Executive Director's Column

It’s Still the Behavior

If a behavior is inadequate, superfluous, or even simply surprising, we know that our first look must be at the events surrounding that behavior.

By Kurt Salzinger, PhD

In my first column more than two years ago, I commented, "It's the behavior, stupid!" In the very next column in the Monitor on Psychology, in response to the 9/11 terror attack, I repeated the refrain, "It's the behavior." I proposed that the explanation of that terrible event was not to be found in the exquisite mechanism of the airplanes, or their electronics. The explanation was to be found in the behavior of the terrorists and their managers.

We know behavior needs explanation in its own terms first. If a behavior is inadequate, superfluous or even simply surprising, we know that our first look must be at the events surrounding that behavior. At the same time, as we learn more about the functioning of the brain, we have been increasingly seeking an explanation of aberrant behavior in the circuits of our nervous system rather than in the environment, past and present, in which the behavior occurred. But the explanation that the nervous system provides is on a different level from the behavioral explanation. I don't wish to dredge up the old argument of nature vs. nurture here. I want to remind us all that whether or not the contribution of genetics and/or environment is large or small, it is the behavior that we must specify before we obtain an understanding of it, whether we attribute the major variance to genetics and physiology or the environment.

Like the electronics of the computer, the biology of the organism makes possible the choosing of the keys in our keyboard, but it does not choose the keys. The software allows for formatting of our paragraphs to take place but it does not determine the content of the material that will be formatted or whether any formatting will take place. NIMH currently seems to insist that we always relate our behavior to the functioning of the nervous system but the question remains - - where to find the clarification of our behavior - - in the commerce of our behavior with our environment or in the hardware of the nervous system that allows us to behave. The study of the nervous system underlying the behavior is interesting, even exciting (although equally or even more interesting is the effect of the behavior on the functioning of the nervous system).

Our nervous system is often held up as the limiter of our ability to behave in various ways. And yet though our hardware does not allow us to fly like birds, our behavior has allowed us to invent the airplane and helicopter and to accomplish the feat of flying thereby; although our hardware fails to allow us to calculate many complexities, the computer our behavior invented allows us to transcend the limitations of our brains; although "natural" life span severely limits how long we live, our behavioral inventions extend our time on earth; although our food supply is "naturally" limited, our farm agriculture makes much more available.

It is also true that our behavior makes use of inventions both sophisticated and primitive, both useful and deadly, and it is the behavior that must be praised when it invents prosthetic devices and blamed, as I blamed it when I discussed September 11, when it causes death and destruction. We must blame the behavior of planning and then actually driving the planes into the buildings It is the behavior of driving too fast or thinking too slow that determines our fate when we drive airplanes.

My swan song (for this is my last column) then is to remind you that we must not flee from the study of behavior for none will explicate it better than we can. Psychologists are now clarifying the relation between behavior and the nervous system but we cannot give up our study of behavior on its own terms because only when we specify the behavioral relationships precisely will we be able to shed light on genetic and other physical relationships to what we do and when we do it. To get to behavioral genotypes, we must start with precisely specified phenotypes. My computer makes it possible for me to type this column efficiently but it does not dictate the content; that comes from the variables in the environment that control my behavior. In parting, therefore, allow me to urge us all to do what we do best, study behavior.