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BE-Print Science and The History of Perceptual Control Theory (PCT):

First published in 1973, by William T. Powers, "Behavior: The Control of Perception" laid the foundation for the third major belief about behavior. Powers was interested in answering the following questions:

  • Can we ever agree on a definition of behavior, explain how it works and show what it accomplishes? Do we control our actions?

  •  Does stimulus-response and cognitive psychology explain all behavior?

  • Do people and animals really respond to stimuli?

  • How can people and animals produce consistent results, again and again, in an unpredictably variable world?

  • Why is conflict so pervasive?

  • How does conflict come about, and what ways are there to resolve or reduce it?

  • How can behavior be organized to satisfy purposes at more than one level at the same time?

  • Is 'purpose' a metaphysical concept, or can it actually be defined, observed and demonstrated with a fully functional physical model?

An increasing number of scientists view PCT as a step toward a new understanding of living systems. The explanations offered by PCT hold up to scrutiny in the same way that the principles in the physical sciences hold up to rigorous examination. All other contemporary flavors of psychology and there are many - presume linear causality, from the environment to behavior, as in behaviorism, or from the brain to behavior, as in cognitive psychologies. This new conception which Powers and others call PCT shows clearly that the key quality of life is circular causality. Circular causality as in negative feedback control - employed in engineered devices such as the cruise control on your car, which keeps your car traveling at a specific speed, or your home heating system which keeps the temperature at a desired level. The basic idea is to negate the error between the desired state and the present state. Negative feedback occurs when the output of a system acts to oppose changes to the input of the system; with the result that the changes are lessened. If the overall feedback of the system is negative, then the system will tend to be stable.

In PCT, behavior is seen as a process; a process of trying to maintain specific conditions rather than a linear process where single cause leads directly to a specific action. This process involves perception-comparison and action. It takes into account the relationships between the individual and their environment. We record what we experience and the world around us and within us as a set of perceptions. These perceptions are compared to an internal references perception (the ideal or how we want it to be) and our actions are our attempts to bring these two closer to the same state. This process occurs not in a linear sequence but simultaneously.
The idea here is that at any given moment we have an ideal in mind and we are constantly measuring the world to see how closely it matches the ideal. Put simply, behavior is an attempt to match what I think I have to what I want through my actions. As the environment changes we quickly vary our actions to get what we want.

The children’s story Goldilocks and the Three Bears is a wonderful illustration of this latest belief about behavior. As Goldilocks sits down to eat the porridge, she sits at Papa Bears place and takes a spoonful and says “This porridge is too hot” then at Mama Bears spot she declares “This porridge is too cold” and then at Baby Bears spot she finds a match between the ideal and the present state and declares, “This porridge is JUST RIGHT”.

Of course JUST RIGHT would be different for different people and may be different for the same people at different times. Desired states are rarely the same. The constantly varying environment and desires makes it difficult to predict behavior or interpret actions as being linked to one internal or external cause. Perceptual Control Theory is about relationships between the external and internal at any given moment. All behavior is therefore a process of moving through the world recording perceptions and comparing them to our desired state- not in a linear fashion but by comparing the relationship of both internal and external stimuli. The causes of behavior arise simultaneously from the environment and from within. Behavior interpreted in this way is more than just the actions we take.

Let’s take a look at a couple of examples of everyday life through this new view. In this view people act to gain attention only when two things are true: they want attention and they think they are not getting it, for example a small child in a grocery store begging, a student in a classroom cracking a joke or an adult who pouts. PCT also tries to answer another common question, “Why do you do what you do?”. So why do you answer the phone when it rings (stimuli)? The PCT explanation would go something like this, when we hear the phone ring it is simply information and we may or may not answer it depending on what we want at that moment. We answer it or do not answer it to reduce the difference (error) between what we want and what we are experiencing. Perhaps we may answer the phone because we are expecting a call from a friend, or we want the noise to stop because the baby is sleeping. We may not answer the phone because we are busy doing something that we do not want to interrupt or because we believe it is someone who we do not want to talk to, amen to caller id. No matter why we answer the phone it is always the action we are taking to get that just right feeling. Behavior is a dynamic process that is constantly changing and is about making things happen the way we want. Our awareness is always searching our systems for error (the difference between what we want and what we think we are getting). With this in mind, we answer or do not answer the phone for multiple reasons, which vary almost every time.

Powers beliefs that our references (desires, goals) are connected at multiple levels, with higher levels setting reference for lower levels. It is easier to understand that some things we experience like the taste of our favorite candy are less complex than say the taste and satisfaction of a job well done. Power’s proposes that humans are a nested hierarchy made up of eleven levels. The six lower levels are the way we take in the word it’s easy to label these sensory. The next level (category) consists of the labels and is made up of differing combinations of sensory information. It can be thought of as the words and symbols that we attach to our experiences. The next two higher levels combine differing categories to create sequences and multiple sequences create programs. These levels are most of the things we do like driving a car, walking riding a bike, or playing an instrument fall in these two areas. The next higher level is the principles level. References at this level are what you are trying to maintain while carrying out different programs, like being honest, or being respectful or being courageous. The highest level takes your principles and forms them into beliefs or system level concepts. This level is your own personal explanation of how the world works. When we behave we operate from the level at which we perceive and down. Think about it this way; the higher levels never tell the lower level what to do (what specific action to take) but they set the references for the level below, and so on downward. The higher levels send a message to the lower levels to create specific conditions, they define the just right for the next lower level.

Perceptual Control Theory, unlike the other theories of human behavior described here, is the first theory that is being proven through the use of computer modeling. Prior to this time the type of research used in psychology and human behavior might best be described in the words of Phillip Runkel as “casting a net” research. Like a fisherman throwing his net into the water, gathering his net back up and then predicting based on his catch, what will happen the next time he casts his net. Unfortunately, this form of research is not good for understanding and explaining behavior. The authors of the BE-Print think understanding Perceptual Control Theory can be a great asset to people wanting to take more effective control of their life journey. We know that whatever your personal theory of human behavior is, it will greatly affect your practices. We believe it is valuable to operate based on an accurate theory of human behavior. The BE-Print was designed taking into account the core concepts of PCT.


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