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The molar view of behavior and its usefulness in behavior analysis.

The molar view of behavior contrasts with the older, molecular view. The difference is paradigmatic, not theoretical. No experiment can decide between them, because they interpret all the same phenomena, but in different terms. The molecular view relies on the concepts of discrete, momentary events and contiguity between them, whereas the molar view relies on the concepts of temporally extended patterns of activity and correlations. When dealing with phenomena such as avoidance, rule-governed behavior, and choice, the molar view has the advantage that it requires no appeal to hypothetical constructs. The molecular view always appeals to hypothetical constructs to provide immediate reinforcers and stimuli when none are apparent. As a result, the explanations offered by the molar view are straightforward and concrete, whereas those offered by the molecular view are awkward and implausible. The usefulness of the molar view for applied behavior analysis ties in the flexibility and conceptual power it provides for talking about behavior and contingencies over time.


The molar view of behavior is relatively new. Although its origins may be traced back earlier, its first partial articulation was by Baum and Rachlin (1969), in a paper called "Choice as time allocation." It was presented more fully in a paper by Baum (1973), "The correlation-based law of effect." Rachlin (1994) offered a book-length presentation, and Baum (2002) elaborated on his 1973 paper in another paper, "From molecular to molar: A paradigm shift in behavior analysis" and some papers in-between (Baum, 1995a; 1997).

The molar view contrasts with an older view that behavior analysis inherited from nineteenth-century psychology. I call this older view "molecular," because it is based on the notion explanations of behavior may be constructed by thinking of small discrete units being joined together into larger units, like the joining together of atoms into molecules in chemistry.

The difference between the molecular and molar views of behavior is paradigmatic, not theoretical. No data, no experiment can decide between the two views, because no matter what behavioral phenomenon one chooses, a proponent of either view is able to construct an account of it. The difference between the two lies in the concepts each brings to bear in such an account. The molecular view relies on momentary events and momentary causation, which leads to postulating hypothetical momentary events and causes when none are apparent, whereas the molar view relies on extended activities and extended causation, avoiding postulation of hypothetical constructs.

Replacing the concept of momentary response with the concept of extended activity requires one to become familiar with thinking in more continuous terms-that is, in terms of extended patterns that cannot be seen at a moment in time. A familiar example is the concept of probability. An unbiased coin, when flipped, comes up heads with a probability of .50. What does this mean? On any particular flip, the coin comes up heads or tails; nothing more can be observed. Only for a long series of flips can one observe the probability of .50. If one says that on a particular flip the probability is .50, all one means is that in a long series of such flips about half would show heads. The same is true of response rate. At any particular moment, an activity (lever pressing) is occurring or not. One can only observe the response rate over some substantial time period. A response that occurs 60 times per minute cannot occur 60 times per minute at a moment.

Although Skinner advocated the use of response rate as a dependent variable, he was a molecularist. In his well-known paper on superstition, Skinner (1948) proposed a "snapshot" view of reinforcement, in which delivery of a reinforcer strengthens whatever behavior happens to be occurring at the moment. The molecularity of his approach is perhaps nowhere clearer than in a short piece he wrote called "Farewell, My Lovely!" in which he deplored the absence of cumulative records in the pages of JEAB and extolled the virtues of

being able to observe "molecular," moment-to-moment changes in behavior (Skinner, 1976). A cumulative recorder, however, is an averaging machine; it only produces smooth curves because the chart moves slowly and the pen moves in small steps. At any particular moment, either a response is occurring or not. The local changes in response rate are changes from one interval to another. If, however, one were to fit a truly continuous curve to a cumulative record, then one might think of momentary rate as the slope of the curve at a particular point. This, however, requires abstracting the continuous function.

In the molecular view, each response is taken as a concrete particular (i.e., the basic observation), and response rate is a "derived" measure (i.e., an abstraction) summarizing behavior over a period of time. The molar view turns this distinction around, making the extended pattern the concrete particular and the momentary response the abstraction. A response rate or activity exists as a pattern through time. Any attempt to infer activity at a moment depends on abstraction, as in the example of the cumulative record. In fact, no behavior can be observed at a moment, because even the simplest unit of behavior-lever press, key peck, button push-takes up time and must unfold from beginning to end before it can be recorded with certainty (for further discussion, see Baum, 1997; 2002). Because every activity takes up time, the concept of behavior at a moment is an abstraction, an inference made after the fact.

Although it has little use for momentary events, the molar view supports analysis in more and less extended time frames (Baum, 1995; 1997; 2002). That patterns take up time in no way precludes them from being brief. A pigeon's key peck, for example, is an extended pattern that takes a fraction of a second. Analysis may be as local or as extended as suits one's purpose. When trying to change behavior, one should make sure that reinforcers are closely coordinated with the activity one is trying to increase. The molecularist insists reinforcers must immediately follow the responses they are to strengthen; the molarist says reinforcers should coincide closely with the activity to be increased. Such local relations often have powerful effects, sometimes to our grief, when they override more extended relations (Rachlin, 2000). Each additional drink might seem harmless, but in the long run they add up to ruin. The likeliest way to overcome problem drinking is with local reinforcers for abstinent behavior. Thus, the molar view, like the molecular view, says that, in practice, the one who would shape behavior needs to be swift with the reinforcers.

The molecular view has one point in its favor: It coincides with a prejudice toward immediate causes. The notion that the events that affect behavior occur either immediately before or immediately after a response lends simplicity to analysis. One knows just where to look for the antecedents and consequences that control the response. That simplicity, however, comes at a high price: the necessity of inventing immediate antecedents and consequences when none are apparent. Perhaps the best example is explaining avoidance.

To explain avoidance, in which success means that nothing happens following a response, molecularists turn to two-factor theory. Since a reinforcer must follow the avoidance response, even if none is apparent, one has to be invented. Suppose that the stimulus preceding the response becomes a Pavlovian conditional stimulus, eliciting "fear." Then, when the response turns off the stimulus, the reduction in fear reinforces the response. Avoidance responding occurs, however, even if no stimulus precedes or is terminated by the activity (Hermstein & Hineline, 1966; Hermstein, 1969). Having already invented the fear-reduction reinforcer, the molecularist now also invents the stimulus. Dinsmoor (2001), for example, argued that response-produced stimuli, paired with a lower frequency of electric shock than their absence, become safety signals. The cost of maintaining the molecular view here is that one must appeal to hypothetical reinforcers and stimuli when none are observable. The result is a theory that cannot be refuted.

The molar view of avoidance is arguably simpler, but requires one to think in terms of temporally extended patterns. Avoidance activity is acquired and maintained because when that activity is present the rate of noxious events is lower than when it is absent. People avoid sensitive topics in conversation to lower the likelihood of embarrassment to themselves and others. People buy insurance to lower the likelihood of financial hardship. Much apparently dysfunctional behavior may be understood as avoidance. If working and failing would be too hard an outcome, one may avoid it by being ill.

Another example of paying a high price to retain a molecular view is in accounting for rule-governed behavior. Rules present a problem for the molecular view because they are invariably associated with behavior that has important consequences in the long run (Baum, 1994; 1995). Since long-delayed effects must be ineffective to the molecularist, if rule-governed behavior is maintained, some immediate (effective) consequences must be found. Why would someone eat vegetables instead of candy when no one else is present to observe? Why would someone save a piece of trash until a trash can appears, when it might have been dropped on the street with impunity? Mallott (2001), in a paper about moral and legal control, provides the molecularist's answer: thoughts and self-punishment. He argues, "For moral control to work, society must have established a special, learned aversive condition-the thought of the wrath of one's God or the thought of the wrath of one's parents. And those thoughts must be aversive, even when no one is looking" (p. 4). Again the molecular view leads directly into the realm of the hypothetical and unverifiable.

The molar view of rule-governed behavior allows that any contingency, no matter how extended, may control behavior, even though more local contingencies may be more powerful than more extended ones (Baum, 1994; 1995; Rachlin, 1994; 1995; 2000). Rules exist, however, because extended contingencies are weak. A rule is a discriminative stimulus produced by one person that induces in another person behavior that is reinforced socially in the short run (and reinforced in some major way in the long run). The behavior may come under the control of the long-term contingency-for example, the relationship between diet and health. Although people often say that then the rule has been "internalized," from the molar point of view, it actually is further externalized, because the control is exerted by a more extended contingency. In looking at rule-governed behavior this way, the molar view introduces no hypothetical events and no new terms.

Perhaps the strongest area of application of the molar view is to choice, the allocation of behavior among alternatives. At any moment, behavior is assigned to only one alternative. Over time, however, one sees a pattern of allocation among alternatives. In the molar view, such a pattern constitutes a concrete particular. The molecular view, focusing on a moment, immediately moves to hypothetical constructs. Each alternative has a certain strength, unobservable at the moment but existing at the moment. The extended pattern of allocation is thought to reveal the relative strengths of the alternatives. If a pigeon pecks twice as often at the left key than the right key, the strength of left pecking is considered twice that of right pecking. If a child spends twice as much time disrupting classroom activities as the child spends doing schoolwork, the strength of disrupting is twice that of remaining on task. In the molar view, no hypothetical strength enters in, because these patterns of allocation are what the science is about.

Even if the molar view seems to allow such phenomena as avoidance, rule-governed behavior, and choice to be understood more readily, the question arises as to whether the molar view has any implications for applied behavior analysis. It makes for the same sort of rule of thumb as the molecular view when one is trying to change behavior: reinforcement must be frequent and quick. Beyond this, however, I think the molar view might have some advantages for applications. First, it offers flexibility in thinking about goals and treatments. No need arises to define some artificial discrete response for reinforcement. One needs only to make sure that reinforcers accompany appropriate activity. For example, in school settings applied behavior analysts already often talk about time on task as a reinforceable activity. The molar view allows this kind of flexible thinking about reinforcement of activities to be extended indefinitely. Second, it frees one to think about time spent instead of response rate. Without artificial discrete responses, activities like reading, playing, grooming, and the like can be measured by timing them. Time spent should be no harder to measure than counting responses and often will be less ambiguous, because one may be able start and stop timing more easily than decide whether exactly the right response occurred. Once applied behavior analysts grow accustomed to the molar way of talking, they will find it more congenial for communicating with one another about behavior and contingencies, because it is more flexible and more concrete.

In conclusion, two points might be made. First, although the molecular view was useful early in the development of behavior analysis, the science has outgrown it, and the molar view supplies the conceptual power required for the new developments. Second, the molar view may be recommended for the flexibility and power that it allows both applied and basic researchers in talking about behavior and contingencies.


Baum, W. M. (1973). The correlation-based law of effect. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 20, 137-153.

Baum, W. M. (1994). Understanding behaviorism: Science, behavior and culture. New York: HarperCollins.

Baum, W. M. (1995a). Introductional to molar behavior analysis Mexican Journal of Behavior Analysis, 21, 7-25.

Baum, W. M. (1995b). Rules, culture and fitness. the Behavior Analyst, 18, 1-21.

Baum, W. M. (1997). The trouble with Time. In L.J. Hayes & P. M. Ghezzi (Eds.), Investigations behavioral epistemology (pp 47-59). Reno, NV: Context Press.

Baum, W. M. (2002). From molecular to molar. A paradigm shift in behavior analysis. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 78, 98-116.

Baum, W. M. & Rachlin, H. C. (1969). Choice as time allocation. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 12, 861-874.

Dinsmoor, J. A. (2001). Stimuli inevitably generated by behavior that avoids electric shock are inherently reinforcing. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 12, 861-874.

Hermstein, R. J. (1969). Method and theory in the study of avoidance. Psychological Review, 76,49-69.

Hermstein, R. J., & Hineline, P. N. (1966). Negative reinforcement as shock-frequency reduction. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behaiior. 9, 421-430.

Mallott, R. W. (2001). Moral and legal control. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 1, 1-7.

Rachlin, H. (1994). Behavior and mind: The roots of modern psychology. New York: Oxford University Press.

Rachlin, H. (1995). Self-control: Beyond commitment. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 18,109-159.

Rachlin, H. (2000). The science of self-control. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). "Superstition" in the pigeon. Journal Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.

Skinner, B. F. (1976). Farewell, my lovely! Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 25, 218.

William M. Baum

University of California, Davis

Author's Note:

Correspondence concerning this article may be addressed to: William M. Baum, 611 Mason, #504, San Francisco CA 94108 or 415-345-0050. Email address:
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Author:Baum, William M.
Publication:The Behavior Analyst Today
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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