Reductionist explanations are often used to rationalize why a person behaves the way that they do. “They’re just doing that for attention” often becomes the simplistic rationale that people try to apply to what are actually quite complex factors that led to a person’s behavior. In the Mandt System, we say that one must look “behind the behavior”. We can start by looking at the classic behavior chain; antecedent-behavior-consequence. Behavior is the response to an antecedent and consequences are the results of behavior. Is there more to it than that? Our friends at Timian, our branch in the United Kingdom, explain that we also need to understand the context, congruence, and clusters of behavior. The context is the environment around the person while they are using a specific behavior. Congruence is whether or not the person’s behavior matches. Behavior can be thought of as a form of communication. Is the behavior consistent with other messages that the person is communicating? Clusters are all the behaviors that are co-occurring with the behavior. The clusters of behavior need to be considered to get the full story.
Shall we take an even deeper dive into the complexities of behavior? Robert Sapolsky, a neuroendocrinologist and primatologist who specializes in behavior, explains the complexity of behavior by looking at various time frames (Sapolsky, 2017). If we really want to know the answer to why a person has behaved a certain way, we have to look back at what was going on seconds, minutes, hours, years, decades, and even centuries before the behavior occurred.
Seconds/minutes: What was going on in that person’s brain in the seconds before the behavior? Was the person in an escalated state and thus processing primarily through the amygdala, a brain region associated with fight/flight/freeze responses? A person will respond differently to a given antecedent if they are already escalated because of some sort of setting event.
Minutes/hours: What was going on in the environment seconds to minutes before the behavior that created the stimulation that caused the person to process with their amygdala and escalate? Was the person tired? Hungry? Afraid? What was the context of the behavior?
Hours/days: What hormonal state was the person in? Was the person experiencing heightened levels of cortisol because of stress, testosterone because of the hormonal changes associated with puberty, or oxytocin because of an ingroup bonding experience? The hormonal state influences how a person will respond to a given antecedent.
Weeks/months: The human brain can change based on experiences. This is called neuroplasticity. If the person’s life has been filled with stress and trauma, that person’s neurology will be wired for survival rather than connection.
Years: A person’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain associated with rational thought, is not fully developed until their mid-twenties. How old is the person whose behavior is in question? What experiences in their adolescent life have shaped the development of their frontal cortex?
Years to decades: Again, how old is the person whose behavior is in question? In early childhood the limbic system is still wiring together. This system is associated with emotions. What events happened in this person’s early childhood that influenced their emotional reactivity? What hormonal/chemical environment was the person exposed to while still in the womb? What genes were the person born with? Genes act differently depending on the environmental stimulation that the person has been exposed to. The classic nature vs. nurture debate is a false dichotomy. It is varying degrees of both, mixed up in all sorts of complex ways.
Decades to centuries: What influences does the person have from their larger culture? What traits were passed on to the person from their ancestors? How were these traits associated with behavior that led to survival and genes being passed to the next generation?
Human behavior is indeed a complex set of phenomena. If anything, when we deal with people who utilize complex and challenging behavior, we should interact with humility, empathy, and respect. I’ve heard it said that some people are fighting a battle that we will never know. We can, however, create a safe environment that allows a person to reorient their neurological system toward connection and growth. It doesn’t happen overnight, but the wonders of neuroplasticity and human connection can help a person to be more resilient, have an improvement in quality of behavior, and ultimately an improvement of quality of life.
John Windsor – Mandt System Faculty
Sapolsky, R. (2017). Behave: The biology of humans at their best and worst. Penguin Books.