Your Behavior—How to Understand and Change It!

Richard Pfau, who holds a doctorate in science education and an undergraduate degree in psychology, wrote Your Behavior: Understanding and Changing the Things You Do as a reaction to what he sees as the current state of psychology. In his own words, the psychology field today is “scattered and speculative”.

Pfau’s goal with Your Behavior is to synthesize work from various fields including psychology, sociology, anthropology, and biology into a coherent explanation of why we do the things we do, and to do so in a way that is accessible to both laypeople and professionals. Throughout the book, he draws from perceptual control theory (PCT) to help readers understand their own behavior and how to change it.

Pfau does an excellent job of ordering and organizing his work. He begins with establishing the reader as an “autopoietic being,” which includes the assertion that we are wired to survive. As such, he asserts that most of our behaviors are done to ensure survival and often occur without conscious thought.

Pfau examines the origins of behavior from the cellular level up to all possible environmental levels and discusses how the different levels interact with each other in a system that is not strictly linear.

In life, most of us have “references,” or things like goals, plans, or how we think things ought to be. We change our behaviors based on our perceptions of how congruent they are with our references. A basic example could be something as simple as putting on a jacket when it is cold. Our body’s reference is to maintain its optimum temperature and homeostasis. But it can also be much more complicated. For instance, the references a person may have in his or her political or religious beliefs may lead to behaviors to bring the references for those beliefs into being.

We behave in such a way that our perceptions give us feedback to ensure we are in congruence with our references, whether our behavior is or is not a conscious thing. At times, we may mistakenly attribute a behavior to one level when it is a result of a different level. We are in constant interaction with our environment in terms of our perceptions of our references. Pfau offers a truly intriguing look at human behavior.

The first ten chapters offer a comprehensive overview of perceptual control theory (PCT) and why people behave the way they do, which includes a look at both ourselves and others. Pfau has organized the book in a way so that the reader can delve as deeply as they want.

Each chapter begins with a brief overview and contains multiple boxed highlights that give examples of topics in the chapter, or more in-depth information about concepts. These were very helpful as refreshers of what concepts mean throughout the book. I do not recall ever coming across PCT or autopoiesis before reading Your Behavior.

Each chapter ends with a preview of the following chapter, which gives a sense of the intentional continuity of the educational process of this book. There is an extensive list of references for further reading at the end of each chapter, as well as endnotes that give further information on the covered material. The organization and presentation are very straightforward, well thought out, and excellently presented.

I am still debating Pfau’s critique of current behavioral theory. He says that the term “culture” is abstract, and therefore a statement such as “culture causes behavior” is meaningless or misleading, and cannot be verified. But just as humans evolve in the interplay with their environment to survive, cultures also evolve, and generally due to the shortness of our lives, cultures (our interplay with our environment in a systems way) evolve outside of our awareness.

I think it may come down to “abstract” versus “construct.” There are arguments that the self is a construct, which I don’t think is addressed in this work. While reading this, I became curious as to how PCT would address the self, and perhaps culture, as a construct.

After providing a very thorough understanding of PCT and why we and others behave the way we do, the final two chapters guide us through analyzing our own behaviors, and how to systematically change them.

Pfau calls upon the works of several individuals for this, but one that stood out to me was John Norcross, who has been involved in the transtheoretical model of change over the years. (Curiously, I didn’t find any reference to the model here.)

There are very useful appendices including checklists and forms with cues to help readers analyze and develop a way to change their own behavior. Pfau even discusses his own change process with weight and smoking.

This is a very comprehensive work that is clearly presented. Your Behavior is a good book for anyone interested in behavioral change with a theory backing it that encompasses a comprehensive system from the cellular level up.

This guest article appeared on Your Behavior: Understanding & Changing the Things You Do and was originally posted on Psych Central by Richard H. Pfau and reviewed by Stan Rockwell, PsyD.


Richard H. Pfau (2017) Your Behavior: Understanding and Changing the Things You Do. Paragon House.

Image via aleksandra85foto/Pixabay.


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