Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


There’s No Such Thing as Behavior

It's all in your mind.

OK, OK. Maybe the title of this article is a little overly dramatic for the purpose of creating something you might want to investigate further. I figured that, if you’re browsing through the Psychology Today website, that’s probably because you have some interest in topics to do with psychology, and “behavior” is, typically, associated very closely with psychology.

In fact, the second definition of “psychology” in is “the science of human and animal behavior.” Hmmm. That might seem to suggest somewhat of a conundrum for someone who calls himself a psychologist (me)—and who loves being a psychologist, by the way—and yet claims to subscribe to the notion that “there’s no such thing as behavior.”

Let me explain why there is no conundrum. At least, not from my perspective.

I’ve introduced the definition of “psychology.” What about the definition of “behavior?” Again, from, the first definition of “behavior” is a “manner of behaving or acting.” What? I think there should be a rule that the word being defined cannot be used in the definition of that word.

Still, with my nitpicking aside, if we leave out “behaving” from the equation, “behavior = manner of behaving or acting,” we have “behavior = manner of acting.” So, if we consult once again to discover how the word “act” is understood, we get two meanings: “anything done, being done, or to be done; deed; performance,” and “the process of doing.”

We could keep going, but pretty quickly, these definitions become hopelessly circular. For example, in the definition of “do,” we have “to act” and “to perform.” Not very helpful.

It is very helpful, however, to discover that behavior is, essentially, concerned with “doing.” So, that raises, at least for me, the very interesting question of what it is that people, and indeed all living things, do.

As it turns out, what we can observe people doing from an external, observer’s perspective is not always what they are doing from their private, inside perspective. The particular perspective we consider makes all the difference. If scientific psychologists had been interested in understanding and explaining behavior from the inside looking out, rather than from the outside looking in, we would be in a very different place from where we are just now.

What people do, from their own internal perspective, is “goal.” Yes, you read it right. I didn’t leave a word out or make some other grammatical error. I’m proposing that we should use the word “goal” as a verb rather than as a noun. Perhaps this will be my lasting contribution to humanity.

"Goaling" is all we ever do. We can’t, in fact, not do it. Standing on the sidelines, we see some of the side-effects of other people’s goaling, such as their arms and legs waving around, but we can’t see their complete goaling process. The entirety of that activity is only ever available to them.

One of the very neat things about goaling is that many roads really do lead to Rome. Or at least there are many different ways to get the same goal. In fact, we’re constantly changing what we do in order to keep the goal as we want it to be. That is the process of goaling. That’s what we’ve mistakenly called “behavior” up until now.

The very reason that “behavior” has been so tricky to pin down, and the reason that we’ve invented things like statistics to establish regularities and patterns in behavior, is because what we, on the outside, see as behavior is only half of the doing. The process of goaling always involves both the inside and the outside, together, at the same time.

People do whatever they need to do, using their arms and legs and voices, and whatever else is at their disposal, to stop the world around them from independently determining the state of its affairs. We all have our own individual, internal specifications for how we want things to be, and we do whatever is required to meet those specifications. That’s goaling.

We shiver, put on a sweater, turn up the radiator, or yell at someone to “shut the damn door!” whenever the air we feel takes a dive from how we like it to be. That’s goaling. We slam on the brakes, or jerk the steering wheel, or blast the car horn whenever the distance between us and the car in front shrinks rapidly away from the distance we’re comfortable with. That’s goaling.

Goaling is what we all do every day. If you want to get to know someone, learn about their goals. If the movement of someone’s arms and legs puzzles you, or you’re perplexed by the string of words you’re hearing from them, it’s because you don’t know their goals and the way they're currently experiencing their situation.

Claudio Ventrella/ID: 73688297/@123RF
Source: Claudio Ventrella/ID: 73688297/@123RF

So, to return to the title and subtitle, “behavior” is the same kind of "thing" as constellations, such as Orion and the Great Bear. Constellations are particular patterns in the night sky that we have demarcated, but they are completely illusory.

In fact, the first 18 words to the entry “Constellation” in Wikipedia are: “A constellation is a group of stars that forms an imaginary outline or pattern on the celestial sphere.” The outline or pattern exists only in our own imaginations. In the same way, “behavior” really only exists in the eye of the beholder. Goaling, on the other hand, only exists in the mind of the goaler. From outside that mind, we can see some of the effects of the goaling, but we can’t share the goaling.

Incidentally, the first definition for “psychology” in, is “the science of the mind or of mental states and processes.” Ah! Now, we’re getting somewhere. Well, at least we would be getting somewhere if we understood “mental processes” to be goaling.

Goaling is really control. The science of goaling is the science of control. Understanding our mental processes as control processes, and learning about how control works, will take us to a very different place from where we are now. We might cease discussions about such things as “behavior change programs” and “behavior disorders.” We might invest less in modifying other people’s “behavior.”

Instead, we might direct our attention to the goals people are pursuing, and the way that environments might be arranged so that, for a great deal of the time, people are able to get on with their goaling without stopping others from doing the same thing.

What a world that will be!

More from Timothy A Carey Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today
More from Timothy A Carey Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today