top of page

Declaring that 'Emotions are Behavior' is plain silly. Implications for Autism Intervention

Updated: Feb 20, 2023

A recent Facebook post proclaimed defiantly that ‘emotions are behavior’ or can be viewed “as behavior”. Such a claim is consistent within a radical behavioral scheme. Let’s explore this.

If behavior is something we do, an action we perform, how do we 'do' emotions? Saying this has little sense. Emotions are not things that we do but things we feel. Feelings happen to us. 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 additional 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), marching in band?

And, while we learn to do many things, we don’t learn to feel. Moreover, as we learn to do things, we can improve and eventually succeed in our efforts with practice. However, it makes no sense to say that someone may succeed or fail at sadness (although a Ph.D level behavior analyst offered a rebuttal to one of my posts by insisting that "being better at sadness is depression".) or that someone can practice 'doing sadness'. No one teaches me to feel sad. However, one may learn to refine expressions of feeling.

Furthermore, we know that someone can be ordered to do something, for example to clean the floor or to clap, but they can't be ordered to love. What's more, someone can decide to clap, but not decide to feel sad. And while we may shape behavior, how do you shape feelings? What would a successive approximation of 'pride' look like? How would one do a task analysis of 'sad'?

And it needs to be pointed out, emotions may determine behavior. This flies in the face of behavioral ideology ...Gasp!... it's not only environmental events which 'cause' us to do things... 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. 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… and delight that permission has been granted to them by Skinner that we can 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 and leads smart people to say quite silly things.

An example of the depths of silliness that this line of thinking takes is seen in a publication authored by Abigal Calkin (2009, European Journal of Behavior Analysis). In the article, Calkin defines feelings as follows, “A feeling is a thought with a physiological component”. But one needs to ask, “Which thoughts and physiological components does she mean exactly?” Does sexual arousal require a thought for it to be a feeling? Does feeling bored at a lecture require some specific physiological event in order to qualify as 'feeling bored?" Does she mean that there is ‘no pure joy’, no“sudden terror”, no revulsion or queasiness at the sight of blood or worse.... if not accompanied by a thought? And which thought/ exactly?

And since Calkin subscribes to radical behavioral ideology where 'thought' is defined as“covert speech”, she would have to agree that pre-verbal children do not have feelings since they do not have speech. Is this what she means?

And what does she mean when she says, “ Sometimes the physiological sensations that accompany feelings are so mild, that a person doesn't sense them and is unaware of any manifestation.” But, if something is a 'sensation', how does one not sense it…it’s a sensation! When I say, “I have the sensation of tingling in my fingers”, can I have a sensation in my fingers but not sense it? Of course not. It's Calkin's analysis that has no sense.

Accepting such doctrine confuses and doesn't help clinicians who wish to teach children to appropriately use emotional terms. It doesn't help clarify the ways terms are applied and how best to teach them. It's more helpful to say that behavior reveals how others feel. It's more helpful to talk about emotions as things we feel; As things that happen to us. This clarity allows us to simply teach children to recognize the behavioral manifestations of emotions so they can learn to ascribe the appropriate terms. Ascription of emotional terms is based on behavioral events which meet specific behavioral criteria.

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 and 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.


bottom of page