Behavior analysis or the science of human behavior offers a look inside the matrix of daily interactions, habits, behavior patterns, and lifelong conditioning. Borrowing from the incredibly symbolic movie “The Matrix", when we opt for the red pill within the behavior analysis paradigm, we choose to observe life from another perspective, one that is grander in scale and wiser in approach. We realize our choices are hardwired to occur based on environmental events. We have an answer to the age-old question, “Why did he/she do that?”
However, behavior analysis can take us a step further on a journey deeper than the determination of function of human behavior as it also extends wisdom about life, ourselves, and our relationships. We can step outside of the Skinner box, so to speak, and observe the ‘big picture’ perspective to answer the more evolved question, “Who am I (outside of my history of conditioning)?” or “Who can I choose to become?” In fact, what makes me ‘me’ and what makes you ‘you’ is eliminated when all conditioning is peeled away like the layers of an onion. If, for a moment, we dissolve all histories of conditioning and programming from our lifetimes, we find that we are no longer who we thought we were as our personal identities are merely byproducts of our learning histories.
While the science of human behavior asks us to observe behavior from a distance and determine its function to answer socially significant questions, it also inspires us to ‘look within’ and beyond the environment for who and what we are, at a level and layer more awe-inspiring than the external environment. Upon choosing the red pill to transcend the matrix, a multitude of life lessons are provided to us gifted from the insight and wisdom of behavior analysis:
We cannot take behavior personally. The majority of human choices, decisions, and interactions are founded in behavioral patterns, historical environmental contingencies (especially rooted in childhood), and the environmental events temporally surrounding the immediate scenario under analysis. Once we understand that the cause of behavior is in the environment and not as a result of another's will, we can easily let go of the blame, fault, and aversive private events that result following an undesirable behavior.
Determine people’s needs and preferences. If reinforcement is significant – it is the fuel and life force of all human behavior, then the needs and preferences of those around us are also very important if we desire successful and long-term relationships. Similar to understanding our loved ones’ love languages, we may find that learning family and friend’s needs and preferences enhances our relationships with them. If an individual close to us often behaves to access attention, for example, we may utilize this understanding by offering them attention proactively. If a significant other behaves to escape our questioning or disapproval, perhaps we should reconsider our approach. Behavior will always reflect needs and preferences, and for those of us familiar with behavior analysis, we are in a very privileged position to determine what story behavior is telling to create positive outcomes.
Monitor our own behavior. Behavior analysis permits convenient access to self-growth. If we can observe our own behavior objectively, determine the function of the behavior, and patterns of environmental contingencies, we are in a space to understand the root of our behavioral deficits or excesses and make wiser choices as to how to rise above environmental contingencies, eliminate the cycle, and revolutionize our choice-making. This is living outside the matrix.
Move toward things that inspire us. Understanding the concepts of positive and negative reinforcement demonstrate that we move toward some things and move away from others, respectively. Once we discern the difference between inspiration (moments when we are successful or moving forward) and neutrality or disharmony (moments when we actively avoid or remove ourselves from something), we can behave in ways that move us closer toward inspiration. We may act to obtain or access particular stimuli, events, people, and pastimes that inspire us or we can choose to move away from and avoid stimuli (e.g., social disapproval, aversive private events) that deflate us. In every moment, we can choose to pursue only those things that feel good, light, and right as opposed to consistently behaving to avoid the plethora of distressing emotions or private events that may accompany social disapproval, for example.
Acceptance. Inside the matrix of human behavior, we become aware of all of the contingencies of reinforcement and richness of everyone’s history of interactions and all of the dynamics that play into a single moment and decision. With this understanding, we come to a place of acceptance. We must accept people for who they are for they are only a result of their histories and the environmental events that have played out in their lifetimes. We may also extend this acceptance to ourselves: Although we are limited by our conditioning, we wholly, fully, and completely accept ourselves and can choose to rise above contingencies and make revolutionary and creative choices in any moment.
When we behave ignorant of the conditioning formula dictating human behavior, we live unconsciously and unwisely. We suspend all objectivity, discernment, and clarity. When we behave in full awareness of the environmental programming constraining our choices, we live consciously and powerfully and create potentials for behavior that are previously unknown to us. In any and every moment, we can choose to rise above behavioral law and manifest a new reality for ourselves and those around us. We can do this by using self-monitoring as described above. You might ask yourself:
- Is this behavioral interaction a pattern I have observed before?
- Is my history speaking through this interaction? When was the most recent time this occurred? When was the first time this occurred?
- Have I made a conscious choice to behave in this way or is this the result of behavioral conditioning?
- What need is this behavior reflecting? Is there a more appropriate and loving way to have this need met?
- How can I transcend the matrix and make a novel and creative choice?
Once we begin analyzing our behavior this way and employing the tools provided, we naturally discover that we are greater than humans running on a hamster wheel operating precisely by the dynamics and interplay of a multitude of interrelated environmental contingencies. We can choose to stay within the matrix, play by the rules, and behave automatically in every moment like we always have. Or, we can choose to step outside of the matrix, observe objectively, look within, and discover new ways of being and living.
A conclusion detailed by Morpheus is only fitting:
"I'm trying to free your mind...But I can only show you the door. You're the one that has to walk through it."