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Book Review

Your Behavior: Understanding and Changing the Things You Do

by Richard Pfau

Reviewed first by Fred Good and then by Lloyd Kleindinst

© Fred Good 2017

In his book, Your Behavior: Understanding and Changing the Things You Do, science educator Richard Pfau, introduces the layperson to what a significant number of scientists worldwide now consider to be the most important development in the life sciences since The Principles of Psychology appeared in 1890.  This development is Perceptual Control Theory (PCT), a theory that explains how living organisms operate. What is especially valuable about Pfau's presentation is that it introduces the reader to the topic in a way that is easily accessible, moving from what seems self-evident to what requires more analysis and thought. Each chapter builds on what has previously been covered, providing context and background using references from a broad range of academic disciplines and scientific thought. Rather than assuming that the reader is versed in terms and methods familiar to scientists, Pfau provides highlights throughout each chapter that clarify definitions, offer examples and emphasize key concepts. Each chapter is followed by a comprehensive list of further reading and endnotes. 

In the final two chapters Pfau discusses how a person can analyze their own behavior. He reviews the many resources and programs available to anyone who seeks to change whatever aspect of their behavior they want to change. Included are a multitude of support groups, some of them operating worldwide and some on-line resources readily available to anyone. He also suggests how one might go about finding professional help when needed.  What is particularly encouraging is that he acknowledges that we all have aspects of our own behavior with which we may not be entirely comfortable and for which we may want help. His approach to the subject is non-judgmental and affirming, supporting the notion that none of us are perfect. This section is in itself an excellent compendium of available resources, including brief descriptions of how they can be accessed.  

Pfau's early research interest was focused on trying to develop and articulate a unifying theory of psychology. After reading a book by the late William T. Powers titled Behavior: the Control of Perception (1973), he realized that he had found what he was looking for and set about studying PCT. He also began to attend annual meetings of the Control Systems Group, a scientifically oriented organization formed in 1986 by Powers and his wife Mary. Over the course of the next 27 years, scientists in fields as wide ranging as mathematics, physics, education and neuroscience presented and debated research papers they prepared based on Powers' thesis.  The CSGnet list serve to which he refers was initiated at the same time and continues today as an active forum for discussion and debate around the theory and its implications. 

Until his death in 2013, Bill Powers continued to focus on research using computer simulations to demonstrate his model. These computer simulations are included on discs, which come with his last book, Living Control Systems III (2008).  More than a dozen scholars in a variety of disciplines have written books and articles about PCT in peer-reviewed scientific journals. Applications of the model in psychotherapy known as the Method of Levels (MOL) is currently being implemented and studied in England, Australia, and the United States with very encouraging results. Some applications in K-12 schools have also been introduced in the United States, Canada and Australia.  In 2015, Northwestern University in Evanston, IL acknowledged Powers' importance, accepting into its archives the voluminous personal records of his research including physical models, video recordings of the annual meetings of the Control Systems Group and books and research papers by him and other scholars interested in the model.

Theories in science, depending on their scope and potential for replacing previously held assumptions, can take a long time before they come into public awareness, deemed important enough to be seriously considered and evaluated, and eventually accepted as valid. As Thomas Kuhn discussed in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1967), paradigm shifts in science are not everyday occurrences. The bigger the implications of a theory, the longer it takes for it to become accepted and its potential applications put to the test in what we typically refer to as "the real world.As Pfau explains, Perceptual Control Theory (PCT) meets the criteria of what is referred to as a "good theory" in science. It offers a comprehensive and internally coherent view of what we casually refer to as "behavior". It thus leads to a more accurate way of understanding our own selves, actions, and motivations, as well as those of others. It is therefore, what is often referred to in the academic community as a "metatheory." 

Pfau has approached the subject in a holistic, disciplined and objective manner, seeking to explain the theory and its underlying research in terms that are accessible to the ordinary reader who may not have a scientific background. He accomplishes this in a manner that is seamless, sequential and well documented.  He begins with descriptions of life that are clear to any reader such as a two-page overview entitled "The Story of Your Life. " He then builds upon this basic foundation, introducing, in this instance, the effects of genes and learning into the story, gradually preparing the reader for ideas that are specific to PCT such as "reference signals" and "reorganization." He always highlights key points and definitions to which he will refer to as he moves from what seems self-evident to what is more complex and may require some reflection to fully understand.

Pfau is clearly conscious of the innate prejudices with which most of us approach a book that purports to challenge existing notions of behavior. Wisely, he resists the temptation to offer counter arguments or evangelizing. Rather, he sets about explaining in a dispassionate and objective manner how PCT fits into a larger context. He explains how it is the product of advances in systems thinking, cybernetics and the digital revolution. While the subject matter and his references are probably unfamiliar to many of us who can benefit from this book, he does not talk down to his audience. He is a skilled teacher who is aware of the state of our current world. He is affirming in his approach while offering opportunities for deeper study and investigation.      

In spite of the increasingly serious attention PCT is now receiving from scientists worldwide, there are some reasons the model has taken some time to see the light of day. Pfau's book goes a long way to connect the dots in this regard. Most of what has been written around PCT has been written by and for the academic community. While there have been some books devoted to describing applications in psychotherapy and education, lack of funding for evidence based studies of these applications has been very limited in the United States and are only beginning to be realized in England and Australia. Part of the problem, of course, is that the model seriously challenges the path psychology took early on in the United States as behaviorism dominated the field throughout most of the twentieth century. Education policy in the United States has generally tended to support practices that are inconsistent with developing critical thinking skills, respect for scientific inquiry and a skepticism of dogma. PCT returns the field to what William James initially suggested should be its primary focus, namely, the study of purpose.      

Pfau's objective is clear from the start. Rather than seeking to persuade, he seeks to educate. Instead of zeroing in on the specifics of the model and its parts, he starts by providing a context that is familiar and comfortable to the reader, constantly defining words that may be unfamiliar to the non-scientist and explaining clearly the methods and role of science in coming to grips with observed phenomena, whether such phenomena are apparent to the casual observer or imbedded in the complexity that is, in fact, the nature of life and our relationship to the world outside of ourselves, which, it might be noted, includes other humans such as ourselves. Rather than focusing on where others may have gone wrong in their attempts at understanding life, Pfau consistently and subtlety reminds us that science and scholarship are part of a learning process and that it is important not to make judgments about the work of others without offering thoughtful and measured alternatives. In the case of PCT, the whole is, indeed, greater than the parts. The parts are, as it were, a composite of all the efforts, scientific, scholarly and experimental over time that have contributed to our current understanding, evaluation and acceptance of such a big theory as is Perceptual Control Theory.

Pfau offers copious amounts of references throughout the text, with specific information about how to access the information and how that information relates to what he is discussing at that point in the text.

The following Review of Pfau's book is by Lloyd Klinedinst

© Lloyd Klinedinst 2017

           In his forthcoming book (April, 2017), Your Behavior: Understanding and Changing the Things You Do,  Richard H. Pfau offers a smart introduction and brief compendium of key materials for a little known, but extremely promising (i.e. establishment challenging) theoretical life science - Perceptual Control Theory (PCT).

          In Pfau’s concise four part ‘handbook’ to PCT he outlines in the first three parts the human living organism, its operations (i.e. behavior), and the environment in which it exists to survive.

          Starting each chapter with a section called ‘The Big Picture’, Pfau surveys the body, its operations, and the environmental realities which our bodies’ operations include out of necessity and choice. In the course of these chapters Pfau refers to the many works of a long and rich lineage of thinkers who have pondered how human and living beings function.

          In “Part IV: Behavior Theories, Analysis, and Change,” Pfau first surveys theories and models of human behavior and presents a cogent case for recommending PCT as an overarching metatheory. He anchors this thesis on its founder’s own words: “As William Powers has stated, ‘For a thousand unconnected empirical generalizations based on superficial similarities among stimuli, I here substitute one general underlying principle: control of input.’”

          A real bonus included in Part IV, are the two chapters on how to analyze our own behavior and, if we choose, how to change it. Its analyses of examples of a present and a past behavior are supplemented with several guides or worksheets in the appendices. Additional resources of books, groups, and professional help are listed and described further make it easy for any reader to acquire whatever assistance may be needed or wanted for working, playing and being happy with his or her behavior.

          While Pfau’s book offers a remarkably helpful guide to understanding and changing one’s behavior, it equally serves as a valuable guide for learning about PCT. The basic thesis of PCT and its various corollaries inform the book’s first eight chapters which describe and discuss the human living organism, its operations (i.e. behavior), and the environment in which it exists to survive.

          In Chapter 9 PCT is situated in the context of related and general scientific research. Pfau also compares PCT with competing theories and practices, confirming for this reader its greater validity and reliability in understanding human behavior.

          I highly suggest this valuable publication by Richard Pfau. It can serve you well as a self-help guide. It can also introduce you to a perception-altering scientific idea whose time has been coming - long overdue!

* * * * End of Reviews * * * *


Pfau, Richard (2017).  Your Behavior: Understanding and Changing the Things You Do. Available on Amazon.com by clicking on the link or the image below.

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This page last updated on March 15, 2017