The Psychology of Communication


4.6 Transaction Theory of Communication

The transportation theory of communication, based on the behavioristic concept of the person, considers only input information. The person is passive, and thus simply receives the input information. The transformation theory of communication, based on the humanistic concept of the person, considers input and stored information. The person is active and evaluates input information in the light of stored information. The transaction theory of communication, based on the interactionist concept of the person, considers input and stored and fedback information. The person is interactive and uses fedback information to compare input and stored information.

Three brilliant young men - George Miller, Eugene Galanter, and Karl Pribram - once spent a year together at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences with nothing to do but read and write and talk and think. Under those ideal circumstances, something was bound to happen. Indeed, it did. They wrote a book, Plans and the Structure of Behavior, which shook psychology at its foundations [MILLER ET AL].

Their argument went as follows. Our behavior is determined by what is happening around us. The optimists within psychology (behaviorists) try to explain what comes out entirely in terms of what goes in (input information). We are empty boxes. The pessimists within psychology (humanists) try to explain what comes out in terms of what comes in plus what was already there (input and stored information). We are no longer empty boxes - there is a box containing stored information within the box. The pessimists are not pessimistic enough. There is no mechanism for getting the box into motion.

They turned for inspiration to the computer. The computer has input and output corresponding to environment and behavior, and memory corresponding to stored information. However, it also has a set of instructions, called a program, stating what to do with this input and stored information. Substituting image for memory and plan for program, we now have a model for the person, which involves input, stored, and fedback information. They called it the TOTE unit, because one tested the input information from the environment against the stored information of a desired future state (Test), operated according to a plan to reduce the discrepancy between input and stored information (Operate), test again (Test), and so on around this feedback loop until input and stored information correspond, and then exit from the plan (Exit) (see Figure 4-2).

Consider, for example, the simple operation of hammering in a nail. TEST The head of the nail is not flush with the surface of the wood (the desired state). OPERATE Hit the nail with a hammer. TEST Still not flush. OPERATE Hit it again. Test and operate repeated until the head of the nail is flush with the surface of the wood, then EXIT. That plan is completed. This simple plan is a sub-plan of building a door, which is a sub-plan of building a room, which is a sub-plan of building a house.

Miller, Galanter, and Pribram proceeded to explain more complex behavior using this model - for example, behavior under hypnosis. Psychologists tended to lose interest in hypnosis when Sigmund Freud abandoned it in favor of his famous free-association technique. They argued that, since hypnosis had acquired a bad name through association with stage magicians and international spies, it is much too controversial to be touched by conventional and respected scientists. However, hypnosis has many dramatic effects on behavior, it stands as a challenge to those who aspire to explain behavior. It stands perhaps as too much of a challenge. It may be that psychologists have neglected it for the same reason that they have neglected human dignity and moral courage and tenderness and poignancy: it is a complex phenomenon and psychology is, as yet, a simple science.

The new model of the person described above presents a glimmer of a hope of a satisfactory explanation of this complex phenomenon.8 Miller, Galanter, and Pribram argue that our plans are orchestrated by our inner voice which gives instructions to ourselves. Children do this out loud but, told by adults that big boys and girls don't talk to themselves, they continue to do it in a voice so low that no one else can hear. They suggest that people in a hypnotic trance have relinquished control of their plans to the voice of the hypnotist. Many well-documented facts about hypnosis can be explained, without undue strain, within this theoretical framework. The fact that it is difficult to hypnotize subjects against their will means that they refuse to relinquish their planning function. The fact that subjects tend not to do things that they would not normally do means that the impression that the hypnotist's voice is their own inner voice must be maintained. The fact that the hypnotist often uses sleep suggestion means that s/he is capitalizing on the subjects' lifetime of experience in suspending the planning function as they go to sleep. When subjects suspend their own planning function, they are susceptible to the insistent plans of the hypnotist, since planlessness is death.

Few conversations, however, are between a hypnotist and a subject in which the hypnotist takes over the planning function of the subject. Most conversations are between two people each of whom has their own plans, which they are pursuing as they deal with input, stored and fedback information. In our conversation, my output is your input or your feedback if I am responding to you, and your output is my input or feedback if you are responding to me. Our plans may be synergetic if we are, for example, seeking to entertain or enlighten one another, or they may be antagonistic, if I am trying to sell you something you don't want to buy or you are trying to convince me of something I do not believe. In a good conversation, we are both free to express ourselves fully and we both receive honest feedback.

Social sciences, including communication studies, are usually based on the behavioristic concept of the person and thus the corresponding transportation theory of communication. The Standard Social Science Model (SSSM) is based on the assumption that the mind is a tabula rasa and that this "tabula" will remain "rasa" unless it is written on. My argument here is that the humanistic concept of the person and its corresponding transformation theory of communication is a better model, and that the interactionist concept of the person and its corresponding interaction theory of communication is an even better model.

The theory based on those better concepts of the person will be more accurate. That is, the concept of communication in which you and I are having a conversation in which each of us is dealing with input, stored, and fedback information to complete our plans is better than the concept of information being transported from me to you. The better concepts of the person also lead to better practice. Time-Warner merged with AOL on the assumption that Time-Warner could deliver its vast library of magazines and books (Time) and movies (Warner) to the captive, passive audience of subscribers (AOL). They lost billions of dollars. Google bought YouTube for 1.35 billion dollars. YouTube had no magazines and books and movies. All they had was a space where people were invited to bring their own movies and to view the movies of other people. YouTube invited people to be active (humanism) and interactive (interactionism). The Google-YouTube merger will earn billions of dollars. The difference between losing and earning billions of dollars is the difference between a poor and a good concept of the person.

The moves from behaviorism (1920s) to humanism (1960s) to interactionism (1980s) could be considered as paradigm shifts within the science of psychology. Psychologists have indeed, as behaviorists hoped, emulated physicists. They have gone through paradigm shifts just as the physicists went through shifts from the paradigm of Ptolemy to that of Copernicus to that of Newton to that of Einstein to that of some unsung genius yet to come.

Alas, those shifts take us beyond the simple empty-box of the behaviorist, with stimuli going in and responses coming out. The environment must be analyzed into ecosphere, sociosphere, and technosphere, each of which has a different logical relationship to the person rather than simple stimuli: behavior must be considered as governed by plans which reduce the discrepancy between input information and a desired state stored in the image rather than as simple responses (see Figure 4-3).

8   I once presented this argument to the Canadian Association of Hypnotists. Talking to a hundred hypnotists is a strange experience. However, I was able to describe behavior under hypnosis to their satisfaction using this theory. The President later took me back-stage to meet The Great Reveen, an Australian hypnotist who entertained audiences around the world and he gave the theory his seal of approval.