A Glossary of Descriptive Psychology Concepts

What's this all about?

Ladder of Significance

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Significance is an Observer concept. As Observers, we can only see directly the Performance of a particular Behavior. We must investigate to find out what the Actor is implementing.

For example, if I see P "waving a hand" <B1>, I might decide "P was trying to say hello to Q" <B2>; thus, there are two levels: the Performance of <B1>, which was an implementation of <B2>.

Equivalently, <B2> is the significance of <B1>. Note, however, that P might have been "getting rid of a fly" <B3>. <B3> might have been the significance of <B1>. Since P is doing <B1> in both cases, and there's more than one possibility, we must observe, investigate, etc., to find out what's going on (what the real behavior is; what the top-level behavior is).

The result will always be at least two levels high, that is, there will always be "<B2> is the significance of <B1>" at a minimum; however, there's no necessary limit to the number of "steps" or "rungs" (behaviors) between the top-level behavior <B2> and the bottom-level behavior <B1>.

For example, P could be waving a hand <B1> to attract Q's attention <B1.1> to point out an oncoming truck <B1.2> so Q can avoid the danger <B2>. This "ladder of significance" has four rungs (<B1>, <B1.1>, <B1.2>, <B2>).

Note also that we, as observers, need a stopping point for our quest for "what P was doing by doing that". That is, we need a point at which we know we have actually reached the top-level behavior and can say that's what the real behavior is. The cap on the ladder of significance will always be an intrinsic behavior of some sort. In the example above, we don't need to ask why P would want friend Q to avoid danger. What friend puts a friend in danger ? Helping Q avoid danger is seen as an end in itself--an intrinsic behavior--so it is the cap on that ladder of significance. That's what P was really doing: helping Q avoid danger.