Friday, March 21, 2014

Maxims for Vertebrates (Policies and Behavioral Logic)

and how chasing your tail makes sense. 


Policies are guides to how we'd like to live our lives. Maxims are the behavioral logic that guide proper description.

"If the situation calls for a person to do something he can't do, he will do something he can do instead," is different from the more hopeful, "people do the best they can", since it is pretty clear, often enough, they don't. People doing the best they can is a kind and generous variation of the policy "give people the benefit of the doubt," and that's usually a good first move. 

There is a conceptual difference between behavioral logic, the Descriptive Psychological maxims employed to guide proper description, and personal and therapeutic policies that represent our values and the direction we hope life will take. To give people the benefit of the doubt, to treat them as doing the best they can, is a good first move since it usually avoids starting off on the wrong foot with a degradation. Of course, when we treat someone as doing the best they can and they know damn well they're not, we might end up disqualifying ourselves as competent judges. It's a risk, but that's why policies are different from maxims. Policies are to be followed until or unless we have reason enough not to, whereas behavioral logic in the form of maxims are the constraints or the rules for correctly framed descriptions.

The body of behavioral logic that constitutes the maxims in Descriptive Psychology is "an open-ended collection, since there is no limit to the different warning, reminders, etc. that might appropriately be given by one person to another in regard to describing persons and their behavior" (Ossorio, PLACE, 1998/2012).

People always act within their values, knowledge and competence. What else can they do? But do they do their best? Sometimes, maybe. This illustrates the difference between logical forms, the grammar of making sense, and social policies and choice principles. "If the situation calls for a person to do something he can't do, he will do something he can do instead," is a logical form, a tautology. Treating people as doing the best they can, is a social policy, a manner of not engaging in a dismissive or degrading stance.  

Maxims can also serve as a sort of grammar that guides the shape of a hypothesis or empirical generalization. In these cases, the logical structure serves as the frame for the empirical content.

"When over-excited or in doubt, groom," is an example of an empirical generalization of a pattern of vertebrate behavior.  Grooming, whether a response to over-excitment or confusing uncertainty, is an example of the more general notion of displacement behavior, something I was taught when I was going to be a zoologist. I was taught that displacement behavior sometimes occurs when an animal is in a situation that might call for aggression but where aggression, for whatever reason, would be problematic for the animal’s survival. This includes conflicts over food, dangerous sexual challenges, or when a juvenile gets too rough with an adult of greater threat potential. For some zoologists, displacement was a manner of bookkeeping drive and excitement, a way of accounting for “frustrated aggression”.

The maxim, "If the situation calls for a person to do something he can't do, he will do something he can do instead" can provide a structure to house displacement behavior in the form of the hypothesis, “If a situation would appear to call for an animal to do something that might put it in a worse position, it will likely do something else instead”. This is also informed by a modification of the maxim, “A person values some states of affairs over others and acts accordingly”.  Grooming serves social cohesion and also feels good, prudent and hedonic motives, and so also fits the maxim, "If a person has two reasons for doing X, he has a stronger reason for doing X than if he had only one of these reasons."

The Maxim, “if a situation calls for something a person can’t do, he will do something he can do”, is open concerning what it is that the person will choose or select from his behavior potential. Selections are not random or arbitrary, hence, “If a person values a specific something….he will thereby also value other specific things of the same kind to the extent that they are relevantly similar to the original.”





Displacement attempts to accomplish something relevant, given the circumstances, even if it is not what the observer might expect at first glance.

My puppy Hart has a policy, “When you can’t steal the bone, chase your tail.”




More on Maxims can be found in the entry, People Make Sense...., and on therapeutic policies, Mindful Uncertainty: What is Psychotherapy.  And in the Degradation Ceremonies of Everyday Life.

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