William M. Baum

A molar view of goal direction and habit

  • Behavioral Neuroscience
  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology

AbstractWhen we treat behavior within an evolutionary framework and as temporally extended flow, two fundamental questions arise: (a) What is an organism? and (b) What is behavior? An organism is a process that stays intact by constantly exchanging energy with the environment. It takes in resources and puts out waste. The behavior of an organism consists of those process parts of the organism process that make up the exchange. These activities serve the function of reproducing, which generally depends on surviving. Surviving and reproducing depend on responding to phylogenetically important events (PIEs). A PIE induces activities that enhance or mitigate the PIE. Organisms respond not only to a PIE but also to events that covary with the PIE. Both activities and environmental features may covary with a PIE. When either type of covariance is introduced to an organism, behavior adapts over time. The early stages of adaptation constitute what researchers call “goal direction,” and the later stages constitute what researchers call “habit.” Behavior and environment constitute a dynamic system, and manipulations of the covariances and environmental features of the system allow many experimental interventions. This molar approach allows experiments on goal direction and habit to be understood without appeal to everyday mentalistic terms.

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