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Trust  your own alarm bells: Response to Calkin

Several months ago, in an ABA oriented Facebook group, a paper by Abigal Calkin (2009) was recommended. The paper was published in the European Journal of Behavior Analysis. This particular ABA community got very animated about this piece and I wanted to know what the excitement was about. The article sat on my desk for some time and I recently got around to reading it.


In the paper titled, 'An examination of inner (private) and outer (public) behaviors', published in a leading behavior analytic journal, the author, Abigail Calkin states emphatically that thoughts, feelings, urges and attitudes are often ignored and that it is a misconception that they are elusive, amorphous, and subjective. Additionally, she stresses that these things need to be defined. She writes, “We need to begin with a definition of that supposedly amorphous, subjective, elusive area of a person’s inner world, the natural world most people too easily ignore. Inner behavior has three categories: Thoughts, feelings and urges. She points to ‘data’ of persons 'counting' their own thoughts which leads her to say that this shows "that inner behavior can be researched” and suggests, “We currently have the capability to study inner behavior per se with a level of accuracy we did not have 50 years ago”. This revelation is happily consistent with radical behaviorism, and thus, with the authority of Skinner, she proclaims such things are amenable to scientific investigation.

But surely, Dr. Calkin knows that psychology got its start by looking at these things under the guise of science. Wilhelm Wundt was investigating these things well before Skinner was born.

Furthermore, since when have thoughts, feelings or urges been elusive, amorphous and subjective? And, what are we able to do now that we were not able to do 50 or 500 years ago when it comes to counting thoughts, feelings and urges. And, when have they ever been ignored? Our thoughts, feelings and urges are a part of our everyday existence. Many persons derive their income from concerns bound up with thoughts, feelings, and urges (psychotherapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, priests, rabbis, clinical social workers, journalists, etc.).

We write about them, we discuss them daily. They are accounted for in memoirs, expressed in theater, film, poetry and literature. Our thoughts are expressed in discourse surrounding problem solving, beliefs, assumptions, musings and deliberations. Our urges are constantly checked, indulged and discussed. We have a vast repository of “data” on feelings, thoughts, urges and attitudes found in historical writings, T.V interviews, letters from our parents, emails from our friends. Those who keep journals record ‘data’ on their own musings, feelings, urges and attitudes, and also might include feelings, thoughts and urges of other persons accounted for in what they have said or otherwise have expressed. We even have thoughts and feelings about the thoughts and feelings of others and our own. Moreover, thoughts and feelings are often giving as the reasons for which we do things.The ‘data’ are right in front of our noses; in full view.


What am I missing? I read more. Calkin suggests that in order to better study these things, they should be defined, She sets about to do so and offers, as she says, “unique” definitions of “a thought”, “a feeling” and an “urge”.


  • “A thought is an idea”,

  • “A feeling is a thought with a physiological component”.

  • “Urge”, is a compulsion to do something and is dependent on

physiological components


Calkin on thought


Let’s consider her definition of thought: “A thought is an idea”. O.K.… nothing new in saying this. This is evident in our linguistic practice. The terms are often used interchangeably. Therefore, we might say, “I have an idea”, which is sometimes used as another way of saying, “I have a thought”, which in both cases may suggest that someone has considered or deliberated over a problem and is prepared to offer a suggestion, recommendation or solution. In such cases these terms are used in the same way and we can say here, a thought is an idea.


However, a thought is not always an idea. For example, while we can say, “My thoughts are racing”, we can’t say, “My ideas are racing”. And, while someone may have a thought disorder, there is no such thing as  “an idea disorder”. Similarly, one may have intrusive thoughts, but not intrusive ideas. I may say, “My thoughts are with you, but not “My ideas are with you”, and I may say, “I’m sending you good thoughts” when you may be feeling poorly, but that is not the same a sending you good ideas for a project we are working on together. All this is to say that thoughts and ideas are not made interchangeable by Calkin’s decree.


And, while Calkin feels confident that we can collect ‘data’ (frequencies) on thoughts with an accuracy we did not have 50 years ago, I’m not convinced. How are we now more accurate at counting thoughts as compared to 50 years ago? Fifty years ago it was just as common to have a thought one second … but not to be able to remember what it was a moment later. Are we any better now at determining where one thought begins or ends or when another takes its place?  And 50 years ago and today, we are still not able to report on the micro-structure of thought as we might other activities such a football game? It is almost impossible to give a continuous account of a whole period of thinking. (See Severin Schroder, 1996 for more about this issue). 

Calkin speaks of "a thought"... but the term "thought" is used in a variety of ways... thus, if we are deep in thought we may be remembering something or considering something, ruminating or possibly deliberating. We might be imagining something or thinking through a problem. We might be assessing, estimating or acting with thought. Does she suggest that these varieties of use of the term are covered by her definition "a thought is an idea"? Does she mean to ignore the richness of the term's uses. 

Calkin on feelings


Calkin’s ‘definition’ of feelings raises many questions. She says, “A feeling is a thought with a physiological component”. Does that mean any thought combined with any physiological component is a feeling?  If I say, “I think I’m having a heart attack while I also have a rapid pulse … Does this qualify as a feeling?


Is she saying it is not possible to have a feeling without the occurrence of thought? Does this mean that there is ‘no pure joy’, no ‘absolute fear’ no “sudden terror”, or revulsion or queasiness at the sight of blood or worse.... if not accompanied by a thought? And since Calkin subscribes to radical behavioral doctrine in which 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 the author 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 it is a sensation, how does one not sense it…it’s a sensation for god's sake.  When I say, “I have the sensation of tingling in my fingers”, can I have a sensation in my fingers but not sense it? This lacks sense.


Calkin on Urges:


Calkin suggests that an urge is a compulsion to do something and is dependent on physiological components. So, let’s explore this a bit. If I have to use the toilet, we would all agree that I would have an ‘urge’ to use the toilet. Most would also agree that there is a physiological component. But would we say that my urge to go to the bathroom is a compulsion? What if the physiological event that is linked with the urge is accompanied by a thought… is it no longer an urge but rather a feeling? If I say I have an urge to punch you in` the nose… How is this different from wanting to punch you in the nose? How is a craving for chocolate different from an urge? If I have an urge to see my Mom… could this urge also be longing? Is my longing a feeling if the longing-urge-compulsion is accompanied by a thought? Are these even useful or meaningful questions? Can these questions be settled by the science of behavior analysis? Surely not. But this is the kind of rabbit hole such efforts take us down. On the other hand, a thorough conceptual/connective analysis would help flesh out and clarify these relations. 


What’s left?


It seems that Calkin’s definitions and attempt to clarify thought, feeling and urges for the sake of science is confusing and confused. It is not clear how her efforts help in attempts at quantification or what quantification would even tell us, other that we have thoughts, feelings and urges. There is no mystery here. Calkin’s excited pronouncement that we can now research “inner behavior” because we can count, adds what? How is this different from what Wundt was doing more than 130+ years earlier? Moreover, as ordinary language users we all know what we mean when we use the terms “feeling”, “urge”, and “thought” as demonstrated by our mastery of the use of the terms. Our ability to use the terms indicates our possession of the concepts, which, Calkin either doesn’t possess (which is unlikely except when she's wearing her behavior analyst's hat) or willfully ignores. Ordinary language serves us just fine. Trust yourself, just because something has found its way into a 'scientific journal', doesn't mean it should be taken at face value. Trust your own alarm bells when what is said seems fishy. My two cents.


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