The Behavior Analyst

, Volume 12, Issue 2, pp 167–176 | Cite as

Quantitative Prediction and Molar Description of the Environment

  • William M. Baum


Molecular explanations of behavior, based on momentary events and variables that can be measured each time an event occurs, can be contrasted with molar explanations, based on aggregates of events and variables that can be measured only over substantial periods of time. Molecular analyses cannot suffice for quantitative accounts of behavior, because the historical variables that determine behavior are inevitably molar. When molecular explanations are attempted, they always depend on hypothetical constructs that stand as surrogates for molar environmental variables. These constructs allow no quantitative predictions when they are vague, and when they are made precise, they become superfluous, because they can be replaced with molar measures. In contrast to molecular accounts of phenomena like higher responding on ratio schedules than interval schedules and free-operant avoidance, molar accounts tend to be simple and straightforward. Molar theory incorporates the notion that behavior produces consequences that in turn affect the behavior, the notion that behavior and environment together constitute a feedback system. A feedback function specifies the dependence of consequences on behavior, thereby describing properties of the environment. Feedback functions can be derived for simple schedules, complex schedules, and natural resources. A complete theory of behavior requires describing the environment’s feedback functions and the organism’s functional relations. Molar thinking, both in the laboratory and in the field, can allow quantitative prediction, the mark of a mature science.

Key words

molar description feedback function behavior-environment system operant behavior hypothetical constructs 


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Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 1989

Authors and Affiliations

  • William M. Baum
    • 1
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of New HampshireDurhamUSA

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