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Behavior settings

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Template:Specspsy Behavior settings are theorized entities that help explain the relationship between individuals and the environment - particularly the social environment. This topic is typically indexed under the larger rubric of 'Ecological (or Environmental) Psychology'. However, the notion of behavior setting is offered here in more detail and with more specificity than is found in the larger entry under 'Ecological Psychology' or 'Environmental Psychology'.

There has been a tendency in the social sciences generally to polarize arguments about consciousness, identity, behavior, and culture around either the mind existing 'in the head' or the mind being an artifact of social interaction. 'Mind'—in the sense used here—is understood as the motivation for behavior. Evidence indicates that both of these 'facts' are accurate. One of the problems social scientists have is understanding this paradox. Behavior settings are mediating structures that help explain the relationship between the dynamic behavior of individuals and stable social structure. Social scientist Roger Barker first developed this theoretical framework in the late 1940s.

Behavior settings also may serve as a bridge between the foundational work of Maturana & Varela on Autopoiesis and the insights developed in American Pragmatism and Continental Activity Theory.

A behavior setting exists at the interface between the standing patterns of behavior and the milieu (environment), wherein the behavior is happening in the 'milieu', and the 'milieu' in some sense "matches" the 'behavior'. In technical parlance, the "behavior-milieu interface" is called the synomorph, and the 'milieu' is said to be circumjacent and 'synomorphic' to the 'behaviour'.

In a dentist’s office, for example, "patients get their cavities filled". This is the standing pattern (the behavior/milieu part or 'synomorph') because we are in the office (the 'milieu' surrounds us, i.e. 'circumjacent') and the pieces of the 'milieu' 'fit' the standing pattern (the drill is meant to fit in my mouth and drill my tooth, i.e. 'synomorphic' with the 'behavior'). Further, to be considered a 'behavior setting', these 'behavior/milieu parts' or 'synomorphs' must have a specific degree of interdependence that is greater than their interdependence with other parts of other settings.

There is an empirical test that can determine the relative robustness of behavior settings, depending on the index of interdependence between and among specific standing patterns of behavior. By itself, a standing pattern of behavior is meaningless; it would be like watching a person pretending to go to the dentist’s office and having a cavity filled. Also, a dentist’s office without patients (or the possibility of patients) would be a meaningless artifact.

So, a behavior setting is a self-referenced (internally interdependent and self-defined) entity that consists of one or more standing patterns of behavior. Just as the standing pattern is synomorphic with the artifacts in the milieu, so are standing patterns synomorphic with other standing patterns in the behavior setting. We see in the eminent ecological psychologist, Roger G. Barker’s conception, an elegant and stable view of the nested interrelationships that exist within our common experience. The pieces fit, and in their fitting we see the larger structure-in-a-context that is necessary for making claims about development, causality, or purpose.

Ecological unitsEdit

"Ecological units" exist at the interface between the ecological environment and certain practice of molar behavior. These units exist in the physiological, social, psychological, and behavioral realms and share three common attributes:

  • they are self-generated, as opposed to resulting from the observer’s or researchers interest or manipulation;
  • they have a time-space locus; and
  • they have a boundary separating the internal pattern of the unit from the external pattern of surround.

An ecological unit is a composite of an 'environment piece' and a 'behavior piece'. They are hybrid artifacts that exist as quasi-objective entities, much like Searle’s "observer-relative features of the world" (Searle, 1995). An example that Barker (1968) uses (p.11) is a road—a road is a track (physical feature) used for travelling or carrying goods (expression of 'molar behavior'). The coupling of a molar behavior to an environmental feature (affordance) is the mechanism through which the reciprocal relations between different levels of nested or related phenomena occur. The ecological unit is the foundation for the concept of a 'behavior setting' which was defined above. More generally, it seems that this notion captures the relationship of any organism to its niche and is captured by Reed (1996) in his discussion of the 'affordance'.

Barker also develops a useful analogy for conceptualizing this relation, as well as preparing readers for later claims about behavior settings. He observes that 'molar behavior' is to the 'ecological environment', just as 'visual perception' is to 'light'; i.e. in order to understand visual perception, you have to understand light, independent from visual perception. If we were only to look at the eye-optic channel at the instant that light hit the receptor surface, we would know nothing of depth of field, focus, or perspective.

The behavior setting concept could be very useful in the field of architectural programming, architectural design, as well as in urban planning and design. It is the very challenge for behavior setting theory today to be used in those fields: architects and behavioral scientists still are not in full contact in design and research issues. The kind of ecological unity devised by Roger Barker connects strongly and consistently behavior and physical features of ordinary - and those not-so-ordinary settings in universities, labs, hospitals, etc.


  • Ecological Psychology: Concepts and methods for studying the environment of human behavior, Barker, R. G. (1968), Stanford University Press, Palo Alto, CA
  • Encountering the World: Toward an Ecological Psychology, Reed, E.S. (1996), Oxford University Press, New York
  • Behavior Settings: A revision and extension of Roger G. Barker's Excological Psychology, Schoggen, P (1989), Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
  • The construction of social reality, Searle, J. (1995), The Free Press, New York
  • Autopoiesis and cognition: The realization of the living. Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1980). Dordrecht, Holland: D. Reidel Publishing Company.
  • The tree of knowledge; The biological roots of human understanding. Maturana, H., & Varela, F. (1987). Boston, MA: Shambhala.
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