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Book Review

Making Sense of Behavior (The Meaning of Control)

William T. Powers (1998).  Benchmark Publications, 180 pages, $14.95

  Fred Nickols 2012


If you buy only one book this year it should be Making Sense of Behavior by William T. Powers. Powers’ book is subtitled The Meaning of Control and in it he presents, in plain and persuasive language, his view of human beings and their behavior. His view? We are all "autonomous control systems – it is our nature to seek goals and oppose disturbances [to the attainment and maintenance of our goals]."

In his book Powers does what other theorists and theories don’t, namely, he gives us an explanation of the human phenomenon that is technically satisfying and, at the same time, an explanation that resonates with our deeply held notions about ourselves. Who won’t like this book? The same pompous airbags who have seen fit to saddle us all with one empty-headed theory after another about the nature of human beings and their behavior. The truth, like quality and beauty, is something we all know when we see it. You’ll recognize the truth in Powers’ book.

Powers is no intellectual slouch. An engineer by training and a scientist by calling, his approach is as intellectually demanding and as scientifically rigorous as any to be found. Nor is his theory of recent or easy vintage. He has been hard at work developing it for almost half a century. He first articulated it in a 1973 book titled Behavior: The Control of Perception and he has elaborated it in various papers since then.

Powers’ central thesis is simple enough: All we know of our world we know through our perceptions. We act, then, not to control the world but to control our perceptions of it. Hence, behavior as the control of perception. Best of all, Powers provides a simple, elegant experiment requiring nothing more than two rubber bands and two people that we can use to test his theory. It is difficult to argue with.

So what? What are the practical implications of Powers’ theory? Well, for one thing, the transactions between employer and employee need to be negotiated instead of commanded or demanded. If that seems obvious, consider this: for the most part, so do the transactions between parent – or teacher – and child. Remember, we are – all of us – "autonomous control systems," even the children among us. For another, Powers offers an interesting if not novel approach to conflict resolution, namely, taking it "up a level." (I leave to the readers of Powers’ book the fun of discovering of what that means.) Finally, in the midst of all this autonomy is the unavoidable conclusion that we are inescapably accountable for our own behavior. (Management will both love and hate that one.)

The bottom line of Powers’ message is plain and profound: I am in control of me. That’s all there is and that’s enough. Moreover, the inevitable consequence of attempting to control others or be controlled by others is conflict.

But why take my word for it? At $14.95, Power’s book is a bargain. Buy it, read it and then you tell me what you think. I’ll post your reviews on my web site.

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