Enjoying the Heat

My new book, A General Theory of Behaviour, begins with a story…

It is a hot summer’s day. A couple are on holiday at a hotel with an outdoor swimming pool. After breakfast, the couple decide to spend a lazy morning beside the pool sunning themselves, reading and swimming. They go to the far end of the pool, where they spot a quiet area about five metres from the only other couple by the pool. They align two recliners a few inches apart and place a small table on either side to mark ‘their’ area of occupation. They carve a niche for themselves by distributing towels and personal objects such as magazines, books, mobile phones, tablets, sun-cream, insecticide lotion, and bags on the tables. They discretely change into swimming costumes and place their clothes on the tables to avoid the ants that quickly gather around objects on the boardwalk. They apply sun-cream, helping each other at the more difficult-to-reach bodily regions. They apply an insecticide to deter any passing mosquitos. They wear sunglasses and sun hats. A large parasol is adjusted by a pool attendant to provide shade from the penetrating sun. As the angle of the sun changes, one of them rises to adjust the parasol so that their recliners remain in the shade.

The couple converse sparingly and rarely speak to the other couple. A ‘Good morning’ here and ‘The water’s nice’ there, but nothing else. They do not wish to invade the other couple’s ‘space’, nor do they wish ‘their’ space to be invaded. After half-an-hour acclimatizing, they take a leisurely 10-minute dip in the pool to ‘cool off’. They swim slowly and quietly, avoiding vigorous movements. After returning to their parasol, drying themselves off, re-applying the sun-cream and insecticide, they order iced cola drinks using a buzzer on one of the tables.

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After a few minutes, they take another dip, splash around, tease and joke. They make a little more noise and splashing than on the first occasion, but remain within appropriate limits. They terminate this visit to the pool when the other couple enters the pool because the pool is not large and they wish to avoid ‘over-crowding’. After a few polite comments about the water temperature, they swim to the steps and climb out, walk back to ‘their’ parasol in a gingerly fashion, because the board walk has by then grown so hot that they must step only where there can find shadows or expose their feet to burningly hot boards.

Standing in the shade, they dry themselves, re-apply the sun-cream and insecticide, put on their sunglasses and hats, lie down on their recliners and, flicking away an occasional fly, push the buzzer to order another iced drink, this time two gins and tonic. As the hour turns towards midday, the ambient temperature is become too hot to bear even in the shade and, after finishing their drinks, they pack their things and return to the tranquillity of their air-conditioned, freshly cleaned hotel room. Thirty degrees outside – but not a single droplet of sweat the whole morning.

Exactly what is going on in this story? How can Enjoying the Heat help us to understand universal principles of behaviour? Let’s consider these issues:

We know a lot of intimate detail about the couple’s behaviour. The couple are close. They mark out a niche of territory using the tables and their belongings. They lie out in the sun to be tanned but not burned, to be warm, but not too warm, to be out in the open air and close to nature, but not to be bitten by insects or run over by ants, to be as peacefully relaxed as possible but not wishing to fall asleep, to be stimulated but not taxed, to exercise their bodies but gently and not strenuously, to be refreshed by a drink or two but not to be intoxicated by alcohol, to be polite to neighbours but not overly familiar, and so on and so forth – you are getting the drift. The couple are striving for a state of equilibrium, a state of ‘moderation in all things’, a ‘tiny piece of paradise’, as it says in the hotel brochure. The couple’s every action and reaction as individuals and as a couple are governed by one universal principle that guides all of behaviour. Their behaviour illustrates the power and truth of a single idea, the hypothesis that, at root, all behaviour is an expression of homeostasis. The couple have never been aware of the idea, never even heard of it, yet it is a process that affects every single thing that they, you and I say, think, feel and do.

How can this possibly be so? A joke? A feat of magic? Or, worse yet, the author, publisher and reviewers are all living in la-la land?

None, some or even all of these ideas may be incorrect, but please bear with me and hear me out. This is the story of one particular hypothesis, a dangerous idea –a story with a plot, characters and an unexpected twist. I build the case as we go along, all I ask of you is that you ‘hang in there’…

An extract from: A General Theory of Behaviour

To be continued…

A Redesign for Psychology

 

Science is beautiful when it makes simple explanations of phenomena or connections between different observations.

Stephen Hawking

It has been said that advances in science come not from empiricism but from new theories. With this thought in mind, A General Theory of Behaviour has the potential – or so I aim to convince the reader – to advance understanding of human nature and to integrate the discipline of Psychology. In A General Theory of Behaviour (link to an introductory video) I explain why this is (a) necessary, and (b) possible.

I think the majority of psychologists agree that integration is necessary. Fragmentation has been a longstanding and difficult problem for Psychology. Over more than a century, fragmentation has been called a ‘crisis’. The problem has been described thus: “a nexus of philosophical tensions, which divide individuals, departments, and psychological organizations, and which are therefore primarily responsible for the fragmentation of Psychology.” In many years’ experience as a student, researcher and professor of Psychology, I can testify to persistent and intractable tensions in every quarter of the discipline, worse in some places than others, but the fragmentation is evident everywhere.

The discipline can sometimes feel like a medieval country split into fiefdoms by moats, walls and a haphazard set of paltry roads, odd rules and customs (Figure P1, left panel). As the visitor approaches the border of the country, a smart road sign reads: “Welcome to the Science of Psychology”. Full of expectation, one passes through the guarded gates at border control (sniffer dogs, disinfectant spray guns, x-ray machines and millimetre wave scanners).

After screening by unsmiling officers in peaked caps, the traveller explores what excitement exists inside this guarded place. Each fiefdom provides glossy brochures, catalogues, and travel guides in which skies are always blue, buildings chateaux, and fountains high reaching with crystal waters.

Each area invites the visitor to drive over the draw bridge and take a detailed look. However, on close inspection, one senses a deep-seated problem. Something strange and slightly sinister appears to be going on. The locals appear defensive and ill at ease when one makes inquiries and asks even the simplest of questions such as “What does X mean?” As we travel around the country, barbed wire fences of ‘no-man’s land’ are everywhere and the few connecting roads are potholed and ill-made.

No man's land

In each sub-area, there is evidence of industrialisation with companies of artisans ploughing long straight furrows, planting pest-resistant seeds, spraying fields with Roundup®, harvesting their crops and filling rodent-proof silos with carefully sifted data, e.g. long-eared corn tastes better that short-eared, short-eared corn tasted better than oats, oats tastes better that long-eared corn (!) in cycles of planting, harvesting, testing and analysing.

Ploughed fields

Producers with the largest silos rule. In spite of all of the graft, one senses tension, disharmony and technical disputes is causing ill-feeling. If somebody breaks the famine with a bold new idea, s/he risks being pilloried, dunked or quarantined in the cut-off region called “Critical Psychology”. One wonders if Psychology really were a Science, would there be so many sub-regions, stretches of ‘no-mans-land’ and unrewarding customs?

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Figure P1.The Science of Psychology. In its fragmented state (left panel), each sub-field acts as a defended niche with its own specific theories and data. In a unified state (right panel) the discipline would consist of a single General Theory that encompasses the entire field with a minimum number of assumptions, a large set of falsifiable hypotheses, and a body of empirical studies aimed at falsification of the General Theory.

Most commentators agree that a major redesign is long overdue to re-engineer the discipline. Travel between sub-areas needs to be made more navigable, moats emptied, walls razed and bridges built. It’s an Isambard Kingdom Brunel the science needs as much as another Charles Darwin.

BRUNEL

The objectives of A General Theory of Behaviour are to take a few measured steps towards advancing Psychology as a natural science and, in so doing, to unify it (Figure P1, right panel). This brief introduction of 40,000 words offers twenty principles and eighty auxiliary propositions, 100 empirically falsifiable propositions. The principles and multiple auxiliary propositions make the General Theory fully and transparently capable of falsification. In embracing intentionality, purpose and desire, the General Theory is non-reductive while, at the same time, drawing upon principles from other sciences, in particular, Biology and Physiology. Following in the footsteps of Claude Bernard, Walter B Cannon and others, I try to convince the reader of the usefulness of the metamorphosed concept of behavioural homeostasis (link to video) and, in so doing, explain the implications for the Science of Behaviour.

My thesis is that organisms are not adapted to each other and the environment because natural selection made them that way, but they are made that way owing to an inbuilt striving towards stability and equilibrium. A General Theory of Behaviour is an introductory ‘User’s Guide’ aiming towards a reconfigured Science of Psychology – the target in the right-hand panel of Figure P1. In Chapters One and Two I describe the core elements of the theory. Chapters Three, Four and Five contain additional parts of the theory concerning biological rhythms, concepts of behaviour, Consciousness and the central Behaviour Control System. The remaining five chapters each cover three core topics from the perspective of the theory. These 15 topics indicate the ability of the theory to cover a broad cross-section of the discipline.

Heavy traffic

In building roads and bridges, one must neither over-design nor under-design. Nobody knows how sturdy the structure is until it is tested with a fleet of trucks. Should cracks occur (or worse), other ‘engineers’ might be persuaded to renovate the project. Surely it should be worth the effort. However long it takes, our broken discipline needs to be put together into one beautiful whole.

Book cover

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