Behavior of Behavior

My last post discussed my disapproval of describing behavior as analogous to a computer program.   In particular, that post focused on the idea that behavior is inherited, and thus somehow must be encoded in DNA, and thus DNA includes instructions for behavior in addition to blueprints for building proteins.    I accept that there are instinctual behaviors associated with different species or sub-populations, where the behaviors of the offspring match those of its parents even when there was no opportunity for the parents to teach or train the offspring.     The problem is that I can’t see how DNA can provide instructions for even simple behaviors, let alone systems of simple behaviors that give the appearance of being complex.

DNA is complex and despite the great advances in understanding it, we know there is more that we don’t understand.   DNA is an amazing molecule.  DNA with its blueprinted proteins results in a system that is nearly perfect in its ability to replicate itself indefinitely.   Evidence of this perfection are the various species that persist largely unchanged over millions of years.    I accept the notion that DNA only contains templates to produce RNA that in turn provide templates for producing proteins.   DNA instructs cells how to produce certain proteins in certain conditions where the conditions are completely determined by the local concentrations of other proteins.

Instead of DNA coding for behavior, the products of DNA sets the boundaries of behavior.    Birds have the instinctual behavior to fly because they have wings and body plans that allow for flight as its most optimal form of locomotion.   They don’t need DNA to tell them how to flap their wings or navigate through air.    They figure it out themselves.     A particular species may behave uniformly giving the impression of instinctual or programmed behavior but this can be explained by the uniformity of options available to them.   In addition to overall body plans and metabolic processes, these resources are proteins that can effect emotions such as anxieties, aggression, or thrill seeking.   The behavior is constrained by both the body plan and by what makes the organism feel good.

In behavior studies, we draw a line between humans and non-humans.   Although humans are just another example of an animal, somehow the distinctive large brain size permits us to set humans apart.    We readily accept the notion that human behavior is largely explained by the human figuring things out.   Every natural being not blessed with a human brain is a robot that is both built and instructed by DNA.     We allow for some animal instincts in humans, but most of the distinctively human behaviors result from conscious and sentient capabilities that are unique to humans.

I accept this proposition: I am a part of nature.   The evidence of my existence is proof that nature is capable of producing something like me.   My default presumption is that this is what nature does all the time.   What distinguishes me from other animals is pretty much the same as what distinguishes me from my human peers.   I have different capabilities and handicaps in terms of my physical body and the proteins floating around inside me.    I cope with what I have, just like the rest of nature.

This view of consciousness is separate from the body and the material of the body.   It instead figures out how best to satisfy the body’s needs with what the body offers.  It figures this out no matter what body it finds itself in.

I think this can be illustrated within human populations.   In my last post, I suggested some people are predisposed for risk aversion while others are more inclined for thrill seeking.   This is a real difference among individuals about what feels good or bad.   That feeling may be partly due to internal sensitivities heightened or dulled by the presence or absence of certain proteins.   These differences in behavioral tendencies persist over a lifetime despite training or conditioning.

A different approach is to observe differences in behaviors when pairing a human with a certain technology.   People behave differently depending on what technology or artifact they possess.

An example is when people wear costumes or disguises.    People will behave differently based on how they think they are being perceived.    A simple example is whether to wear dark glasses that hide the eyes, people will tend to act more confidently and aggressively if their eyes are hidden.  Other examples are more elaborate costumes used on stage or during some costume parties.   While not necessarily matching the personality suggested by the costume, the behavior is still different than when the person is not in costume.

This occurs every day with how people present themselves.   People dress for how they want to be perceived, but that choice of clothing also changes how they behave around others.    The same person dressed in work-out clothes or dressed in top-line business suits will behave differently as a result of their clothing.   I realize this has a social element of people demand certain behaviors of people wearing certain types of clothing, but at least some of the behavioral change is internally motivated.

I deliberately chose these to be superficial qualities to emphasize that it doesn’t take much to influence a behavior.  Wearing sunglasses doesn’t involve DNA in any way.   The behavior responds to a new circumstance.

Stronger examples occur when a person possesses a particular technology.

Consider the technology of the automobile, and in particular a sedan type of vehicle the fully encloses the driver.   People drive cars.  When we see cars on roads, we know humans are operating an inanimate automotive device.    And we observe behaviors on the road that the same people will not repeat in similar encounters in the absence of such vehicles.    Common examples include retaliatory driving that can escalate to what is termed road rage.   One driver makes a maneuver that offends another driver who in turn answers with a similarly offensive maneuver.    Although sometimes this is resorted in human verbal or body language, often this is communicated within the constraints of the vehicles themselves.   A car will follow too closely giving the impression of pushing.  A car will pass and then brake to cause the other car to swerve or brake.   Numerous other techniques are available using body language where the body is the car, not the human.   The car becomes the embodiment of something different.

In a sense the combination of the car and the human become a new kind of being.   The capabilities of the car and the sensitivities of the the driver constrain the behavior of this new creature.   But the creature itself exhibits its own behaviors.    These behaviors begin to be predictable.   As a bystander, we can watch these retaliation going on in front of us.   We can reasonably predict the sequences even though we know nothing at all about the humans in the cars.   We can predict based on the model or shape of the cars.   If cars were animals, we would likely conclude that cars have instincts or predetermined behaviors based on the type of vehicle.    For example, cars capable of faster acceleration tend to exploit that capability.

In contrast, there is a marked behavioral difference when extracting the human from a car.   Take for example the daily commute to work.  On the road, we encounter other vehicles behaving in various levels of assertiveness.    For the morning commute, most of these people are going to work.    As people arrive to work place they talk among each other jovially of their experiences on the road, often describing how they scorn other drivers.    The very person they are talking to may in fact be the type of driver they scorn, but the conversation is friendly.   We agree that the people in the office are not the same people who are on the road.

A particular example came when I had a job that was a walkable distance from home.   Sometimes I would walk.   One morning, I had a conversation with a friend who expressed his frustrations with pedestrians in cross walks.    I understood the scenario.  A car needs to make a left turn but must wait for the pedestrian to cross.   In this case, the pedestrian was walking too slowly.   His assertions what the pedestrians need to get out of the way as quickly as possible.   A sprint would be more appropriate.    We are talking together, and even though I’m thinking I could be that pedestrian I don’t think he is talking about me.   In truth, if his driving encountered my walking, we would end up the in the scenario he would argue should have me arrested and thrown in jail or something.   Irrespective of who is right or wrong in this scenario, the point I’m making is that the person in the office is a different creature than the same person inside his car.

The difference in behavior is also exhibited by what constitutes a conflict.   Compare car traffic through streets with pedestrian traffic in hallways of enclosed shopping malls.   There are similar encounters of people with different destinations and needs for urgency, but we don’t get the same kind of behaviors.   The exact same people in cars encountering similar congestion would behave completely differently.   In fact, the same person would behave differently depending on what type of car he drives.

We are smart enough to attribute this to the complexity of human behavior.    But we could also study the driven-vehicle as having a behavior worthy of study as if it were a distinctly different kind of being.

In fact, we are increasingly doing this with the use of big data analysis.   Using video cameras on roads an intersections, we can record vehicle shapes and sizes and track how they behave through the intersection or along a particular stretch of road.   With that limited information, we can build models with reasonable accuracy to predict average speed, which vehicles will run a stop light, which will exceed a speed limit and when that will happen.    The visual information about the vehicle in combination with the surrounding vehicles and conditions can predict behavior of the vehicle as if it were an instinct of that vehicle.

We could decompose this into the combination of the personality behind the wheel (including his preferences for a certain type of vehicle), but this information is harder to obtain that the simple observation of the vehicle itself.   The observation of the human actor is not needed if the models based on the vehicle alone offer good predictions.

This is an absurd exaggeration.  I don’t think we are at the point where we can predict traffic violations without any information about the driver.   We can start to build statistical models of vehicle mixes to design safer or more smoothly flowing streets.

The exaggeration is could be useful to describe other areas where we are making this absurd leap involving other types of data.   Many of the governmental big data projects for security, law or regulation enforcement, etc, make the assumption that an observation about people’s possessions can inform us about their expected behaviors.   Increasingly, we are identifying suspects based on their memberships in categories the present notable patterns in big data queries.

Examples reported here and here illustrate a presumption that people buying home gardening supplies may be using those supplies to cultivate marijuana.    These are examples of guilt by association that are being prosecuted much more aggressively today than the earlier well-advised cautious approach.   I suspect the increased aggressive prosecution is because of increasing confidence based on big data studies that suggest that purchasers of certain types and quantities of garden supplies are cannabis cultivators.   We are beginning to trust that observations about possessions can inform us about the person.

My point for this observation is that with availability of big data we are beginning to distinguish new types of instinctual behaviors that emerge from the combination of humans with technologies.  The empowering and constraining properties of these technologies are generating new behaviors with reasonable consistency to support predictions or conclusions.

I also observe that increasingly available in amateur YouTube videos are providing more specific observations that show increasing variability of behaviors of species previously perceived to be entirely instinctual.

These are two sides of the same observation that behavior is defined by capabilities and limitations, not by instinctual programming.   The source of behavior is immaterial operation of available capabilities and desires to engage in the world.

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One thought on “Behavior of Behavior

  1. Pingback: Occam’s Razor in age of big data | kenneumeister

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