The Inner, the Outer, and the Soul: An Intro to Metaphor in Behavior Analysis

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​Author: Niklas Törneke, MD, author of Metaphor in Practice


The main questions for behavior analysis are which factors, in a given historical situation, influence what someone does, and how these factors can be changed in order to affect behavior.


The relationship between a specific act and the context in which it occurs is the point of interest.


A typical functional analysis always begins with the question: What behavior do we want to analyze? 


Once this has been answered, the follow-up question is: What are the relevant factors in the moment that affect this behavior? And: How can we rearrange these factors to bring about a change in the behavior that is the object of our analysis? This is an approach that is fairly simple in one sense, but that still requires a good deal of clarification lest it be misunderstood.​


The human behavior, or action, that one thus tries to assay is, in principal, anything done. In everyday parlance, the word behavior can have rather superficial associations. It is something that exists only “on the surface” and that is of a completely different essence to that which exists more “deep down.” Human behavior is something “outer,” in contrast to the human “inner.” This is a definition that behavior analysts reject, as it is seen as a consequence of what in many respects are misleading metaphors that have been established over the centuries in our efforts to discuss the human condition (Skinner, 1989.) Contributing factors to this unfortunate classification are the subject of Metaphor in Practice—the power of metaphor—and the human experience of being able to observe things in ourselves (physical sensations, thoughts, images, feelings) that are not as accessible to others.


In many respects, it can of course be useful to talk about these experiences as “inner,” but for a scientific understanding, behavior analysts argue that it is deceptive. So much so, that this area of human experience is conceived as being of a different kind, as if understandable through the agency of other principles than that which is called “outer.” Historically, this is exactly what has happened; for centuries, this has been the domain of the soul.


The soul is a rare topic of scientific discussion these days, but the concept of the “psyche” and “mental phenomena” serve the same purpose: they intimate that these phenomena are of a different kind than can be regarded by an external observer.


Behavior analysis, on the other hand, claims that these phenomena are to be understood with the help of the same principles as other human action. If we want to understand what someone remembers, feel or thinks, the same questions must be asked as when analyzing “outer” behavior: What are the feelings, thoughts, or memories we want to look at? And what are the relevant factors in the contexts when this person remembers, feels, or thinks? And how can we influence these factors if we desire change?


To repudiate all talk of the “inner” in this way is not to imply that these phenomena are trivial. That is not the point. It is the way of talking about them that behavior analysis decries. Indeed, the phenomena per se are often critical to understanding human behavior. And it is clear that we often tell people important things when using these words. When we say that “Steve puts his heart and soul” into a task, we are, of course, talking about something he is doing that we also take to be important to him. To say that “Ann’s all heart” is no empty phrase, but says something about how she normally acts; no modern person would attribute her character to some quality of her physical heart. Saying that “Fatuma is mentally strong” is no meaningless claim either, as this also says something about how she normally behaves—perhaps her perseverance or ability to act in a crisis.


Playing football, hating, remembering, withdrawing, grieving, playing the flute, giving up, feeling exhausted, jumping for joy—all these behaviors can be best understood if analyzed as acts performed in interaction with factors in the environment in which they occur.


However, it is misleading if it gives the impression that the person has a certain kind of “mental substance” that is a decisive factor in the behavior to which we are referring.


Behavior analysts argue that these phenomena are best regarded as actions performed by the person under discussion, and if we wish to understand and influence, we need to analyze this behavior and its interaction with factors in the environment in which it is occurs.


The word “behavior” is thus used in behavior analysis about everything a person does. Playing football, hating, remembering, withdrawing, grieving, playing the flute, giving up, feeling exhausted, jumping for joy—all these behaviors can be best understood if analyzed as acts performed in interaction with factors in the environment in which they occur. This is the premise of behavior analysis.


See also: Acceptance and Commitment Training, Another Technology in the Behavior Analyst Tool Belt​


Metaphors are more fundamental to language and cognition than has traditionally been assumed. They are not just “linguistic ornamentation” used by poets and rhetoricians, but the building blocks of language and cognition in general. We integrate constantly with each other and with our surroundings in a way that is markedly affected by our use of metaphors. We “live on the basis” of these metaphors and they govern our actions. Modern linguistics contains a great deal of knowledge about the structure and mechanism of this phenomenon, and we have much to learn of its analyses. It turns out that there are linguists today who adopt positions that in many ways tally with the claims of behavior analysis.


Want to learn more about how to use the power of metaphor in your practice?


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This article was adapted from Metaphor in Practice by Niklas Törneke, New Harbinger Publications, 2017.