotions, and preceptions, while subdividing actions into motor and endocrine based on which particular system is involved.

One critical aspect of behavior is that it must have some cognitive component.

Lets take the action of a getting a laceration. There are certain biological responses of the tissue itself to damage. I don't think we would like to include any of those into 'behavior' if inflammation is a behavior, then so is mitosis, or viral replication. However the laceration also has a neural component. The processing and reacting to that signal constitutes the behavior.

I think also that Levitis has come up with a quite complicated confusing model. It in, cognitive processing is necessary, but not sufficient to deem something a behavior, while physical action is ALSO necessary but not sufficient (unless they want to expand the definition of behavior to include viral replication and chemical reactions), yet they differentiate between the two necessities, calling one behavior and one not.

In 1986 I wrote an article entitled "An essay on the circulation as behavior [The Behavioral and Brain Sciences (1986) 9, 285-318]." In the lead paragraph I included a definition of behavior that I still believe is valid.

"...the responses of the circulation in awake vertebrates are conditional and are integral components of the behavior of the animal. By conditional I mean: (1) The responses will vary as a function of the stimuli that impinge upon the animal. I wish especially to emphasize here the interactions among stimulus effects. This is conditionality, in Sherrington's sense, when he described the various ways stimuli can interact to modulate reflexes. (2) The responses will vary as a function of the associative characteristics of the environmental cues - conditionality in Pavlov's sense. (3) The responses will vary as a function of their ability to interact directly with the environment - conditionality in the operant sense. By behavior I mean the sum total of the organism's interactions with its environment. Thus, autonomically mediated and hormonally mediated responses are all behaviors. As a matter of fact, an underlying principle of this essay is that, from the perspective of behavior, the distinction between, for example, somatomotor and visceral behavior is only valid in the sense that these behaviors are mediated by different anatomical and physiological structures that impose idiosyncratic constraints on their respective performances."

I would only add here that cognition is a psychological mechanism for processing incoming information by relating that information to previously acquired information. Obviously, information can come from internal as well as external receptors. Cognition is not behavior.

By Bernard T. Engel (not verified) on 27 Jul 2009 #permalink

Bernard T. Engel wrote: "Cognition is not behavior."

To which, I ask: But to what extent to cognitive activities (thoughts, assessments, model making, etc.):
a) respond to stimuli that impinge on the subject
b) vary as a function of the associative characteristics of the environmental cues
c) vary as a function of the outcomes of those cognitive activities.

It seems to me that cognitive activity can be elicited by stimuli, modified through associations, and strengthened or weakened by the outcomes of those cognitive activities.

I am not a dualist; I believe the mind is a product of the brain. What are feelings and perceptions, then, if not thoughts? What meaningful distinction can be made? I hope you do not force this framework upon your patients if they do not find it helpful. My aspie brain does not compute.

As I tried to say, cognitive activities are psychological, not physiological mechanisms that do process incoming information. However, while they certainly affect the way cues are perceived (by definition, by the way), they are still not behaviors because there is no evidence they are interacting with the environment until an effector acts. I think the difference between us is that you are (implicitly) defining cognition as a mechanism for processing and acting on information; and what I am saying it that cognition is purely information processing; behavior may be the end product of cognition, or it may be the end-product of some internal, physiological process such as the redistribution of blood volume so as to maintain exercise.

By Bernard Engel (not verified) on 28 Jul 2009 #permalink

Bernard, but aren't there feedback loops such as comparing the anticipated observations (the result of the cognition) to actual observations that then modify the future cognition?

Isn't perceiving the environment also interacting with it?

Tracking technologies may record information such as Internet domain and host names; Internet protocol

Tracking technologies may record information such as Internet domain and host names; Internet protocol

In response to David S. There is no way to know if perceptions interact with the environment until action occurs. Perceptions are always on the sensory side of function: they can be modulated by context, but until some sort of action is emitted, one can only guess what is going on in another subject. This is really a definitional issue. Interaction entails action that is "corrected/modified" based on experience (which usually includes cognitive elements); without action there is no way to demonstrate interaction.

By Bernard T. Engel (not verified) on 01 Aug 2009 #permalink

After reading the comments, I have to say this. It is less important what the precise definitions is, than it is to remember that the distinctions between thoughts, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors are artificial; that there is no clean dividing line between them. These are constructs that are convenient, possibly useful, but like all models, false.

Definitions are fundemental to science. For example, the "laws" of physics are definitions about the relationships among elements. Without laws (definitions) all that is left is a restatement of what is observed.

By Bernard T. Engel (not verified) on 03 Aug 2009 #permalink