Assumption of Generality

I gather that the term ‘Assumption of Generality’ is used in behavioral psychology to highlight the presumption that if our experiments observe a pattern of behavior in one species we are likely to observe that pattern in other species.

For example here is a typcial behaviorist experimental setup.  You put a pigeon in a cage with a button.  If the pigeon pokes the button she get’s a reward.  Then for the next 30 seconds the poking the button doesn’t do anything, but after that another poke gets the pigeon another reward.  In a sense this setup allows us to see if the pigeon has a pocket watch.  A sophisticated pigeon might learn to poke the button exactly every thirty seconds.  What actually happens is the pigeon learns not to poke the button immediately, but as time passes it give it another try, and as the 30 second mark approaches the pigeon starts hitting it more or for frequently.  The rate the pigeon hits the button is said to be scallop shaped; since frequency of pecking rises as the deadline approaches.

If we accept an assumption of generality then we would expect different species placed into a similar experiment to act in a similar manner.  Or to put it another way that they all have similar time keeping skill and  heuristics.  And indeed we do, almost.

Now for years and years I have been a huge fan of practical  behaviorism.    There are plenty of great and useful books on how to use it in everyday life to make things work better and avoid stupid feedback loops with the people around you.  You can find some pretty amazing videos of what people have trained various animals to do.  It’s clear from those that assuming generality has merit.  I had limited success once training a fish, but other people have had amazing success.

But wait a second!  Why had I never heard about the contrarian data about the Assumption of Generality.  Apparently, at least as far as that experiment above, we know that humans, and a few animals, don’t behave in the manner of pigeons.  If you put a human in that experiment they  behave in one of three ways.  You do see the scallop pattern.  You also see to two time other time keeping heuristics.  One is a kind of  rhythmic  pattern, where the animal just hits the button every few seconds.  The second scheme the animal first adopts a mode where he doesn’t hit the button at all, and then switches to a mode where he hits it a lot.

That second scheme is as if the animal takes a walk, knowing that it will be a while before the button works again the animal finds an activity that will provide a reasonable substitute for setting a timer.  This allows him to apply his mind to another activity during the interval.  The rhythmic behavior is similar, he finds something he can use as a metronome and then he can treat the button pushing as a background task.  In both cases the animal has a assembled a more symbolic, or digital time keeping heuristic.

In any case it seems to me  bizarre  that having read over decades discussions of behaviorism and it’s application to problems in various venues that not once did I happen upon the concept of  “Assumption of Generality” and that at least in some scenarios it’s known not to hold.

Stepping back, it’s way common for people to assume that what ever works the systems they are familiar with comprehend drives the other guy’s system.

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