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W. Thomas Bourbon
In Chapter 2, Ed briefly introduces some principles of perceptual control theory (PCT), the theory he relied on when he designed his responsible thinking process (RTP). In that chapter, he describes events occurring when Hunter tries to attract the attention of Sally Ann, and when Mrs. Johnson intervenes to maintain a quiet classroom. In this chapter, I introduce additional concepts from PCT and illustrate them with more interactions among Hunter, Sally Ann, and Mrs. Johnson. I hope that this additional introduction gives you a sampling of the rigor and depth of PCT: it is different from all other theories in behavioral science, social science, and life science.
Reviewing the basics: PCT explains how each of us controls (specifies, creates, and maintains) some of our own perceptions, in spite of the fact that, in the world around us, natural forces and other people can always disturb the perceptions that we control. Stop reading for a while and become aware of your perceptions of your surroundings, and of your own body. Become aware of what you see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. Now make some of those perceptions change. (Act so as to change what you see, hear, feel, and so on.) Become aware of any perceptions that change independently of what you do. (Do you see, hear, or feel anything changing, independently of what you do?) Think back to Chapter 2 and identify examples of Hunter acting to create perceptions for himself, and of Mrs. Johnson experiencing changes in her perceptions, changes that occurred independently of what she was doing at the time.
In PCT, the experiences you just had are what we mean by the word “perception.” All of our experiences of the world, including experiences of our own bodies and actions, are perceptions. Perceptions can range from those of the presence and intensity of sounds or lights, through those of the fact that a person is standing in front of us or that a particular tune is playing on the radio, to those about the state of the world economy and the quality of our relationships with other people. PCT explains behavioral actions as the means by which a person affects the world in order to create and maintain certain perceptions. We always act to make what we perceive happening right now match what we intend to perceive right now. For so long as what we perceive to be happening matches what we intend to perceive, we do not change what we are doing; when there is a mismatch between perceptions right now and our in-tended perceptions, we change the way we act on the world in order to change what we perceive. The mismatch between intended perceptions and actual ones is what drives any changes in our actions. Just like Hunter when he counteracted Mrs. Johnson’s attempt to stop his communication with Sally Ann, we act to counteract, or eliminate, the effects of anything in the world that disturbs our controlled perceptions. For us to control a given perception, our actions must vary any way necessary to eliminate the effects of disturbances.
We control (specify, create, and maintain) our perceptions, not our actions. We are aware of the perceptions we control (the position of our car on the highway, the temperature of the room, the degree to which our dinner is seasoned), but we are often blissfully unaware of our specific actions by which we control those perceptions. If anyone asks us what we are doing, most of us describe the perception we are controlling (driving my car to the hospital in an emergency; working hard to complete a project, in a room that feels too hot; eating this dinner prepared by my spouse, a dinner which, by the way, is too bland), not our actions at the moment. On the other hand, all that another person can see are the actions we use to control our perceptions; the other person cannot experience our perceptions and often believes that we are “doing” our actions (gripping the steering wheel and turning it, manipulating the controls on a thermostat, shaking a pepper shaker above a serving tray).
Think back to Chapter 2. What would Mrs. Johnson perceive Hunter doing? What would Hunter say he is doing? What would Hunter perceive Mrs. Johnson doing? What would she say she is doing? What would Sally Ann say she is doing? If you understand the differences between the perceptions Hunter, Sally Ann, and Mrs. Johnson control (what each of them would say he or she is doing), and what each of them perceives the other doing, then you are in a good position to understand PCT. If you understand PCT, you have a better chance of recognizing its importance as a source of new ideas about how people can interact.
A little beyond the basics—disturbing one another: Of all the perceptions that a person experiences at any moment, he selects only a few to control. As far as he is concerned, all of the others go uncontrolled. When Hunter decided to control his perceptions of Sally Ann, he gave up control over many of his other perceptions, like the ones related to completing his spelling exercise and to minding the rules in the classroom. Also, his actions had many more effects than just the ones he intended. For example, the second time Hunter acted to control his perceptions of Sally Ann, Mrs. Johnson (and probably other students) also heard the sounds he made. All that Hunter intended was to perceive Sally Ann change what she was doing. He probably did not intend to disturb other students, and he certainly did not intend for Mrs. Johnson to hear him, or warn him. We are all like Hunter, in that our actions always produce many more consequences than the ones we intend. We often do not even perceive those unintended consequences of our own actions, but sometimes they disturb perceptions other people control. Unintentionally, Hunter’s signals to Sally Ann disturbed Mrs. Johnson’s controlled perception of “a quiet classroom.” Even if we do not intend for our actions to disturb other people, from time to time they will.
Disturbances that occur in a classroom are often called “disruptions,” and the person who disrupts is often disciplined. Usually, an educator intends for discipline to “make” a student stop performing actions that occur during a disruption—actions that disturb perceptions the educator controls. This is where the ideas in PCT become important. Discipline is the means by which educators are supposed to control the actions of students, but we know that people, including students, do not “do” their actions. Instead, actions are the means by which people control their perceptions. In that light, we see that discipline is the means by which educators try to control their own perceptions of what happens in the classroom.
We also know that disturbances to others often occur as unintended consequences when a person acts to control her perceptions. If we try to stop her from performing those actions, then she might very well oppose the effects of our efforts, which act as disturbances to her controlled perceptions. Her opposition is part of the perfectly natural attempt to eliminate the effects of disturbances, and it is not necessarily a sign that she is nasty, defiant, or oppositional. The student might not have realized that her actions disturbed perceptions controlled by other students or by the teacher, and the teacher might not have known that his disciplinary actions would be opposed as disturbances to perceptions the student controlled.
It looks like we have entered into a potentially endless knot of social complexity, produced when each of us disturbs the other’s perceptions and then attempts to eliminate the effects of those disturbances. The only way to cut that knot is for us to acknowledge that all of us act to control our own perceptions, and that sometimes we disturb one another. Then we must develop ways to eliminate un-necessary disturbances to others, and to resolve conflicts that often ensue when unavoidable disturbances occur.
Feedback functions: Look back at the diagrams in Chapter 2 that represent Hunter as a perceptual control sys- tem. Notice the arrow that connects Hunter’s “actions” to the “controlled variable.” Scientific PCT includes a formal mathematical model of a control system and how it interacts with its environment. In the model, the arrow that connects actions to controlled variables is called the “feedback function,” the physical pathway that joins the person’s actions to the things in the world that affect his controlled perceptions. Some feedback functions are simple and direct, others are extremely long and complex. If Hunter be-gins to lose interest in his spelling lesson and decides to tap his fingers on the desk, the feedback function is short and direct: his motor neurons act on the muscles in his fingers, and the muscles pull against the bones in his fingers, which immediately move to produce tapping. Hunter quickly and reliably produces the perceptions he intends. Of course, his tapping might disturb someone else—like Mrs. Johnson.
If Hunter wants to sharpen his pencil, the feedback function is a little more complex than the one for tapping. Now Hunter’s actions result in the pencil being inside the sharpener and the handle of the sharpener turning. Turning the handle causes a series of mechanical events, inside the sharpener, that result in the pencil being sharpened. In this case, the feedback function includes a few mechanical ob-jects and events in the environment outside of Hunter’s body. (For a moment, imagine that Hunter has grown up. Now imagine the feedback function that would connect his actions—movements of parts of his body—with the controlled variables for his perceptions of “the car in the proper place on the road, traveling at the legal speed limit.”)
Now imagine that Hunter wants to see Sally Ann looking at him. He believes that if she pays attention to him, she likes him. What kind of feedback function might allow Hunter’s actions to create the right circumstances in the world for him to see Sally Ann looking at him? Obviously, that function must include Sally Ann. Somehow, Hunter’s actions must affect Sally Ann in a way that results in her looking at him. Hunter cannot grab Sally Ann’s face and forcefully turn it toward him. If he were to do that, he would treat her like an inanimate object, subject only to the physical laws of lineal cause-and-effect. He would be treating her like a rock that he can pick up and move about as he pleases. If he were to treat Sally Ann that way, it would disturb many of her controlled perceptions, and she would counteract his actions. What is he to do?
All he can do is try to “catch her attention” and hope that she looks his way. In Chapter 2, that is what he does, and that is what she does. Hunter’s feedback function runs from his mouth (“Sally Ann, psst! Hi!”), through the air, into Sally Ann’s auditory system, and so on, through whatever must happen in her brain for her to decide to look toward Hunter and then to actually look his way. That is a very complex feedback function, with many places where something might happen that would prevent Hunter from seeing the result he wants. His feedback function includes another person, who always acts to control her own perceptions.
Now imagine Mrs. Johnson and her intention to perceive a quiet classroom, which, to her, implies that all of the students are busily studying their assigned lessons. What is the feedback function through which her actions might produce the perceptions she intends? It must run from her actions, through the perceptual processes of each of the students, through the processes by which each of them controls his or her own perceptions, and back out through their actions that affect the environment, which Mrs. Johnson perceives. That is an extremely complex feedback function! Imagine all of the places where something might happen, or not happen, so that Mrs. Johnson perceives something other than what she wants!
What can Mrs. Johnson do when she perceives Hunter doing something other than what she wants? Like Hunter with Sally Ann, Mrs. Johnson cannot grab Hunter and force him to do what she wants. That would be treating him like a rock. Instead, she must rely on other means. Like all educators, she undoubtedly learned many techniques to manage, or “control,” students’ behavior in her classroom. She probably learned that she must teach students to control their actions, by first controlling their actions for them. However, all techniques that are designed to control children’s actions assume that they are like inanimate objects, subject to physical laws of lineal cause-and-effect. The techniques include cause-effect practices like delivering reinforcers, levels, and points; creating environments designed to meet students’ needs; restructuring students’ cognitions; and drugging students whose “brains are defective” and whose “behaviors are out of control.” All of those cause-effect techniques are designed around the mistaken idea that children control their own actions, and that, in an emergency, teachers can step in and control their actions for them. But students don’t control their actions. Instead, their actions vary any way necessary so that the students can control their own perceptions. If, in her attempts to control students’ actions, Mrs. Johnson disturbs too many of the perceptions they control, then they will act to oppose her effects on those perceptions. I am sure that, from time to time, many educators have encountered exactly that outcome, when they applied traditional techniques for “behavior management.”
One more point about feedback functions. One person, acting with the best intentions, might intrude into another person’s feedback function to help him or her control perceptions, without first being invited to do so. In that case, his actions are likely to disturb her perceptions, and she will then try to counteract his effects. He might, with good intentions, hold a door open for a person who is quadriplegic while she goes through in her motorized wheelchair. However, if she intends to perceive herself as capable of passing through that door unassisted, then his actions will disturb that perception, and she will probably oppose him. If, uninvited, Mrs. Johnson tries to control Hunter’s behavior, then he will probably counteract her. In contrast with those two examples, if the woman who is quadriplegic, or Hunter, requests assistance, then the very same actions by the would-be helper probably will not be perceived as disturbing, and there will be no attempt to counteract them. The difference is between being invited to become part of someone’s feedback function and intruding into it uninvited.
A hierarchy of controlled perceptions: “Sally Ann, psst! Hi!” Hunter made those sounds, but what actions produced them? Obviously, Hunter’s vocal system moved in just the right ways, with the muscles in his face, throat, and respiratory system relaxing and contracting by just the right amounts, in just the right sequences. It is fortunate that we don’t need to think about our actions in that much detail in order to create the perceptions we want. Like Hunter, all we seem to do is think about what we want to hear, and “it just happens.” Hunter’s utterances began when he wanted Sally Ann to look at him. That was what he wanted to perceive, but instead he perceived her working on her spelling lesson. There was a discrepancy between what he wanted to perceive and what he did perceive. He needed to act, but how? He decided to whisper to her, but he did not perceive himself doing that. (Another discrepancy.) To do so, he needed to perceive his mouth moving a certain way and his breath exhaling in a peculiar sequence, but that was not what he perceived. (Another discrepancy.) To do so, he needed to sense the muscles in his face and respiratory system relaxing and contracting in a particular sequence, but that is not what he perceived. (Another discrepancy.) To do so, he needed to sense increases and decreases in the tensions of individual fibers in his muscles. When that happened, he produced the sounds that he intended to hear.
I just described a hierarchy of perceptions, which is an important feature of PCT. I started at the top, with Hunter’s intention to perceive Sally Ann looking at him, and worked my way down to rapid changes in the tensions of muscles in Hunter’s respiratory system. When I worked down the hierarchy, I described how Hunter eventually produced his actions. A discrepancy (error signal) between intended perceptions and actual perceptions at a higher level became the specification for the intended perception at the next level down in the hierarchy. Finally, at the lowest level, the signals descending from the level above specified the states of muscle fibers that Hunter’s nervous system should be sensing, and the states of the muscle fibers changed. Changes in the muscle fibers created his actions. Moving down the perceptual hierarchy explains how specific actions occur. In this case, Hunter’s specific actions produced the perceptions of his own whisper that he intended to hear.
If we start at the bottom of the hierarchy, with the actions, and work our way up, we see why things happen at each level. The muscle tensions occur to produce perceptions of certain forces (specified by error signals from the level above), which occur to produce perceptions of certain movements (specified by error signals from the level above), which occur to produce perceptions of certain sounds (specified by error signals from the level above), which occur to produce perceptions of a specific utterance (specified by error signals from the level above), which occurs (so Hunter hopes!) to produce certain visual perceptions of Sally Ann looking at him. Actually, Ed’s description of events in Chapter 2 implies that there is at least one more level above the level where Hunter perceives Sally Ann looking at him. For some reason, Hunter wants to experience affection from Sally Ann, and he believes that when she looks at him, it means she cares about him. Hunter wants to perceive Sally Ann showing affection; to perceive affection, he wants to perceive her looking at him, and so on, back down the hierarchy.
What about Mrs. Johnson’s actions? Why did they occur? We heard her say, “Hunter, please stop talking.” Again, certain muscle tensions, to produce certain forces, to produce certain movements, to produce certain sounds, to produce a certain utterance ... and then what? Why that particular utterance? To produce a perception of Hunter behaving the way Mrs. Johnson thought he should, to perceive a quiet classroom with all students “on task,” to perceive herself as a competent and responsible educator. If Mrs. Johnson acts with the intent of controlling Hunter’s actions, she sets herself up for him to counteract her, or, as Skinnerian behaviorists would say, to counter-control her.
Hunter whispered to control his perceptions of affection. Mrs. Johnson spoke to control her perceptions of herself as a competent professional person. Do you see why, in PCT, we say that a person’s actions, which we perceive from the outside, are not what the person is doing?
Reorganization: Hunter acted to perceive affection from Sally Ann, but his actions also disturbed perceptions controlled by other students and by Mrs. Johnson. Those kinds of actions probably work to control his perceptions in other settings, but in the classroom, they produce unintended consequences for other people and for Hunter. What will happen when Hunter discovers that he can no longer control those perceptions, in that setting, by those kinds of actions? He must find new ways to control his perceptions, or he must select new perceptions to control. In either case, there will be a period during which he senses that some of his important perceptions have gone out of control. Hunter will experience a process that PCT identifies as “reorganization,” in which a person tries new ways of controlling, or new perceptions to control, until something works. There is no automatic way to accomplish the end result in a specified time. Often, the selection of new actions, or new perceptions, is random. Sometimes, the person uses a strategy for change that has worked before, or another person might try to guide him through the process. Either way, no one else can make the person suddenly know which new perceptions to control, or how to control them. Sometimes the person reorganizes quickly and easily, but often the process involves a lengthy private struggle.
A student, who for years has successfully used disruption as a way to control the actions of his educators and parents, sometimes struggles for a long time when he encounters adults who use RTP. Adults no longer try to control the student’s actions, so he has lost his ability to resist their disturbing attempts at control. When they stop trying to control him, he can no longer control them in return. Techniques that have helped the student control his perceptions of himself as a person no longer work. He experiences large discrepancies between what he wants to perceive and what he does perceive. He might persist in his old ways of acting for quite a while, before he reorganizes.
It is often difficult for an adult to watch a child struggle to learn new perceptions to control, or new ways to control perceptions. Sometimes, with the best of intentions, the adult will “reach into the child’s feedback function” and try to help. Frequently, the unintended consequences of those attempts by the adult are resistance and counter-control from the child, and the end of reorganization by the child. The child has discovered that old ways of controlling still work after all, and that there is no further need to reorganize.
Think about Mrs. Johnson. If she is like most educators, when she first declared as an education major, she was taught that she could, and should, control students’ actions in her classroom. Alternatively, she might have been taught that she, and only she, should create an environment in her classroom that will meet all of the “needs” of all of the students in the room, all at the same time. As a professional person, undoubtedly she was evaluated for her ability to control students’ behavior, or to meet their needs. If she is like most teachers, she has experienced the frustration that goes with those impossible assignments. Now we know why those traditional cause-and-effect techniques for discipline do not work: their creators incorrectly assumed that people control their own actions, and that, through clever strategies, one person can come to control another’s actions. Now we know that people act to control their own perceptions, not their actions, and that when one person attempts to control another’s actions, the controllee will experience disturbance and will counteract it.
Imagine that, after all of her training, and all of her experience using traditional discipline techniques, Mrs. Johnson decides to use RTP. She understands, beyond doubt, that the traditional procedures do not work, but they are all she knows. They are “in her bones.” They are the programmatic techniques by which she deals with problems whenever she perceives them. She follows those programs in order to maintain her perceptions of herself as a competent professional person. (In PCT, “programs of action” and “perceptions of the kind of person I am” are at the highest levels in the perceptual hierarchy.) Now Mrs. Johnson hears Ed Ford saying that people do not control their own actions, much less any other person’s actions. She learns about a procedure that does not rely on those mistaken notions—one that instead treats students and educators alike as controllers of their own perceptions. She is trying to abandon old (failed) actions that were intended to control her perceptions in the classroom. She is trying to learn new perceptions to control, and new ways to control them.
What is a likely consequence of her endeavor? Reorganization. A feeling that “things have gone out of control.” (As if they ever were “under control”!) Sometimes, the “loss of control” during reorganization feels so uncomfortable that a person “reverts to the old ways”; but the old ways don’t work, so going back to them feels even worse than reorganizing. In that case, the person is likely to press on through the uncertainties of reorganization. Or perhaps the person prefers the familiar discomfort of the failed old ways to the unfamiliar discomfort associated with the (temporary) process of reorganization. In that case, the person might abandon the new ways and return to the comfort of familiar misery.
Putting it all together: How do the ideas in this chapter fit with those in Chapter 2? Hunter wants to perceive Sally Ann as caring for him, but she is studying. He experiences a perceptual discrepancy that drives his actions to change so as to affect Sally Ann, attempting to alter what he sees her doing. The first time he whispers to Sally Ann, she looks at him and smiles, and he believes she cares for him. But Sally Ann intends to perceive herself working on her spelling exercise. She counteracts his disturbance by looking back at the lesson. Hunter whispers again, but this time, unintentionally, his sounds disturb perceptions controlled by Mrs. Johnson and other students. Mrs. Johnson speaks to Hunter in order to counteract the disturbance his actions produced to her perceptions of the state of the classroom, which is part of her perception of herself as a professional person. Hunter stops whispering, and Mrs. Johnson goes back to what she was doing. She assumes that the quiet room signifies that all students are busily at work on their spelling lesson, but Hunter is not. He changes his actions in order to control his perceptions of Sally Ann without disturbing Mrs. Johnson: he writes a note to pass to Sally Ann. I am sure you can imagine several ways to continue the story.
Mrs. Johnson might decide that she is tired of using traditional techniques for controlling students’ behavior—techniques that result in students counter-controlling her. She might try to learn RTP, which acknowledges that people control their perceptions, not their actions, and that no person can control the actions of another. If she starts using RTP, Mrs. Johnson is trying to change some aspects of the highest levels in her hierarchy of perceptions. She probably will experience the uncertainties of reorganization. So will any students who learned to counter-control her when she was using traditional kinds of discipline. She and her students will learn new ways to control their perceptions without unnecessarily disturbing others, and new ways to re- solve conflicts that unavoidably occur when they disturb one another from time to time. (See chapters 9, 18, and 20.)
Conclusion: In this chapter, I have introduced a few concepts from PCT. I hope that this introduction, along with the ideas in Chapter 2, helps you to appreciate that the theory of behavior behind RTP is different from the theories behind other discipline programs. The traditional theories begin with the assumption that behavior is controlled by forces in the environment or in the brain. In PCT, behavior is identified as the means by which people control their own perceptions of the world. Traditional theories and perceptual control theory differ in many ways, and so do the discipline programs that grow out of them.
It is not easy to learn a new theory, especially when it is as different from traditional theories as is PCT. If you wonder whether you should make the effort to reorganize your thinking around PCT, look at the other chapters in the second part of this book. Examine the descriptions of results of RTP as expressed by people who experienced those results. Many of those people are learning PCT. By doing so, they are learning principles that help them to understand whether certain practices are consistent with PCT. They do not need to ask Ed Ford, in every case, whether they are “doing the right thing.”
A friendly word of caution: Reorganization around the principles of PCT is not something that most people accomplish in a day or two. Bill Powers, who originated PCT, has been at it since the 1950s. I have been at it since 1973, and Ed Ford since 1982. All of us are trying to undo many years of earlier training, which was grounded in mistaken ideas about lineal cause-and-effect that have been part of Western culture for a few hundred years. We all have a long way to go, but we can already see some of the benefits of making the effort.
William T. Powers, Making Sense of Behavior: The Meaning of Control, Benchmark Publications, New Canaan, CT, 1998. (A non-technical general introduction.)
W. T. Bourbon, “Perceptual Control Theory,” in H. L. Roitblat and J-A. Meyer, eds., Comparative Approaches to Cognitive Science, MIT Press/Bradford Books, Cambridge, MA, 1995. (A semi-technical introduction and survey of PCT research.)
Richard J. Robertson and William T. Powers, eds., Introduction to Modern Psychology: The Control Theory View, Benchmark Publications, New Canaan, CT, 1998. (A college-level textbook.)
Hetty van de Rijt and Frans Plooij, Why They Cry: Understanding Child Development in the First Year, Thorsons/ HarperCollins, London, 1992. (PCT in a new interpretation of infant and child development.)
William T. Powers, Behavior: The Control of Perception, Aldine, Chicago, 1973. (The seminal book on PCT; a modern classic.)
William T. Powers, Living Control Systems, Benchmark Publications, New Canaan, CT, 1989. (A collection of previously published writings.)
William T. Powers, Living Control Systems II, Benchmark Publications, New Canaan, CT, 1992. (A collection of previously unpublished writings.)
Richard S. Marken, Mind Readings: Experimental Studies of Purpose, Life Learning Associates, Los Angeles, CA, 1990. (A collection of papers on PCT experimental studies.)
Philip Runkel, Casting Nets and Testing Specimens: Two Grand Methods of Psychology, Praeger, New York, 1990. (A modern masterpiece about proper uses, and abuses, of research designs. Identifies the place of PCT in the broad context of behavioral and social research.)