New theory of human behavior takes internal goals into account

April 30, 2000

Why do we do the things we do? Is our daily behavior essentially a reaction to outside occurrences? Might our actions instead be primarily driven by what's inside us? Or maybe, does what we do emerge from a combination of both internal and external factors?

Such are the questions that drive Gary Cziko, professor of educational psychology at the University of Illinois, in his new book, "The Things We Do"(MIT Press). Cziko notes that the last century saw dramatic advances in the physical and biological sciences, but the social sciences made relatively little progress. Psychology, he argues, has become "fragmented into scores of different schools and theories,"with the various camps either ignorant of or openly hostile to each other.

He blames "some important gaps in psychology's account of animal and human behavior." The behaviorist view sees behavior as determined by external reinforcements. The cognitive view, while recognizing the importance of internal mental processes, does not escape from the one-way, cause-and-effect view inherited from behaviorists. Neither approach, he said, successfully accounts for the role that internal goals and preferences play in our behavior.

Cziko says that more attention should be paid to the contributions of 19th century biologists Claude Bernard and Charles Darwin. Bernard showed that the internal functioning of an organism can be understood as the control of its internal environment. Darwin theorized that much of an organism's observable behavior can be seen as actions that enabled ancestral organisms to survive and reproduce.

"The Things We Do" pushes these two ideas into a new theory that considers both the control perspective of Bernard and the evolutionary view of Darwin. "By combining Bernard and Darwin, we realize that we have certain preferences that can be explained in terms of biological evolution,"Cziko said. "But behaviors are not determined by either evolution (nature) or environment (nurture)."

"Instead," he said, "they are influenced by the ways we like to perceive the world and the opportunities our physical and social environments provide for satisfying our preferences. These two factors may vary in different cultures, but fundamental human preferences and goals are very similar. To remain adaptive, however, our behaviors must continually vary to get desired results. The notion of internal goals is not a standard part of the method of today's social and behavioral sciences," he said. The book attempts to explain behavior by getting away from the one-way cause-effect paradigm. "Truly anybody interested in understanding behavior by considering a new perspective may find this book worth reading," he said. "It is not just written for academics."

Cziko's first book, "Without Miracles"(MIT Press, 1995) explored how Darwin's theory of natural selection provides a general framework for understanding all instances of knowledge growth, whether it be biological, cultural or technical.
The book and additional information are available on-line at:

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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