Declaring 'Emotions are Behavior'

doesn't make them so.

Implications for Autism Intervention



A Facebook post proclaimed defiantly that ‘emotions are behavior’ or can be viewed “as behavior”. Such a claim is consistent within a radical behavioral stance which holds as its mantra, 'Science is not determined by agreement'. But, as we shall see, science by decree doesn't make something science either. Furthermore, challenging this doctrine doesn't automatically implicate the necessity of adopting its alternative, a methodological behaviorist position. Let’s explore this.


If behavior is something we do, an action we perform, how do we do emotions? To say that we 'do' emotions has little sense. Emotions are not things that one does but things one feels. Feelings happen to people, not something someone does. While I might feel happy today, I can’t feel ‘jump’ today. I may be cooking, although I can’t be “happying” and while I can jump, I can’t sad.  The further suggestion that we can view “Feelings as behavior” has little sense either. Feelings as which behavior? As jumping?  As playing the piano? (although one might feel happy while playing the piano). As writing a letter?


While we learn to do many things, we don’t learn to feel (no one teaches me to feel sad), although one can learn to refine expressions of feeling and to learn terms we use to account for how we or others feel. As we learn to do something, for example, to ride a bike, or play a G chord, we can improve and eventually succeed in our efforts. However, it makes no sense to say that someone may succeed or fail at sadness (although a Ph.D level behavior analyst commented to one of my posts that "being better at sadness is depression".) As we consider behavior, we see that one can be ordered to do something… to clean the floor or to clap, but one can't be ordered to love. Similarly, one can decide to clap, but not decide to feel sad. And while we may shape behaviors, how do you shape feelings? What would a successive approximation of 'pride' look like? How would one do a task analysis of 'sad'.?


Emotions may determine behavior (Gasp! I said it... it's not only environmental events which 'cause' us to do things) such that emotions may determine the 'reason' that someone does something, i.e., the extent to which one does something out of jealousy or fear or love.... to behave in a certain way because of a feeling. But love, fear and jealousy are not what we do...but rather a possible reason for what we do.

Radical behaviorists become very animated about all of this… they delight that permission has been granted to them by Skinner that we "can therefore consider events taking place in the private world within the skin”, as behavior. But Skinner's great decree is nothing to get excited about and is confused. While there are behavioral expressions of emotions (raised fists in anger, smiles for joy, punching the air in triumph) these are not emotion itself. In this way, emotions are not hidden, but can be. We can learn to conceal how we feel by learning to behave in certain ways... although this is not to conceal behavior... but feelings. (For further clarification read PMS Hacker.)


Saying that emotions are private behavioral events doesn't help clinicians who wish to teach children to appropriately use emotional terms. It's more helpful to say that behavior reveals how others feel. By teaching children to recognize the behavioral expressions of emotions can children then ascribe to others how they are feeling. Ascription of emotional terms is based on behavioral events which meet specific behavioral criteria for ascription.


The implications for intervention are clear. In order to teach children to learn to appropriately ascribe emotional terms, we need to teach children to recognize what is already public... what is in view...both in terms of behavioral expressions of emotion and the surrounding contextual events. Similarly, as we teach children to name their own feelings, we do so with confidence because we see the expression of their feelings, for which there are normative terms of ascription that we can teach.