Action and behavior are distinct concepts, although in common lexicon they are used interchangeably. The two concepts are needed to distinguish what one intends to do and what one reacts to and how they react. In this article, I will explain the distinction between the two and how and why people get it wrong when discussing the two concepts—since using them interchangeably is inaccurate.
Actions are intentional; they are done for reasons (Davidson, 1963). Actions are determined by one’s current intentional state and they then act for reasons. So, in effect, the agent’s intentional states cause the action, but the action is carried out for reasons. Actions are that which is done by an agent, but stated in this way, it could be used interchangeably with behavior. The Wikipedia article on “action” states:
action is an intentional, purposive, conscious and subjectively meaningful activity
So actions are conscious, compared to behaviors which are reflexive and unconscious—not done for reasons.
Davidson (1963: 685) writes:
Whenever someone does something for a reason, therefore, he can be characterized as (a) having some sort of pro attitude toward actions of a certain kind, and (b) believing (or knowing, perceiving, noticing, remembering) that his action is of that kind.
So providing the reason why an agent did A requires naming the pro-attitude—beliefs paired with desires—or the related belief that caused the agent’s action. When I explain behavior, this will become clear.
Behavior is different: behavior is a reaction to a stimulus and this reaction is unconscious. For example, take a doctor’s office visit. Hitting the knee in the right spot causes the knee to jerk up—doctors use this test to test for nerve damage. It tests the L2, L3, and L4 segments of the spinal cord, so if there is no reflex, the doctor knows there is a problem.
This is done without thought—the patient does not think about the reflex. This then shows how and why action and behavior are distinct concepts. Here’s what occurs when the doctor hits the patient’s knee:
When the doctor hits the knee, the patient’s thigh muscle stretches. When the thigh muscle stretches, a signal is then sent along the sensory neuron to the spinal cord where it interacts with a motor neuron which goes to the thigh muscle. The muscle then contracts which causes the reflex. (Recall my article on causes of muscle movement.)
So this, compared to consciously taking a step—consciously jerking your leg in the same way as a doctor expects the patellar reflex—is what distinguishes one from the other—what distinguishes action from behavior. Sure, the behavior of the patellar reflex occurred for a reason—but it was not done consciously by the agent so it is therefore not an action.
Perhaps it would be important at this point to explain the differences between action, conduct, and behavior, because we have used these three terms in the discussion of caring. …
Teleology, the reader is reminded, involves goals or lures that provide the reasons for a person acting in a certain way. It is goals or reasons that establish action from simple behavior. On the other hand the concept of efficient causation is involved in the concept of behavior. Behavior is the result of antecedent conditions. The individual behaves in response to causal stimuli or antecedent conditions. Hence, behavior is a reaction to what already is—the result of a push from the past to do something in the present. In contrast, an action aims at the future. It is motivated by a vision of what can be. (Brencick and Webster, 2000: 147)
This is also another thing that Darwin got wrong. He believed that instincts and reflexes are inherited—this is not wrong since they are behaviors and behaviors are dispositional which means they can be selected. However, he believed that before they were inherited as instincts and reflexes, they were intentional acts. As Badcock (2000: 56) writes in Evolutionary Psychology: A Critical Introduction:
Darwin explicitly states this when he says that ‘it seems probable that some actions, which were at first performed consciously, have become through habit and association converted into relex actions, and are now firmly fixed and inherited.’
This is quite obviously wrong, as I have explained above; instead of “reflexive actions”, Darwin meant “reflexive behaviors”. So, it seems that Darwin did not grasp the distinction between “action” and “behavior” either.
We can then form this simple argument, take cognition:
This is a natural outcome of what has been argued here, due to the distinction between action and behavior. So when we think of “cognition” what comes to mind? Thinking. Thinking is an action—so thinking (cognition) is intentional. Intentionality is “the power of minds and mental states to be about, to represent, or to stand for, things, properties and states of affairs.” So, when we think, our minds/mental states can represent, stand for things, properties and states of affairs. Therefore, cognition is intentional. Since cognition is intentional and behavior is dispositional, it directly follows that cognition cannot be responsible for behavior.
Thinking is a mental activity which results in a thought. So if thinking is a mental activity which results in a thought, what is a thought? A thought is a mental state of considering a particular idea or answer to a question or committing oneself to an idea or answer. These mental states are, or are related to, beliefs. When one considers a particular answer to a question they are paving the way to holding a particular belief; when they commit themselves to an answer they have formulated a new belief.
Beliefs are propositional attitudes: believing p involves adopting the belief attitude to proposition p. So, cognition is thinking: a mental process that results in the formation of a propositional belief. When one acquires a propositional attitude by thinking, a process takes place in stages. Future propositional attitudes are justified on earlier propositional attitudes. So cognition is thinking; thinking is a mental state of considering a particular view (proposition).
Therefore, thinking is an action (since it is intentional) and cannot possibly be a behavior (a disposition). Something can be either an action or a behavior—it cannot be both.
Let’s say that I have the belief that food is downtown. I desire to eat. So I intend to go downtown to get some food. While the cause is the sensation of hunger. This chain shows how actions are intentional—how one intends to act.
Furthermore, using the example I explained above, how a doctor assesses the patellar reflex is a behavior—it is not an action since the agent himself did not cause it. One could say that it is an action for the doctor performing the reflexive test, but it cannot be an action for the agent the test is being done on—it is, therefore, a behavior.
I have explained the difference between action and behavior and how and why they are distinct. I gave an example of action (cognition) and behavior (patellar reflex) and explained how they are distinct. I then gave an argument showing how cognition (an action) cannot possibly be responsible for behavior. I showed how Darwin believed (falsely) that actions could eventually become behaviors. Darwin pretty much stated “Actions can be selected and eventually become behaviors.” This is nonsense. Actions, by virtue of being intentional, cannot be selected, even if they are done over and over again, they do not eventually become behaviors. On the other hand, behavior, by virtue of being dispositional, can be selected. In any case, I have definitively shown that the two concepts are distinct and that it is nonsense to conflate the terms.