Phenomenology, ABA and Challenging Behaviour

A key aspect of contemporary naturalistic analytic philosophy emphasises the fact that we cannot go directly to reality. Our grasp of reality is conceptually mediated. We do not have direct access to the thing in-itself. Our understanding of reality is of necessity mediated by our conceptual models. Naturalistic philosophers who argue against the Myth-of-the-Given (the idea that we have unmediated access to sensory data or the physical world), don’t all deny that we can refer to objects that exist outside of our conceptual scheme. Quine, for example, made heavy weight of observation sentences, sentences which hook onto aspects of the mind independent world. Even Quine’s biggest fans would acknowledge that he never managed to fully make clear the notion of an observation sentence and its relation to other sentences in our conceptual scheme. Philosophers of a more cognitive bent have tried to fix reference via internal cognitive structures with the role of conceptualization plays in fixing reference is still debated (See Fodor and Pylyshn’s 2014 criticism of Tyler Burge). Despite some impressive evidence from neuroscience; our best scientific theories still support the notion that our purchase on the world is gained in a theory laden way and we have no reasonable way of ripping our minds off and seeing the world as it is.

            Given this fact, I think it is worth reflecting on how the notion of observation is used in other schools of thought. In popular lore Phenomenology studies reality as it reveals itself to us in experience. On this caricatured view of phenomenology, we have experiences which are unmediated by conceptual schemes and it is the job of the philosopher to study these experiences prior to conceptualizing them. At the other end of the spectrum we are told observation plays a key role in behavioural science. Common lore has it that behavioural scientists refuse to acknowledge intermediate cognitive structures because they cannot be directly observed. Direct observation is the paradigm for the behavioural scientist; or so popular science tells us. Based on these two popular stories one could conclude that both behavioural science and phenomenology while approaching reality from different perspectives still agree on the same misguided premise; that we can directly observe reality. A critic who accepted the above caricatures could argue that both traditions haven’t kept up with developments in neuroscience, cognitive science and analytic philosophy.

            In this blog-post I will argue that the concept of observation used by both behavioural scientists and phenomenologists is much more sophisticated than the usual caricatures spouted by their critics. After explaining how both disciplines use the concept of observation I will then contrast them arguing that the behavioural notion of observation and measurement is incomplete and can be improved on by using insights from phenomenology.

            In tackling this project there is a danger that I will be applying labels in too broad a brush stroke. Phenomenologists from Husserl, Heidegger, Ponty and Derrida all start with radically different presuppositions. Likewise, in the field of Behavioural Science people like Watson, Skinner, Tolman, and Hayes all held widely divergent philosophical assumptions about the nature of the field. To avoid painting in too broad a brush stroke I will limit my approach to phenomenology as it is represented by Merlearu-Ponty and behavioural science as it is practiced by contemporary Applied Behavioural Analysis. By focusing on these different techniques and how they are used in the field I hope to be able to give a more grounded conception of how they use the notion of observation. In the final section I will draw some connections between behavioural science, phenomenology and their different ways of dealing with observation.

                          Behavioural Science and the Concept of Observation.

“Not to define precisely and to measure these behavioural excesses and deficiencies, then, is a fundamental error, it is akin to the malpractice of a nurse who decides not to measure vital signs (heart rate, respiration rate, temperature, and blood pressure), perhaps arguing that she is too busy, that subjective estimates of vital signs are quite adequate, the vital signs are only superficial estimates of the patient’s health, or that vital signs do not signify the nature of the underlying pathology. ( ABA p. 95)

While in the scientific community behavioural science is considered an outdated position, which was refuted by Chomsky half a century ago. In the applied sciences it is flourishing as a field. Applied Behavioural Analysis[1] focuses on behaviour modification and their chief clientele is people with autism and people with intellectual disabilities. They sell themselves as the only form of therapy that achieves predictable results which can be measured scientifically. Hence, they focus heavily on the notion of observation which they argue is the only way to guarantee that you can measure behavioural change.

            In ABA the emphasis isn’t so much on observation as on measurement of what is observed. And measurement is important for the ABA practitioner not because they want to sketch an epistemological theory of how we know what we know. Rather they argue that it is only through measurement we gain accurate descriptions and prediction and control of our subject matter. Without measurement our theories will be nothing more than subjective hunches. The key for the ABA practitioner is to gain predictive control over the subject matter they are studying. So rather than just relying on passive observation one is led down the route of using careful measurements of behaviours, so any behaviour change that occurs because of treatment can be precisely quantified.

            A behaviour is not just measured in isolation. So, for example, consider a form of self-injurious behaviour where a person is hitting themselves on the jaw. The aim of measuring this behaviour is to get answers about whether there are functional relations between the behaviour and environmental contingencies (ABA p. 94). To do this you need to ascertain when the behaviour began; what the antecedent events were that preceded the behaviour, the duration of the behaviour, the intensity of the behaviour, whether the behaviours varied or changed as a result of treatment. Furthermore, if you keep a detailed measure of anytime a particular behaviour occurs, you will be able to establish the possible effects of different environments on the intensity, duration and likelihood of the said behaviour occurring.

            ABA practitioners note that because behaviour occurs over time it has three primary qualities. (1) Countability: Instances of a response class can occur repeatedly through time. Hence, they can be counted. (2) Temporal extent: every behaviour occurs during some amount of time (which can be measured). (3) Temporal Locus: every behaviour occurs at a certain point of time with respect to other events (ibid p. 95).

            As a form of therapy ABA emphasises measurement because it is the only way to guarantee the efficaciousness of the treatment. As you cannot argue that a treatment led to certain problematic behaviours decreasing, unless you are able to quantify the how often the behaviour occurred prior to the treatment, and how often it occurred post treatment. While ABA’s emphasis on measurement is laudable and is a way of keeping honest about what you are achieving; there is a sense in which it gives an air of objectivity to your treatments that is not fully warranted.

                              Phenomenology and Intellectual Disability

“We must return to the social world with which we are in contact through the simple fact of our existence, and that we inseparably bear along with us prior to every objectification. The social world is already there when we come to know it or when we judge it. An individualistic or sociological philosophy is a certain perception of coexistence systematized and made explicit. Prior to this coming to awareness, the social exists silently and as a solicitation.” ( Phenomenology of Perception p. 379)

In our above discussion of behavioural science we discussed a person hitting themselves on the jaw repeatedly, the ABA beginning point was to count the amount of times the behaviour occurred, this approach in effect treats the person as an object in the world like any other object. The aim was to measure the intensity, duration, and temporal locus of an event because this type of accurate measurement made prediction and control of the subject more likely. This evidence-based approach is a useful tool which is favoured by many services because it is easier to justify spending on a form of therapy if one can objectively characterise its utility. However, from a phenomenological perspective this behavioural approach is open to criticism for ignoring a key form of evidence. The phenomenological approach asks us to key in on our lived experience of the world and this lived experience is sometimes ignored by behavioural methodology.

            From a behavioural perspective if an instance of challenging behaviour occurs the emphasis is on finding antecedents, measuring the behaviours that occurred during the incident, and measuring the consequences of the incident. Overtime, as we classify behavioural patterns into groups and measure how these patterns change based on treatment, we can map all this data statistically to demonstrate the rate of behaviour change. However, in all this measuring and classifying the lived world of experience is pushed out of our description of events.

In his Phenomenology of Perception Merleau-Ponty emphasized the lived world of experience which is at odds with the ABA conception of humans as just objects amongst objects waiting to be measured:

“…the whole escapes the well -known instruments of physical-mathematical analysis to open onto another type of intelligibility.” ( ibid p. 11)

When Ponty is criticizing the idea of studying humans using the tools of physical-mathematical analysis; he is attacking both empiricists such as Hume and the Logical Positivists. On Ponty’s view empiricists are guilty of ignoring the background conditions which give our observations sense. However, while his criticisms were directed to logical positivists and empiricists, they have clear relevance to the practice of ABA. Below Ponty describes what it is that he thinks the likes of ABA practitioners are missing:

“… we find, as a fundamental layer, a whole already pregnant with sense. This is not a series of incomplete sensations between which memories would have to be embedded, but rather the physiognomy-the structure of the landscape or of the world-spontaneously in accordance with our present intentions and with our previous experiences. Here the true problem of memory’s role in perception appears, and it is tied to the general problem of perceptual consciousness. It is a question of understanding how consciousness-by its own energy and without bringing along any additional materials in a mythical unconsciousness-can, with time, alter the structure of landscapes; how at each instant, its previous experience is present to it in the form of an horizon that it can reopen, if it takes the horizon as a theme for knowledge in an act of remembering, but can also leave “on the margins” and that thus immediately provides the perceived with a present atmosphere and signification. A field always available to consciousness that, for this very reason, surrounds and envelops all of its perceptions; it is an atmosphere, an horizon, or even the “settings” that assign consciousness a temporal situation-such is the present of the past that makes distinct acts of perception and remembering possible. To perceive is not to experience a multitude of impressions that bring along with them some memories capable of completing them, it is to see an immanent  sense bursting forth from a constellation of givens without which no call to memory is possible. To remember is not to bring back before the gaze of consciousness a self-subsistent picture of the past, it is to plunge into the horizon of the past and gradually to unfold tightly packed perspectives until the experiences that it summarizes are as if lived a new in their own temporal place. To perceive is not to remember. (ibid p. 23)

In the above lengthy quote Ponty is describing our perceptions and their relations to memory in a vastly different manner to the way in which ABA practitioners do. Consider our above example of a service user engaging in self-injurious behaviour. We have seen above how an ABA practitioner would address the situation in terms of quantification of the class of behaviour, the number of times the behaviour occurred, and antecedents and consequences of the behaviour. But Ponty’s emphasis would be on different factors.

            When you see another human engage in self-injurious behaviour you do not just see the behaviour from the outside as a passive observer. Rather you are caught up in the events occurring. While you can try to count the behaviours occurring, and afterwards analyse what has happened; at the moment the behaviour is occurring, you are a participant in an event and not an observer of an event. You see a person in distress who is hurting himself; this behaviour impacts on you emotionally. Furthermore, when this distress occurs memories at the horizons of your consciousness will become more prominent, your memories of previous experiences similar to this one will flood forward, these memories will colour how you experience the current event.

            As well your memories colouring how you deal with the self-injurious behaviour; your mind will also be directed towards the future. Based on your past experiences you will anticipate how long this behaviour may go on for and this will colour how you feel about this behaviour. All of this happens in the moment. But each moment floods into the next one and your engagement with the service user as you try to calm them down will ensue a flow of events that is unpredictable. Any behaviour you engage in to minimize the self-injurious behaviour will impact the consciousness of the service user you are working with. The service user may recall instances in the past where staff try to intervene when they engage in self-injurious behaviour and this recollection will colour how they experience the intervention. Their past experiences of interventions may colour how they view this current interaction.  Furthermore, they may have an idea of how much frustrations the interventions typically bring them; this may cause them to anticipate an extended period of frustration[2]. In this interaction you have two people engaging in a struggle, who interact and react to each other in a dynamic process that is not subject to prediction and control.  For any idea of measuring the behaviour of the service user to make sense; one would need to also put in place measurement system for the staff, which detailed their history of interactions with the service user and a system to analyse the culture of interaction in relation to group dynamics. Furthermore, an analysis of the dynamics that shaped this group would be necessary. When trying to quantify a service users behaviour ABA style a more contextual approach is needed. No behaviour occurs in isolation.

            An approach to a person that engages in self-injurious behaviour that treats the behaviour as an independent event to be measured, will ignore the fact that the person doing the measuring is not an objective scientific instrument like a thermostat or a camera but is rather a subject engaged in the drama unfolding in the moment.  Whether the person is aware of their own behaviour, feelings and how they are affecting the way the event unfolds or not they will still be a part of the event. And being aware of themselves and lived experience in the moment can help them modify their role in the event that is unfolding and this may offer an insight that is more useful than simply passively measuring the challenging behaviour.

            So, for example, a health care worker experiencing a service user engaging in a bout of challenging behaviour such as self-injurious behaviour and loud screaming may re call that in the past this behaviour lasted for hours. This recollection may make the worker experience frustration, which will make them tense and hence less effective in implementing calming procedures and could result in the behaviour getting worse. No amount of observing the behaviour of the service user will tell you why they their behaviour got worse unless you factor in your own feelings and behaviour that played a key causal role in the unfolding drama.

            One difficulty in understanding in these situations is that we are not always good at that type of self-reflection:

       “In general, a manner of thinking that is unaware of itself and that is at home in the things cannot be refuted by describing phenomena. The physicist’s atoms will always seem more real than the historical and qualitative picture of this world; the physico-chemical processes more real than organic forms; empiricisms psychic atoms more real than perceived phenomena; and intellectual atoms (namely, the Vienna Circle’s “significations”) more than real consciousness, so long as one seeks to construct the picture of this world, life perception, or mind, rather than recognizing the experience we have of them as the immediate source and as the final authority of our knowledge.” (ibid p. 24)

Here Ponty is noting that to a person so committed a scientistic philosophy the world as we experience it will always recede to a background and appear unreal. Such unreflective people will either dismiss the lived world of both them and the service user they are working with. However, despite this dismissive attitude; whether they like it or not they are immersed in this world and their engagement in this world will have influences on them that cannot be measured from the point of view of an objective spectator.


[1] Henceforth Applied Behavioural Analysis will be referred to as ABA.

[2] The service user may have difficulties in projecting into the future or in remembering the past and this will impact on how they experience the interaction.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s