Voluntary Behavior, Conscious Thoughts

post by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2011-07-11T22:13:56.269Z · score: 36 (30 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 21 comments

Skinner proposes a surprisingly easy way to dissolve the problem of what it means for an action to be "voluntary", or "under voluntary control".

We commonly perceive certain actions as under voluntary control: for example, I can control what words I'm typing right now, or whether I go out for dinner tonight. Other actions are not under voluntary control: for example, absent some exciting technique like biofeedback I can't control my heartbeat or my core body temperature or the amount of bile produced by my liver.

Other, larger-scale actions also get classified as involuntary. Many people consider sleepwalking involuntary, including the bizarre "sleep-eating" behaviors some people display on Ambien and related drugs. The tics of Tourette's are involuntary. Our emotions and preferences are at least a little involuntary: office workers might like to be able to will away their boredom, or mourners their sorrow, but most can't.

Here "involuntary" needs to be distinguished from "hard-to-resist". Most people do not define smoking as an involuntary behavior, because, although people may smoke even when they wish they wouldn't, they have the feeling that they could have chosen not to smoke, they just didn't.

The philosophy of voluntary versus involuntary behavior seems to run up against a wall when it hits the question of "what is truly me?". If we make the reductionist identification of "me" with "my brain", well, clearly it's my brain controlling sleepwalking and boredom, but it still doesn't feel like I am controlling these things. Trying to go deeper ends up hopelessly vague, usually with talk of "higher level brain processes" versus "lower level brain processes" and an identification of "myself" with the higher ones. There may be a role for this kind of talk, but it couldn't hurt to look for something more explanatory.

Skinner, true to his quest, explains the distinction without any discussion of "brain processes" or "self". He says that voluntary behavior is behavior subject to operant conditioning, and involuntary behavior is everything else.

It might be clearer to define voluntary behavior as fully transparent to reinforcement. Imagine a man with a gun, threatening to shoot me if I go out for dinner tonight. The fear of punishment will be effective: I'll avoid going out. Lust for reward, too, would be effective. If Bill Gates offered me $1 billion to stay in, that's what I'd do.

But when our masked gunman tells me to increase my body temperature by two degrees or he'll shoot, he is out of luck. And no matter how much money Bill Gates offers me for same, he can't make me give myself a fever either.

There is a place, too, for the hard-to-resist behaviors in all this: these are behaviors which can be affected by reward, but as yet have not been. If a masked man held his gun to the head of smokers and told them to stop or he'd shoot, they would stop. But thus far, none of the potential rewards of not smoking have been sufficient to change smokers' behavior.

CONSCIOUSNESS

The idea of voluntary behavior is tied so intimately to the idea of the self, or of consciousness (the easy problem, not the hard one), that one would hope that a new approach to one might be able to shed some light on the other. If voluntary action depends on transparency to reinforcement, where does that leave consciousness?

I haven't been able to find Skinner's beliefs on this subject (when he talks about consciousness, it's usually to deny it as an ontologically fundamental entity) and I've never seen anywhere near as elegant a reduction. But an explanation in the spirit of reinforcement learning would have to start by insisting on treating thoughts and emotions as effects rather than causes. Instead of explaining my choice of restaurant by saying I thought about it and decided McDonalds was best, it would be more accurate to say that previous experiences with McDonalds caused both the thought "I should go to McDonalds" and the behavior of going to McDonalds.

There is an intuitive connection between thought and language, and Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky made the connection more explicit; he found that children begin by speaking their stream of consciousness aloud to inform other people, and eventually learn to suppress that stream into nonvocal (subvocal?) thought.

The last post in this sequence discussed different reinforcement of thought and action. Speech and thought make a natural category as opposed to action; both are fast and easy, and so less likely to be affected by time and effort discounting. Both are point actions as opposed to a long project like learning Swahili or quitting smoking. And both bring reinforcement not through normal sensory channels (saying a word doesn't give pleasure in the same way smoking a cigarette might, nor pain in the same way having to study a boring grammar textbook might) but in what they say about you as a person and how they affect other people's real (and perceived) opinion of you.

So even if there is no governor anywhere unifying all thoughts and words, they may come out in harmony because they were selected by the same processes for the same reasons. And actions may not end up so harmonious, because they suffer from differential reinforcement.

Such harmony resembles the idea of a core "me", of whom all my thoughts are a part, and who has complete power over my organs of speech - but who is sometimes at odds with my actions or emotions.

The reinforcement governing thought and speech is most likely to be internal reinforcement based on your own self-perception and on others' perception of you. If there's a good reason reputation management processes need to be different from decision-making processes, understanding that difference could help understand the evolutionary history of a perceived difference between the conscious and unconscious mind. One such reason is provided by Robert Trivers' theory of social consciousness, the subject of tomorrow's post.

21 comments

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comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2011-07-12T09:45:35.550Z · score: 9 (11 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky made the connection more explicit; he found that children begin by speaking their stream of consciousness aloud to inform other people, and eventually learn to suppress that stream into nonvocal (subvocal?) thought.

That doesn't sound right. I've heard mentions of children who only start speaking at a late age, but when they do, they skip right to speaking in fully-formed sentences. I'm not sure whether I understand correctly what you're saying here.

comment by byrnema · 2011-07-12T12:25:24.482Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed that it didn't sound right. I have two children at two different stages of learning to speak (just learning and getting more fluent) and they don't suppress vocalization even though they speak only a small fraction of the words they think.

I can think about how I know this if there's any question. It's related to the fact that speaking is awkward for them at first (for example, beginning with just one word sentences), but they understand what I say to them in much more detail. So I think they have a model for language that is advanced of their ability to speak it.

comment by JackEmpty · 2011-07-12T13:19:33.361Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is receptive language versus productive language.

It's the same if you have ever tried to learn a new language. Typically you can understand much more people who are fluent speaking than you can actually say, even though when you recieve the words, you're processing them with the same brain that you produce the words with.

comment by scientism · 2011-07-14T15:49:39.370Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

But can you think fluidly in a language you can't speak fluidly? It doesn't follow from being able to understand more than you can articulate that you speak only a small fraction of the words you can think, as byrnema implies. It sounds more like the process of articulation and understanding are decoupled.

comment by JackEmpty · 2011-07-14T16:38:05.365Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Note: assumption made that thought is in a particular language.

I can speak English and am learning Esperanto. When I think of the referent known by the English pointer "dog" my mind most strongly associates the pointer "dog" and much less strongly the pointer "hundo".

But as per internal narratives? I'd agree, yes, that articulating words, whether in an internal narrative or externally spoken, is separate from understanding.

I think what byrnema is saying is that they don't articulate their running internal narrative. They are developing an internal narrative along with the worldess-concept kind of thought that is already in place.

comment by Davorak · 2011-07-13T22:29:48.206Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Also what about the children who learn baby sign language before speaking?

comment by Nisan · 2011-07-12T02:10:45.570Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

voluntary behavior is behavior subject to operant conditioning, and involuntary behavior is everything else.

Hm, I thought operant conditioning, by definition, worked on voluntary behavior, and classical conditioning worked on involuntary behavior. (This would make Skinner's definition of voluntary behavior circular.) I need a new definition of operant conditioning.

Perhaps operant conditioning should be defined as conditioning that presents reward or punishment stimuli in response to behavior, and classical conditioning should be defined as conditioning that presents stimuli independent of behavior.

comment by jimmy · 2011-07-12T00:07:56.340Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I have several issues with the ideas you present here. Of course, it's likely that it's just another communication error given our last conversation..

Here "involuntary" needs to be distinguished from "hard-to-resist". Most people do not define smoking as an involuntary behavior, because, although people may smoke even when they wish they wouldn't, they have the feeling that they could have chosen not to smoke, they just didn't.

For smoking, sure. I have a habit of twirling my hair which can be damn annoying and sometimes hard to resist. I can choose to keep myself from doing it by paying attention to what my hands are doing and forcing it to stop. If I'm concentrating on other things, it happens without me realizing it. It seems out of touch with the normal meaning of the word "voluntary" to include this.

But when our masked gunman tells me to increase my body temperature by two degrees or he'll shoot, he is out of luck.

Well, I just tried it. I got 0.6 degrees increase. If I were to put blankets on like feverish people normally do, I'm sure I could do better. If there was a real gunman, I'd start doing squat jumps. Marathon runners can get their core up to 105.

Does that mean that the process of regulating core temp both is and is not "voluntary", depending on the size of the temperature change?

If you're not willing to do the work of trying to model the hierarchical structure of the brain and the interconnections, what can this theory say about why my locus of voluntary control is bigger than it used to be? Can your black box theory advise people on how to increase their locus of control? What can you even use it for?

But an explanation in the spirit of reinforcement learning would have to start by insisting on treating thoughts and emotions as effects rather than causes. Instead of explaining my choice of restaurant by saying I thought about it and decided McDonalds was best, it would be more accurate to say that previous experiences with McDonalds caused both the thought "I should go to McDonalds" and the behavior of going to McDonalds.

What's the evolutionary purpose of thoughts if they don't do anything? Where do thoughts like "I just thought about going to McDonalds" come from? What distinguishes this from philosophical zombies?

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2011-07-12T04:09:04.464Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I know that I can't currently change my temperature by willing it as I've tried a few times, but you may just be better at it. Certainly people can train themselves to do so with eg biofeedback. So if you in fact were able to raise your temperature .6 degrees just by willing it, I'm willing to admit that temperature change is partly voluntary (partly because I'm guessing even if you wanted to you couldn't do 10 degrees).

But doing things like wearing a blanket or doing squat jumps are "cheating". Sleepwalking is also "voluntary", if you mean that if you didn't want to do it, you could tie yourself to your bed, and humans can fly if they're allowed to use airplanes. But that seems to be a case of blanket-wearing being voluntary, and temperature rising automatically in that condition. Even something like visualizing yourself in the Arctic so your temperature rises to compensate is "cheating" of a sort - we all agree that visualizing things is a voluntary behavior.

What's the evolutionary purpose of thoughts if they don't do anything? Where do thoughts like "I just thought about going to McDonalds" come from? What distinguishes this from philosophical zombies?

Tomorrow's post.

comment by TheOtherDave · 2011-07-12T20:12:14.168Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

we all agree that visualizing things is a voluntary behavior.

Do you actually mean that? I'd thought there were plenty of situations in which visualizations were involuntary... PTSD comes to mind. If that's wrong, I'll be very interested to know it.

This is peripheral to your main point, though. Yes, if I voluntarily visualize being in the Arctic, and that entails my temperature rising, that is in some sense different from voluntarily raising my temperature.

That said, this is a very fuzzy line, and I'm not sure if it's a useful one. When I was regaining motor control and speech after my stroke, there were lots of functions that I could only access at first via indirect and circumlocuitous pathways, but which I would not want to describe as "involuntary". For example, there was a long period where I could only move my knee by moving my foot around. (Yes, I know that sounds ridiculous; it seemed ridiculous to me at the time, but there it was. As far as my experience of my body was concerned, i could not voluntarily move my leg, but I could voluntarily move my foot. It felt rather like i imagine telekinesis would.)

And in many cases it's really not clear to me that I ever changed the pathway that accessed the function after that, it's just that I stopped attending to the path, much as I don't attend to the specific muscle movements associated with typing the letter I. (Well, OK, I just did, then. But I usually don't.)

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2011-07-12T07:12:23.678Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think English is deficient in regards to words like "can"-- it doesn't distinguish between what one can usually do, what one can do under particular circumstances, and what one could do with sufficient preparation.

comment by Alicorn · 2011-07-12T07:25:59.478Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

All that, and then it gets used to mean "may", too.

comment by SilasBarta · 2011-07-12T14:29:35.285Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think that's a separate meaning. It's used as "may" because whether you are capable of doing something usually depends on whether you have the permission of the person you're asking, which is why that usage is rediscovered over and over and over by speakers young and old. (Same phenomenon when you ask for food, "but" also want a container for it, and various other circumlocutions.)

"Can I have some cake?" --> "if I try to have cake, will you act in a way that prevents this?"

You coukd just as well be cheeky to the child that says, "May I have some cake?" by replying, "Yes, you are permitted to, but I will not get it off the shelf for you [and neither will anyone else and you can't reach it]."

Where does it end? What word's usage can you not narrowly interpret and criticize on that basis?

comment by [deleted] · 2014-06-13T08:47:12.468Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Self-handicapping is a performance-debilitating characteristic, which in student populations has been consistently associated with negative outcomes such as academic underachievement and poor psychological adjustment. Perfectionism, locus of control, and self-efficacy have been linked with self-handicapping but have not been previously examined within one cohesive framework. This study, therefore, examined a model linking maladaptive perfectionism and external locus of control to self-handicapping, both directly and indirectly through their mediated effect on self-efficacy. Participants were 79 university students who completed an online survey comprising measures of perfectionism, locus of control, general self-efficacy, and self-handicapping. It was found that perfectionism and locus of control predicted self-handicapping; and perfectionism, but not external locus of control, predicted low self-efficacy. The mediation analyses found no support for self-efficacy as a mediator of the relationship between perfectionism, locus of control, and self-handicapping. These findings suggest that the interaction of maladaptive social cognitive constructs associated with self-handicapping requires further investigation.""

Locus of control is something that you earn. You can't artificially manipulate because its not a physical variable - just a concept in your head.

comment by Jonathan_Graehl · 2011-07-12T00:07:22.251Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

actions may not end up so harmonious, because they suffer from differential reinforcement.

What does "differential reinforcement" mean? If you covered it in the previous post, a link or summary would be good.

From Wikipedia:

Other simple (reinforcement) schedules include:

Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior – Used to reduce a frequent behavior without punishing it by reinforcing an incompatible response. An example would be reinforcing clapping to reduce nose picking.

Differential reinforcement of other behavior (DRO) – Also known as omission training procedures, an instrumental conditioning procedure in which a positive reinforcer is periodically delivered only if the participant does something other than the target response. An example would be reinforcing any hand action other than nose picking.

Differential reinforcement of low response rate (DRL) – Used to encourage low rates of responding. It is like an interval schedule, except that premature responses reset the time required between behavior.

Lab example: DRL10" = a rat is reinforced for the first response after 10 seconds, but if the rat responds earlier than 10 seconds there is no reinforcement and the rat has to wait 10 seconds from that premature response without another response before bar pressing will lead to reinforcement.

Real world example: "If you ask me for a potato chip no more than once every 10 minutes, I will give it to you. If you ask more often, I will give you none."

Differential reinforcement of high rate (DRH) – Used to increase high rates of responding. It is like an interval schedule, except that a minimum number of responses are required in the interval in order to receive reinforcement. Lab example: DRH10"/15 responses = a rat must press a bar 15 times within a 10 second increment to get reinforced Real world example: "If Lance Armstrong is going to win the Tour de France he has to pedal x number of times during the y-hour race."

comment by Nisan · 2011-07-12T02:01:42.806Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

He means that thoughts can be reinforced without the actions the thoughts refer to being reinforced.

comment by Scott Alexander (Yvain) · 2011-07-12T04:02:47.584Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sorry, should have said "different" instead of "differential". Changed.

comment by dvasya · 2011-07-11T23:12:56.512Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

tied so intimately to ... (the easy problem, not the hard one), that one would hope that a new approach to one...

The diverse use of the word "one" in this sentence makes it amusingly perplexing on the first read or two (at least, for a non-native speaker such as Y.T.) :)

comment by jsalvatier · 2011-07-12T16:32:01.261Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

This seems pretty interesting, but it's not very clear to me.

The last post in this sequence discussed different reinforcement of thought and action. Speech and thought make a natural category as opposed to action; both are fast and easy, and so less likely to be affected by time and effort discounting. Both are point actions as opposed to a long project like learning Swahili or quitting smoking. And both bring reinforcement not through normal sensory channels (saying a word doesn't give pleasure in the same way smoking a cigarette might, nor pain in the same way having to study a boring grammar textbook might) but in what they say about you as a person and how they affect other people's real (and perceived) opinion of you.

So even if there is no governor anywhere unifying all thoughts and words, they may come out in harmony because they were selected by the same processes for the same reasons. And actions may not end up so harmonious, because they suffer from differential reinforcement.

They make some intuitive sense, but I'm not sure how to understand the distinction you're trying to make more technically. Can you elaborate? I think pictures of casual graphs might be useful here.

comment by Khaled · 2011-07-12T12:36:11.488Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

Interesting.

Where does this fit with the idea that voluntary behavior can become involuntary in time. Like driving, where you start by fully thinking (consciously) of each move, and in time it becomes unconscious (not sure if we can call it involuntary). This was discussed a bit by Schrodinger in What is Life.

Will this, now unconsious action, be susceptible to reinforcement? If you find you make lots of accidents, maybe driving will jump back to voluntary?

comment by Swimmer963 · 2011-07-12T13:29:42.498Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm not sure if automatic, learned behavior such as driving is at all the same as truly 'involuntary' behavior, like bile secretion and body temperature/heart rate. To me, it seems that the voluntary behavior of driving has just been 'chunked' so that decisions occur at a higher level. Instead of deciding 'ok, now I will put on my turn signal, I will slow down and check my blind spot and look in my mirrors and if there's no cars coming I'll make a left-hand turn', the decision is 'i'll turn left on the way to Suzy's house.' If the route to Suzy's house is also memorized to the point of being automatic, the voluntary point is leaving home and the decision is 'I'll drive to Suzy's house'.

Even a novice driver's behavior is chunked; you don't think of each individual muscle contraction involved in turning the steering wheel. For most people, this is already learned and chunked. It's still voluntary.