Behavior analysts adopt what has been called a contextualistic or functional position concerning the categorization of both behavior and the events that control behavior. A classic example of the former is the act of crying, which, as many have pointed out, can be either a response maintained by its consequences (as in “getting my way”) or one elicited by certain kinds of stimuli (as in crying because I burned my fingers on the stove). Reinforcers, an example of the latter, are always defined in terms of their effects and not in terms of some arbitrary category, such as “things that feel good” or “toys.” It is easy to see that these may or may not actually function as reinforcers depending on the circumstances.   

Behavior analysts also assert a primacy to environmental determinants of behavior, a position with which I obviously strongly agree. Sometimes, however, our environmentalism can be taken to extremes, at the cost of ignoring that there are other variables than the environment that may contribute to behavior. There are at least two reasons to soften an absolutist position on environmentalism.

First, it is obviously true that variables other than the environment influence behavior. These include both genetic and physiological ones. We are, after all, biological creatures, and an acknowledgement of this in our accounts of behavior is in order. In so doing, however, it also is important to recognize that these variables play out in environments. Even the most uncompromising advocates of the genetic basis of behavior now acknowledge the role of the environment in determining gene expression and behavior, as evidenced in work like that in epigenetics. Similarly, behavior analysts are better at least leaving the door open in considering such influences on behavior. Rarely is it a question of, for example, genetic versus environmental determinants, but rather a question of the relative contributions of each source.

Second, being overly absolute in our environmentalist stance makes that stance appear just as structuralist and formalistic as the positions we often criticize. It also makes us appear rigid and uncompromising, stances that are endemically problematic among our population. It is one thing to be right, another to be unwilling to even consider other points of view and to sort from those other points of view things that might be useful in helping people. The latter is an important goal for our science and its applications, and the people we seek to serve are not so served when we engage in principled stances that underrepresent other factors that might contribute to behavior. It behooves us from both a political and scientific standpoint to at least consider the role of other than strictly environmental determinants of behavior. Practitioners working on multidisciplinary treatment teams are confronted with these issues all of the time. It isn’t a question of who is right or wrong. Rather it is a pragmatic question of what is in the client’s best interests.

Having said that we should be open to other viewpoints concerning the potential contributions of other variables to behavior, it is at the same time essential to ensure that our own  focus on environmental determinants of behavior is represented fairly and accurately at the table. We, of course, do a great disservice, for example, to clients by not advocating for environmental contributions to the behavior under review. For this reason, it sometimes is, both practically and philosophically, a fine needle to thread between such advocating and at the same time acknowledging the contributions of variables deriving from other points of view to behavior. It requires a good eye for the ultimate goal, expertise, and patience.