Behavior is everything you do. It is a sign of life. If you are alive, you are behaving. You emit behaviors all the time.
An old belief was that we only respond to stimuli. Classical conditioning (think Pavlov’s dogs) suggests that stimuli elicit responses from you. At its extreme, you would be sitting around waiting for stimuli to activate you. This model insinuates that we are machines which must be activated by outside forces.
The next model maintained that we are machines but that the stimuli come from within. This is the self-perpetuating-motion theory. This model relies on the activity of internal stimuli, even though there is no evidence that they exist, can be measured, are stored or even processed.
What We Know
We know that people (and animals) emit behaviors. We don’t know if activity is the result of a soul-spirit, internal action generators or cosmic rays. But we do know that we behave.
We know that behavior occurs within a context.
We know that there are several types of behavior.
Types of Behavior
These aren’t the first actions we think of when we hear the word “behavior.” But when we remember we have reflexes, it doesn’t take long to find examples. We know we sneeze, cough, and jerk our legs when hit with a little hammer. The bones in the middle ear contract in response to loud noises, our muscle fibers stretch and our pupils adjust to the light.
And when we think of babies, we think of a whole new set of reflexes that only last a few months. These infantile reflexes include rooting, sucking, startle, stepping, grasping, parachute and Babinski reflexes.
There are also many processes running: heart beating, lungs breathing. There some debate about whether to call them behaviors or not. I’ll let you decide.
In contrast to involuntary, automatic behaviors, there are things we do on purpose. We walk, talk, sing, dance, hide, seek, skip and ride our bicycles. I’ve heard some can even walk and chew gum at the same time (not me, of course).
Mostly we think of ourselves as consciously doing voluntary behaviors. That’s how we picture ourselves. We feel like we are in charge. We have the sense that we choose what to do and when to do it.
Somewhere between automatic and voluntary, there are behaviors which we only partially control. Unlike reflexes, we can modify them. But not without effort.
With conscious practice, we can get better at doing tasks. The better we get, the less we have to think about it. These are skills.
Driving a car was difficult at first, so was riding a bicycle. You had to really concentrate on what you were doing. Any distraction make it especially hard. You focused all of your working memory on the task.
But as you improved, you transferred the operation of those movements to lower brain functions. You shifted control from the cortex the areas between it and the spinal: the limbic system.
After much practice, you can type, text, input data, shuffle papers and brush your teeth with every little cognitive control. You can drive the car (or fly the plane) while talks to those around you, listening to the radio and thinking about lunch. Everything just flows.
We often think of skills as abilities. But a more recent model views them as behaviors you can learn. You can learn most of the things that were thought innate. Want to be able to say which note is being played (“That’s a B-flat”), play professional-level chess or remember a shuffled deck of cards in order? You can learn any or all of these.
Habits are sneaky. They are previous-practiced behaviors that have become semi-automatic. We don’t think of brushing our teeth as a skill but it is not substantially different in its origin. You started out focusing on each tooth and the brush stroke. But after much practice, you can now perform the task with little thought.
Habits and mannerisms are behaviors we have frequently chosen to do that they have been automatized. Think of them as subroutines you trigger to reduce your cognitive load.