Declaring 'Emotions are Behavior'

doesn't make them so.

Implications for Autism Intervention



A recent Facebook post proclaims defiantly that ‘emotions are behavior’ or can be viewed “as behavior”. Such a claim is consistent with 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 is not to invoke a methodological position either. Let’s explore this. If behavior is something we do, an action we perform, how do we do emotions? 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).


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 feelings and to learn the terms we use to account for how we or others feel. 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. 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 effort, but 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"). And while we may shape behaviors, how do you shape feelings? What would need to be considered as successive approximations toward pride? What would a task analysis of sad look like?


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.


Emotions have objects..."What are you afraid of? (snakes), "What are you saddened by?". But we can't say the same about behaviors. There are behavioral expressions of emotions (raised fists in anger, smiles for joy, punching the air in triumph) which are not emotion itself. As such, emotions are not hidden. However, we can learn to conceal how we feel/ although this is not to conceal behavior... but feelings. (For further clarification read PMS Hacker.)


Radical behaviorists become very animated about all of this… they delight that permission has been granted to them by Skinner that one "can therefore consider events taking place in the private world within the skin”, as behavior. Skinner's great decree is nothing to get excited about and has no bearing on how we go about teaching children to identify feelings in others or themselves. These are public events and the terms we ascribe to our feelings and the feelings of others are only useful and meaningful within a shared language practice. If all of these events were prohibitively private, such terms would be useless and have no sense. Our behavior reveals how we feel. It's only because feelings are on display that others in the verbal community can rightly say when others are sad, happy, frustrated, annoyed etc. This is how we come to name them and only by following the rules for the use of the terms do they have meaning.


The implications for intervention are clear. In order to teach children to learn to appropriately ascribe emotional terms, we 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, to which there are normative terms we teach them to use to refer to them.

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