Most applied behavioral scientists are full of… 💩
Jason Hreha

On Nature, Nurture, and Agency

Or how to square psychoanalysis with behaviorism


What a great article about behavioral science. There’s a perfectly good English sentence that I don’t often get to type. I’m not used to behaviorists being open to nuance and accepting that different theories of how humans work are not necessarily mutually exclusive. The nature versus nurture argument in particular is a classic example of a false dilemma — it may be more fun to debate it as if it was a competition where somebody gets to be right and somebody has to be wrong, but in reality, the fight is about which takes over in a specific situation, rather than which is true and which is false.

All people are likely both innately stubborn AND contextually pliable, to a certain extent in individual ways depending on specific circumstances. It’s hard to account for a complexity of this kind in research, which is why most studies simply test a singular hypothesis that doesn’t account for many interactions between different “forces”. Which predictably sometimes works, but later doesn’t, until it works again, hence the replication difficulty (and the obvious conclusion that the mono-models must be at best incomplete).

It’s especially pronounced in one of the fields in which I specialize, media and communication theory. The initial enthusiasm of the propagandists in the mid-20th century, about how easy it is to manipulate people with new media, quickly gave way to a sobering realization that people do seem to have minds of their own and can decide whether or not they’re willing to accept information that’s being communicated at them. This necessitated a shift toward more cognitive approaches in the field, taking mental processes into account like attention or selection.

One of my teachers at Masaryk University in Brno always makes a point to mention that the local communist regime had an awesome media monopoly and propagandized like crazy, but somehow still imploded ideologically into a complete lack of sincere belief in any of its values or messages among the vast majority of the population. It barely matters what you’re doing to affect someone from the outside after they’re onto you and have already decided to wall themselves off. Thankfully, totalitarian regimes don’t do very well with nuance either, guaranteeing their behavioral manipulations will fail.

(Not) Cutting Through the Gordian Knot

To make things even less simple, in addition to stubborn nature and the openness to nurture, there’s the wild card of free will, or agency. I do understand why it seems virtually impossible from the neurological perspective, but appearances aside, it is a fact that scientists dabbling in the mysteries of human mind don’t exactly have a great track record of getting it right. Of course, at no point does any scientific consensus regarding human psychology seem any less rational and definitive, no matter how extremely reductive and incorrect it turns out to be later on after we’ve learned more.

I think it is fair to say that full-on behaviorism is more wrong about how people work than most ancient humane philosophies, which by and large assume agency in addition to nature and nurture. My personal take is that what works exactly how on the neurological level is actually more of a distraction anyway if what you need is to function as a human dealing with other humans. So what that what we intuitively understand as agency is an illusion? It still can be figured out how humans use it in practice and simply accepted that how people feel about something is the truth for them.

In terms of in what specific way could the mechanistic model be true, but still significantly incomplete, my main concern comes from the zen perspective of observing one’s own consciousness. On the surface level, this does seem to prove that a lot of what we do is automatic, since you can be aware of the contents of your mind as a detached, passive observer, watching them go. However, this observation then affects who you essentially are and what you can do. At the very least, there seems to be a reactionary, negative choice available of shutting impulsive behavior down once you become aware of it. But then additional complexity kicks in — recursion.

My favorite depiction of this paradox was in one episode of Westworld. One of the robots got to see the real-time log of their decision-making process, which entered as an input into that process, quickly crashing the whole AI down due to infinite recursion. As a human using zen meditation, once you become aware of some internal mental process, its reflection leads to its transformation. You can often stop it, detach yourself from it, even completely expunge it as if it disintegrated under the beam of light pointed at it. It’s almost as if one could step outside of their mental process, rearrange it, and then reenter, making choice precisely during the crash of the autonomous systems caught in the paradox of infinite recursion.

A More Human Way of Adjusting Behavior

But then, what can you do to influence the behavior of humans once you start treating them as if they had agency, while suspecting a lot of what they do is automatic? Well, in one word, persuasion. Humanistic philosophy is certainly all over that, but the main point is not so much the existing methodology of how to do persuasion, it’s the appreciation of the “why” factor. In pretty much any neurological or behavioral model, “why”, or motive, is treated as a post hoc rationalization, not a cause. The point is, however, that whether the “why” is the cause of a behavior or not is not the point.

Even assuming that “why” happens after a subconscious impulse makes you do something, the “why” is who you are. Whether you do things because of who you are or who you are is determined by the things that you do is irrelevant to the relevance of that “why” — it’s always relevant. Let’s explore it on an extreme example. Okay, so maybe killers kill people because they’re killers, or killers are killers because they kill people; either way, if you’ve killed a person in the absence of extenuating circumstances, you’re a killer. Do you believe it is right or wrong to kill people? If you believe it is wrong to be a killer, is that who you want to keep on being?

That’s what persuasion is — induced reflection. You’re not making the person do what you think is right or want them to do (unless you’re a manipulator). You’re helping them realize what they think about what they’re doing, which may or may not trigger that recursive cascade of awareness that may lead them to a snap or gradual transformation. You’re simply making them aware of things they previously were not as aware of. You could argue that this way, one only allows the nature to get rid itself of conditioning, or to strengthen the impact of conditioning on nature, but again, who cares what specifically happens on a purely technical level. To people, this is choice.

Persuasion can of course be wielded as a weapon to achieve outcomes without caring for the well-being or free will of people involved, but again, there’s a choice. Assuming tools are neutral, do you propose that, barring conditioning, all people are naturally benevolent or naturally malevolent? If we agree that people are not 100% nurture-based either, then there’s some space left where choice would fit right in. For instance, I have just presented you with a tool and I will admit manipulative uses of it may be justified in specific situations. I choose to believe you’re not pre-programmed to use it only to help or harm.

So, what kind of person do you want to be?

Like what you read? Subscribe to my publication, heart, follow, or…

Make me happy and throw something into my tip jar