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People aren’t behavioristic stimulus-response machines – our behavior is far more complex because we want things, and those desires and perceptions constantly shape our behavior. Making Sense of Behavior by William T. Powers is an introduction to “Perceptual Control Theory," a powerful and flexible way to understand why people do the things they do.
William T. Powers is the author of the Personal MBA-recommended book Making Sense of Behavior , as well as the author of Behavior: The Control of Perception and Living Control Systems. For more information about William T. Powers’s work, check out his homepage.
Here are 10 big ideas from William T. Powers’s Making Sense of Behavior …
Your brain doesn’t experience the world directly - our senses are our brain’s connection to the Environment around us. Everything our brain does is intrinsically linked to our senses, which we use to examine the world around us.
For every perception we have, there’s a preferred level or state of that perception. This preference is called a Reference Level , and our minds are constantly comparing what we’re actually perceiving vs. what we’d prefer to perceive.
This comparison is constant and automatic - it takes no thought, no effort, and no willpower. Since our brain is primarily a survival tool (which we discussed in Brain Rules ), our reference levels at every level of perception are set to what our mind believes are best for our survival, safety, and comfort.
We are not stimulus-response machines. If you’re familiar with the various academic theories of human psychology developed over the years, you’ll recognize a common thread - they assume that human behavior is primarily a response to environmental stimuli. There’s a kernel of truth in that, but only a kernel.
Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) is a non-behavioristic way to explain human behavior. Instead of blindly and automatically responding to stimuli, PCT explains behavior through the control of perception. Every action humans take is intended to change a perception the actor is currently experiencing to more closely fit the preferred reference level.
Think of the climate control system in your home. When the temperature is within a certain reference level (say, between 68 and 74 degrees F), the system does nothing. That’s intentional - when the perception that’s being controlled is within the reference level, no action is necessary.
Humans do the same thing - if you’re feeling comfortable, are you going to go out of your way to put on a sweater or turn on the air conditioning? No - there’s no point. The perception you’re controlling for - temperature, as measured by comfort - it under control, so you do nothing.
The same principle applies to work - if you feel like you’re already making enough money, are you going to move heaven and earth to get even more? Probably not. That’s not laziness - you’re just Conserving Energy , which was a strategy that served our ancient ancestors very well. No sense in expending energy if it’s not necessary - you may need it later.
We only act when a change in our Environment knocks a perception out of control. That’s where the stimulus-reponse model fails - it assumes that the same stimulus will produce predictable responses every time, which is not true.
Think of the classic workplace stimulus-response model: if you want your hourly workers to work more, you just need to pay them more, right? Not necessarily.
A few of your workers who want more money (i.e. money is out of control) will work more, true. But some of your workers have other priorities - perceptions that are more important. They may have only so much time to devote to work, so they’ll gladly accept more money for the same effort. A few only need so much, and paying them more helps them get there faster, so they’ll actually work less.
That single stimulus - paying more per hour - produces three different responses, two of which are exact opposites, depending on what the individual is controlling for at that moment.
That’s why you can’t count on stimuli to produce predictable responses unless you know what the individual is controlling for - unless it affects a perception they’re controlling for, you won’t get the response you expect.
Whenever you perceive something “wrong" in your environment, you act. If there’s too much light entering your retinas, you’ll close the blinds on the window, shade your eyes, squint, or put on sunglasses. This response is fast and automatic.
The same principle applies to feeling to hot or cold, hungry, scared, or uncomfortable - when you notice that something is off, you’ll do whatever you can do in the moment to remedy the situation.
Your response to a change in perception depends on the possibilities present in your environment. Think of the light example - if the environment is too bright, you can’t fix it by putting on sunglasses if you don’t have a pair of sunglasses to put on.
If you feel like you’re not earning enough money, your response to that perception depends on the actions you believe are possible to you in the situation. You could very well fix the issue by starting your own business or landing a better job, but if you don’t believe those options are open to you for some reason, you won’t go down those paths - even if they’re actually the best way to get what you want.
Our body is made up of control systems, and so is our mind. At the cellular level, your cells are manufacturing the molecules necessary for operation, and those processes are moderated by Feedback Loops that act as control systems.
Your bodily functions - respiration, heart rate, blood glucose level, insulin response, etc - are all moderated by control systems. Your physical behaviors - eating, sleeping, breathing, resting, acting - are all moderated by control systems. Your mental processes - data collection, contemplation, decision-making, etc - are all control systems.
Since perceptual control systems affect every area of life, it pays to understand how they work.
Your emotional state and self-concept are control systems as well. The truth of the statements “I am a productive person" or “I am a good person" can be seen as very high-level nested control systems, which are measuring perceptions over time.
If you’re controlling for “being a good father," that perception is basically a weighted average of perceptions over time that may include things like “playing with my kids," “providing material needs," and “teaching important life lessons." If the average dips too low, you’ll do the things you think you need to do to bring it back up.
This general relationship applies for every self-conception, moral perception, and prediction we have.
If two control systems try to control the same perception, but have different “success criteria," they’ll fight. This is called Conflict , and it’s the essence of almost every inefficiency and frustrating situation in the world.
Think of a heater and and air conditioner that are both measuring the temperature of the same room. The heater wants the temperature above 71F, and the air conditioner wants it below 69F - mutually incompatible goals. As a result of the conflict, both systems will try to have things their way, a lot of energy will be expended, and neither system will ever succeed in bringing the system under control.
Interpersonal conflicts work the same way - look at the Israel/Palestine situation, for example. Each side wants the same piece of land under exclusive control, and wants the other side to disappear completely. As long as the desired end goals remain the same for both parties, the conflict will continue.
Inner conflicts also work the same way. Think of a common problem like procrastination, which is essentially a big bundle of control systems in conflict. If part of you wants to get things done and part of you feels tired or overwhelmed and wants to rest, you’ll experience a feeling of inner conflict, and you’ll neither really work or really rest until it’s resolved.
You can never control another person in the PCT sense of “control." Forcing or pressuring another person to do what you want them to do is almost certain to conflict with what they’re controlling for in some way, shape, or form, which does more harm than good.
The best way to get what you want through other people is to negotiate with them, which in essence is an attempt to make your desire compatible with their current control systems. You can either position your offer in a way that helps them get more or less of something they’re already controlling for (which are likely to be related to the Core Human Drives ), or encourage them to change the reference levels they’ve already set for certain perceptions.
Think of a basic business negotiation, like buying or selling a house. The seller may want more than $200,000 for the house, and the buyer may want to pay less than $175,000. As long as these conditions remain set the way they are, the buyer and the seller will remain in conflict, and will never agree.
By negotiating, each party tries to convince the other to change their reference level - either by decreasing the asking price or increasing the maximum acceptable payment. Most of that process revolves around changing perceptions, like pointing out that the roof is worn out, or the home is in a desirable area of town. Until they reach Common Ground , there’s no deal.
By coming to grips with the fact that you can’t control others, but you can do things to change their reference levels and perceptions, you’ll get what you want far more effectively and experience less conflict in the process.