On the orderliness of behavioral variability: Insights from generativity theory

Robert Epstein

Over time, many natural phenomena that had long appeared to be disorderly have been found to be orderly and predictable under specifiable conditions. First introduced in the early 1980s, generativity theory is a formal, predictive theory of the behavior of organisms that reveals the orderliness, moment to moment in time, in apparently disorderly behavior - even the surprising behavior a community sometimes calls "creative." According to this theory, under two specific conditions - when behavior is ineffective or when stimuli present in the environment are novel, compound, or ambiguous - novel behavior emerges in a predictable way as a result of dynamic processes in which multiple behavioral processes operate simultaneously on the probabilities of multiple behaviors. The process can be represented by a series of equations called transformation functions. Instantiatied in a computer model, the equations have proved useful in the moment-to-moment prediction of the emergence of novel behavior in both pigeons and people. A graphical method that generates a "frequency profile" has also helped to reveal the orderliness in the apparently disorderly behavior of individuals. Generativity theory makes no assumptions about the existence or nature of cognitive mechanisms and does not depend on the statistical analysis of aggregated data to show the orderliness in complex behavior. Although its predictive power in the laboratory is perhaps unparalleled, the full potential of generativity theory has yet to be explored.

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