Behaviors: Practiced or Just Professed?

Earlier I proposed that understanding follows attentive observing and processing of all three forms of communication (words, tonal, and non-verbal).

Actually, this would be better expressed as better understanding results for those people who are better observers and better processors of what is going on around them, including all three forms of interpersonal communication.  (Note: yes, we have just violated the general writing rule that one should never, never, never use the same descriptive word twice in the same paragraph, much less in the same sentence.  But this works here.)

But why does observing work this way?  Why, when we observe an incongruity between what a person says and what they do, do we default to relying upon what we see them unconsciously doing (the tonal and non-verbal) as well as the results and consequences of their conscious actions?

Generally speaking, this is because it can lead us to a more dependable understanding of what to expect from them in the future, a working form of truth or reality.

From a different perspective, I would propose this is an application of the scientific method, or better yet, an application of what later developed into what we call the scientific method.  The Oxford English Dictionary describes the scientific method as:

“a method or procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.”

Some quick points:

    • Before the advent of reliable instruments in the 17th century, we could only observe with our eyes, ears, smell, touch, and taste, as we had done for eons;
    • These instruments permitted more precise measurement of results, and also created the opportunity to make deliberate experiments to obtain them;
    • They therefore afforded the opportunity to compare measurements between repeated and/or different experiments;
    • Once the method was applied to natural science (inanimate objects or phenomenon which followed natural laws), we could begin to say:

“If I can reproduce it and I can predict it, then I can say that I understand it.”

This process of repeated observation and looking at results was the same process we had applied to human behavior for eons.  Only when we could apply it to inanimate objects and phenomena using instruments did it develop and become known as the scientific method.  It was a bit difficult to set up a controlled experiment to answer the question, “What would Frank do if …?”  We had to wait for Frank to find himself in the right conditions and then see, if we were there, what he would do.  Not too efficient.  But the use of observation to draw conclusions and potentially test them has been around quite a while.

A second issue was (and still is) that while inanimate objects and phenomena obey natural laws, human behavior does not; we generally affirm that people make free will choices about what they will do, either in the heat of the moment or in thinking about it ahead of time.  As opposed to inanimate objects, we can plan ahead (notice I said can here, not do) and very often share with others what we would do under certain circumstances.  The problem is, as history and experience has repeatedly affirmed,

“Everybody lies.”

Certainly Dr. Gregory House operated on this belief (pun intended), early scriptures affirmed it (Psalm 12:2), as did Shakespeare and a litany of historical works from multiple cultures.  And you’ve done it, too.  At least I know I have, until I figured out that what followed wasn’t nice and then changed my behavior.  For the most part, that is.

So, we have learned not only to listen to what people say they would (theoretically) do, but also to watch what people (actually) do, and if/when the two are incongruent to place more credibility on what they do.

An explanation and reason for why we respond this way, I think, can be understood through the theories of Chris Argyris, his concept of Espoused Theories versus Theory-in-Use.  Basically stated, all of us have mental models on how the world works (either “the” world or “our” little world in it), and in order to describe how we believe we would behave in that world we refer to our “Espoused Theory” of behavior.  But when actually confronted with reality (a crisis or even a normal situation) what we actually do, how we actually behave, is driven by our “Theory-in-Use.”  Unbeknownst to us, these two are often different for most people, and this leads to our observing that some people say one thing, but then do another.

I find the original terminology a bit esoteric and overly theoretical, so I propose a more practical terminology for the two.  Espoused Theories I suggest are more conveniently described as Professed Behaviors, and Theory-in-Use I propose as Practiced Behaviors.

Professed Behaviors are what people say (and want us to think) they would do in a given situation, but

Practiced Behaviors are what we observe them doing, perhaps repeatedly if/when similar circumstances arise.

If the two are congruent, then there is no problem.  If, however, people hypothesize or declare that they would do such-and-such and we repeatedly observe them doing this-and-that, then we conclude that the action and results are more credible than what was said and draw a conclusion of what we could expect from them in the future.  We believe we’ve reached understanding, because we can see reproducibility as well as predictability.

Discussions of Argyris’ work are usually relegated to understanding organizations and management and then trying to change ineffective managerial behaviors.  But I believe there is a broader application and a lost opportunity if these theories are not able to help every individual better understand his/her own behaviors in any situation.

Thus, what we “know” intuitively about observing and vicariously learning from others has a strong and legitimate basis.  If we learn to take care to observe and retest our hypotheses, we can draw fairly valid conclusions about what other people do and what they will probably continue to do in the future under similar circumstances.

What we probably do not realize well enough is that others are observing what we do, even when we think they aren’t looking, and they are drawing similar conclusions about what we say we will do, what we do, and what we will probably continue to do in the future under similar circumstances.  A good manager will probably identify our congruent and incongruent behaviors in a well-prepared performance review, but that’s only for work and career.

For the remaining parts of our lives, marriages, parenting, and interpersonal relationships, we need to take initiative and accept and control this reality ourselves.

What are you doing to make your life, your words and actions, as congruent as possible?  It matters.  It’s a Fundamental Principle.


About Jim Edmonds

I am a husband, father, mentor, who once was a chemist turned physicist turned marketer turned executive turned missionary turned professor. And survived it all.
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3 Responses to Behaviors: Practiced or Just Professed?

  1. Bill Clarkson says:

    Perhaps a quick lesson in neuro-linguistic programming (NLP) would help the observers….I’m not sure WHAT will help those that should be practicing, other than honesty and integrity.


  2. Pingback: What We Really Learn By Watching Others | Road Signs and Blind Spots

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