The Key to Understanding Communication: That Other B Word

Posted on January 7, 2013

by Amy Yeager

Fill in the blank:
If we want to understand the real reasons why people have so much trouble relating to each other and resolving their conflicts, we need to look more closely at their b_______.

How would you finish that sentence? If you said brains, you’re not alone. With all the attention that neuroscience has received in recent years, it’s easy to think that brain studies can answer all the big questions of psychology: What makes us who we are? Why do we do the things we do? How can we change what’s not working in our lives? And so on. Popular articles claim that “brain scans show” everything from the fact that Buddhists “really are happy” to the superior empathy of vegans over omnivores.

Over the past few months, there’s been an increasingly strong backlash against that type of thinking. (For details, see my full article on this topic here.) This is very welcome news to those of us whose work focuses on a different B word: behavior.

But while the problems with overhyped, oversimplified neuroscience have gotten a lot of press, the alternative of focusing on behavior has not. That’s not surprising. Behavior isn’t sexy like the brain is sexy. Brain-based psychology conjures up images of powerful, futuristic devices, high-tech images, and dramatic discoveries (“Look! I’ve just discovered the neurons that make someone a brilliant physicist!”) And behavior-based psychology? That brings images of salivating dogs, rats in cages, and rather more mundane findings (“Look! The rat just pushed a lever!”).

I doubt that anyone these days would suggest a return to the full-fledged, rat-heavy, consciousness-ignoring behaviorism popularized by John Watson and B.F. Skinner in the mid-1900s. However, in a cultural climate where the brain is often seen as the ultimate authority on everything, studying behavior helps to remind us of all the other crucial factors we tend to ignore. It also provides valuable guidance to those of us in the business of building practical skills, whether it’s teaching children to read, enabling victims of trauma to readjust into society, or—in the work that my colleagues and I do—helping groups to manage their differences and become resilient, high-performing teams.

In upcoming posts on this blog, my co-author Ben Benjamin and I will explore several critical insights we can gain by focusing on behavior, particularly in the context of trying to improve our communication. Along the way, we’ll discuss how one area of neuroscience, the study of neuroplasticity, provides a model for the way behaviors shape our brains (rather than just the other way around).

In the meantime, we welcome your comments! Let us know what you think, by commenting on this post or replying to @AmyEYeager on Twitter.

This post is adapted from a more technical and detailed full-length article, available here


January 7, 2013 at 5:57 pm by Anne Ellinger

Thanks for making both a short and long version of this article, Amy. Very helpful. And congratulations on Conversations Transformation being recommended by NYPost. Fantastic! I hope it’s read widely…

January 7, 2013 at 7:41 pm by jose miguez

I like SAVI, I like your book, I don´t like this oversimplification of the dichotomy behavior versus brain. In my point of view your critics represents the same error that you try to critic.

January 7, 2013 at 8:53 pm by amyyeager

Anne, thank you! Glad you found these helpful.

Jose, you’re right that it’s a mistake to treat the brain/behavior distinction as an either/or dichotomy. The challenge is to determine in which ways and which contexts both types of information are useful. It’s impossible to do justice to the full complexities in a short blog post. My article on the subject (under Free Resources-Articles) goes into a little more detail about the particular limitations of brain imaging and the particular questions that brain information alone is insufficient to address. Future blogs and articles will talk about the complementary interactions between brain and behavior; each shapes the other.

January 8, 2013 at 10:12 pm by Michelle Lynskey

Nicely said, Amy!