Preference versus orientation the role of will and other issues

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The concept of homosexuality is highly value-loaded. An immediate consequence of this is that almost any opinion expressed on the subject is prone to be criticized, perhaps even violently, by some group or another. This is perhaps not of major importance for a courageous scientist, so long as funding is not jeopardized. From a scientific point of view, a more serious problem is that the concept is vague and understood in different ways by different individuals. I have tried to avoid using the words homosexuality or homosexual and replaced them with sexual preference when discussing studies of non-human animals. However, as soon as we turn to the human, even the concept of preference may be victim of violent attack. Some want the expression 'sexual preference' to be replaced by the expression 'sexual orientation'. This seemingly trivial proposal is related to how we conceive the causes for having sex with same-sex individuals and this is a highly contentious issue. For reasons which I ignore, the notion of preference is considered as founded on the belief that the sex of the preferred partner is decided by volitional mechanisms, while orientation is regarded as being determined by mechanistic processes over which the individual's will has no influence. Furthermore, the notion of 'preference' does not necessarily refer to an immutable personal characteristic, while the notion of 'orientation' seems to do exactly that. The opposition between these two terms is reflected in opposing views on the very concept of homosexuality. A view favored by many holds that homosexuality is a stable individual characteristic, just like sexual orientation is, while others consider homosexuality as a temporary, unstable state. I will begin this section with a humble attempt to analyze these issues, with the hope that such an analysis will contribute to reduce confusion and make the subsequent parts of this chapter understandable without excessive intellectual effort. I will first present some thoughts concerning the role of volition as a determinant of sexual preference. This is crucial in order to contrast preference and orientation, which will be the issue that follows.

In Chapter 8, I defined preference. For the sake of clarity, I will repeat that a preference for something always requires a possibility of choice. Without a choice, there is nothing to prefer. Furthermore, I restated preference in terms of relative incentive value of available alternatives. An individual will approach the incentive with the largest incentive value among those available at the moment. For convenience, I employed the verb 'choose' for the action and the noun 'choice' for the process. These words are simple labels put on an observed behavior and do not imply anything at all with regard to the dynamics of the internal processes determining the behavior. When a male rat chooses to approach a sexually receptive female rather than another male, we say that the male made a choice of the female or that he chose the female. What actually happened was that the incentive stimuli emitted by the female had a more powerful action on the central motive state than the incentive stimuli emitted by the other male. Thus, the central motive state activated motor patterns leading to approach to the female. In this process, there is no need to assume that the rat made a conscious choice between the available alternatives, and much less does it imply that the approach to the female was determined by the rat's free will. The behavior displayed by the rat was entirely determined by the interaction between incentive stimuli and the central motive state. However, when we want to describe the rat's behavior, we may say that he chose the female rather than the male. The use of the verb 'choose' might seem contradictory, but if we keep in mind that it is only a convenient label put on an observed behavioral sequence, there is no contradiction whatsoever. It simply means that the rat approached one incentive among those available. This same reasoning can obviously be applied to the human. Therefore, when I talk of a preference for one sex over another, I mean that an individual approached one sex and not the other in a situation where both were available. This occurred because the incentive stimuli emitted by a particular individual had a larger impact on the central motive state than the incentive stimuli emitted by other persons present in the situation. We can, if we like, regard this as a perfectly deterministic process in which the individual's free will, if such a thing exists, had no influence at all. The notion that the relative incentive value of available incentives determines which of them is approached has important corollaries. One was already mentioned, namely that the behavior displayed is not a result of volition. Another is that the sex of the individual with the largest incentive value in the situation is quite uninteresting. Whether it is a man or a woman emitting the superior incentive stimuli is of no concern in this deterministic analysis of preference. For the moralists and those unfamiliar with behavior theory, though, this irrelevant aspect may be a question of utmost importance.

Any discussion of preference as a result of differences in relative incentive value between available incentives is incomplete without some mention of the many factors determining incentive value. In Chapter 4, I discussed the issue of human sexual incentives at length. The main conclusion was that we know little. Concerning the factors determining the momentaneous incentive value of a sexual incentive, we know still less. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that both our remote and immediate past experiences with the incentive are decisive. Immediate past experience may have produced habituation or sensitization to an incentive, or negative allies-thesia may be at work. More remote experiences may have effects through classical or operant conditioning, or through social learning. Internalized rules evoking mental representations of aversive consequences of commerce with an incentive may devaluate it, while mental representations of future rewarding events attainable only through commerce with the incentive may heighten its value. These are probably the most important factors, but there may be others. We know very little about their operation in relation to sexual incentives, but there is a considerable amount of data showing how some of these factors influence the value of other kinds of incentives. To review these data here is out of the question. They are scattered over several psychological fields, some of which I am almost completely ignorant.

Despite limited present knowledge, hypotheses regarding the exact influence of any of these factors on sexual incentive value can be subjected to experimental test. This fact is rather important, and should by itself show how fruitful the incentive motivational approach to sexuality is.

Most behavioral scientists are not opposed to the notion that preference of one thing over others, or choice of a thing or a particular behavior, is a deterministic process. In fact, any scientist studying behavior is convinced that it obeys a set of rather simple laws and principles. If not, it could not be the object of science. If yes, there is no room for a free will. A free will could never be predicted and never subjected to any law or principle. Far more eloquent arguments showing that the notion of a free will is unnecessary and even incompatible with science are found in a brilliant analysis of the determination of behavior which was published many years ago (Skinner, 1971). It is still worth reading by anyone with the slightest interest in behavior theory. A more recent analysis of the issue of will can be found in a magnificent paper (Ainslie, 2005). In this paper, we are also shown how the experience of a will corresponds to certain motivational patterns.

The demise of the will as a scientific concept was much accelerated by Freud's conception of the human as a victim of forces from the id fighting against the censorship of the superego. In that fight, there was no room for a will. A consequence of this demise is that the subject of volition has become marginal, or survives as a kind of exoticism, in behavioral science. However, outside the circle of behavioral scientists, the concept of will and all of its philosophical, moral and political implications is still in good health. Because of that, it has been argued that the term 'sexual preference', suggesting a willful choice, should be abandoned and replaced by the term sexual orientation. According to those favoring this suggestion, orientation is necessarily deterministic. However, as we have seen, this distinction is untenable. Furthermore, the concept of sexual orientation gives no clue at all to the processes involved in orienting, while preference has both a theoretical and a behavioral content. When asked to give a cause in terms of orientation for a male rat's approach to a female rather than to a male, we would have to say that he does that because he is so oriented. To my simple mind, such a statement has no sense. It would be necessary to add another question, namely what it means to be so oriented. The answer to that question must sooner or later refer to behavior, which was that the male rat approached the female rather than the male and therefore his orientation is toward the female. This circular argument is meaningless and it continues to be so until we add something. That thing must be the question 'why?'. Why does the male approach the female instead of the male? The answer, because he is so oriented, may seem to explain the rat's behavior. However, as we know since Chapter 1, the question of 'why?' has no place in science. Likewise, the answer I just provided does not explain anything at all.

In order to account for the rat's behavior in the situation described above, we would have to find the cause which makes him approach the female rather than the male and that cause cannot be 'he is so oriented', as we learned a few lines ago. If we use different relative incentive value as the cause of the rat's behavior, we have given a general behavioral principle as the cause. It is valid for all kinds of alternative incentives and in all kinds of situations. On the contrary, the explanation 'because he is so oriented' refers in fact to a particular set of alternatives in a particular situation. A test with the same female and male incentives the following day, for example, could reveal that the male was approached more intensely than the female. We would then be forced to conclude that our subject had changed his orientation overnight. If we use the incentive value explanation instead, we would simply state that on this occasion, the male had larger incentive value than the female. The general principle of relative incentive value used for explaining behavior remains valid, while the circumstantial explanation of orientation turned out to be false. Incidentally, the female's reduced incentive value on the second test may be a consequence of the fact that she was no longer sexually receptive and therefore smelled and behaved differently. Since 'orientation' is believed to refer to a stable, inner characteristic, changes in the incentive stimulus can have no effect on this stable characteristic.

I could invent many other examples of the uselessness of the orientation concept for explaining behavior. Rather than doing that, I will simply point out that a behavioral concept becomes useful only when it is possible to integrate into a theoretical body of some generality. Sexual orientation refers specifically to the choice of sexual partner and has no generality. Of course, we could imagine that this choice obeys behavioral mechanisms that are not at work in any other choice. However, then we would need to fill our brain with thousands of choice mechanisms, or orientations. I, for example, am very fond of a Swedish nut chocolate with the name Schweizernot. Whenever available, I choose it among all the other chocolates. Am I equipped with a chocolate orientation making me choose Schweizernot? Or is it simply so that I choose the chocolate with the largest incentive value? And how about the choice of Bourbon? I always choose Knob Creek when it is available. Have I a Bourbon orientation? Or do I simply choose the one with the largest incentive value? The concept of orientation may be of help in the exercise of the sport of orienteering but not in behavioral science.

Some critical reader may consider that my treatment of the concept of orientation has been overly negative. There is no reason for being unfair, so I will try to approach that concept from an angle different from the one of behavior theory. One possible alternative is to take a look at the non-scientific or commonsensical meanings of the term. According to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, one meaning that appears to be appropriate in the present context is:

'a person's basic attitude, beliefs, or feelings; a person's emotional or intellectual position in respect of a particular topic, circumstance, etc.; (now) spec. sexual preference (downloaded from http://dictionary.oed.com/cgi/entry/ 00333795?single = 1&query_type=word&queryword = orientation&first= 1&max_to_show=10 on September, 25, 2006).

These approximations to a definition of orientation refer to inner, mental states and not to observable behavior. Even if attitudes, beliefs or feelings could be measured, and an individual's emotional or intellectual position in respect to a particular topic could be determined, it is most uncertain how such measures or determinations relate to actual behavior. A long series of unproved suppositions regarding the relationship between attitudes, beliefs, feelings and behavior would have to be made. Despite all the good will I can muster, I still find the concept of 'orientation' extremely cumbersome compared to the concept of 'preference' whenever we seek to explain the mechanisms making an individual perform sexual activities with a person of one sex rather than the other.

In view of the clear inferiority in explanatory power of the concept of 'orientation' compared to the concept of 'preference', there must be some extrascientific reasons justifying its use. The notion that 'orientation' refers to a life-long characteristic makes it possible to argue that it is inborn and that the individual has no influence over his own orientation. It could, perhaps, be maintained that those preferring the term orientation are not necessarily interested in understanding the neural or psychological mechanisms by which a human approaches one individual rather than another. Their main interest is to make evident that this approach is not determined by free will. Consequently, the individual making a particular approach cannot be held responsible for it. She is driven by forces outside of voluntary control. This notion has a considerable importance in the popular debate concerning homosexuality, as we will see in the next section.

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