Covert behaviors are actions that cannot be observed directly. A covert behavior can only be inferred by an observer or reported by the person under study.
Psychologists can compare behaviors in two broad buckets: overt and covert. Covert behaviors are hidden actions and processes that occur inside the mind and cannot be directly observed by others. Overt behaviors are visible and measurable. Behavioral psychologists primarily study overt behaviors, while cognitive psychologists primarily study covert behaviors.
Psychologists who study covert behaviors are attempting to understand people’s beliefs, attitudes, cognitive processes, and personality characteristics. None of these things can be seen directly by a researcher. Instead, scientists use a variety of indirect measures to assess these examples of covert behavior.
Covert Behavior Definition
Covert behaviors are those that occur inside the mind, hidden from view and cannot be directly observed by others.
It is any behavior that is hidden to the extend that it cannot be quantifiably measured.
Covert behaviors include thoughts, feelings, and emotions, as well as certain cognitive processes such as reasoning, decision-making, and memory recall.
Covert vs Overt Behaviors
It is hard to discuss covert behaviors without discussing overt behaviors, which are contrasting ‘buckets’ of behaviors that psychologists look at.
While covert behaviors are not measurable and not visible directly, overt behaviors are visible and can be observed by others.
Overt behaviors include all our external actions and movements that are noticeable and measurable, such as walking, talking, laughing, or any physical activity. They’re much easier to measure by psychologists, especially via quantitative means of analysis.
Comparison table of overt and covert behaviors:
|Overt Behavior||Covert Behavior|
|Definition||Observable actions and movements that are noticeable and measurable by others||Hidden actions and processes that occur inside the mind and cannot be directly observed by others|
|Examples||Walking, talking, laughing, running, jumping||Thinking, feeling, reasoning, remembering, dreaming|
|Observability||Can be observed and measured by others||Cannot be directly observed by others|
|Measurement||Can be quantitatively measured (e.g., speed of running, volume of speech)||Can only be qualitatively measured, often through self-report or inference|
|Impact on Others||Can directly impact others (e.g., shouting can disturb others)||Can indirectly impact others through the overt behaviors they influence (e.g., anger can lead to shouting)|
Covert Behavior Examples
- Thinking: Thinking involves mental processing of information, including recalling memories, making decisions, and understanding concepts. It’s a private process that cannot be observed directly, but could be measured through written tests of cognitive and thinking skills.
- Feeling Emotions: Emotions such as happiness, sadness, anger, or fear, are internal states that we experience subjectively. They can be inferred from overt behaviors or self-reports, but they themselves are covert.
- The Secrets Behind White Lies: One secret to a happy marriage is knowing when to be truthful, and when to rely on a little white lie. Being able to keep some opinions a covert secret is essential to marital bliss.
- Daydreaming: Sitting in class or while reading a boring text, sometimes the mind just wanders aimlessly. There doesn’t seem to be a purpose or any overt reason for it all. Although we might guess that someone is daydreaming when looking at their face, we really can’t be sure because we can’t actually see their thoughts.
- Visualizing During Meditation: Some forms of meditation involve trying to visualize relaxing nature scenes. This can help the individual take their mind off stressors from their job or challenging relations with colleagues. Those visualizations are covert actions.
- A Broken Heart: It can be easy to see the emotion on someone’s face as an expression of how they feel on the inside, but the actually feeling is covert and probably includes dynamics that are not expressed overtly.
- Experiencing Pain: Pain is a personal, subjective experience. While you can express that you’re in pain or show it through grimacing or holding that sore knee, the experience itself cannot be directly observed by others.
- Making a Decision: The process of making a decision is largely internal. Others can see the outcome of your decision, but the mental weighing of options is a covert behavior.
- Concentration: This refers to the mental effort you direct toward whatever you’re working on or learning at the moment. Although it can influence overt behaviors, such as productivity or accuracy, the act of concentrating itself is covert.
- Forming Intentions: When you form an intention, you create a plan or decide to perform a certain action. This mental process can lead to overt behaviors but is itself covert. We don’t know when someone has nefarious intentions until they actually act on them, which makes law enforcement quite hard!
- Remembering: The act of recalling a memory is covert. Even though you might express that memory through overt behavior (like telling a story), the act of retrieving that memory happens in your mind.
- Self-Talk: This is the process of talking to oneself through an inner dialogue. While speaking it out loud can be heard and therefore might be considered overt, saying it through private inner speech is covert as it can’t be observed by others.
- The Poker Face: The greatest poker players all have at least one thing in common: the ability to hide their true feelings. Their outward expression is a lot different than what they are actually thinking and feeling on the inside.
- Problem-Solving: There are many occupations that require near-constant problem-solving. From running a restaurant to estimating the strength of beams needed in a building before drawing-up the plans, problem-solving is a cognitive process that can’t actually be seen.
Applications of Covert Behavior
The following are situations where one might use covert behaviors to their advantage:
- Project Management Planning: Planning ahead and trying to anticipate obstacles that a project might encounter is one of several higher-order cognitive processes that cannot be observed directly.
- Selling Used Cars: Unless you are an experienced mechanic, there is no way to tell if a used car is a bargain or a lemon. Of course, you could always rely on what the salesman tells you, the master of disguising covert feelings.
- Song Writing: Some of the greatest songs were written almost like a stream of consciousness. The words just flowed through the musician’s mind as if they had already been written. Although it is possible to see the person writing the lyrics down on paper, the thoughts and feelings from which those words emanate can’t be seen.
- Social Niceties: Often, we hide our true beliefs to be liked and included in a social setting. For example, if you’re surrounded by people with different political views to yourself, you might keep that to yourself in order to continue to fit in and not be challenged or marginalized.
Controversy over Covert Behavior in Psychology
In the mid-1900s, when behaviorism was the most prominent theoretical perspective in psychology, covert behaviors were considered outside the realm of scientific analysis.
Behaviorists such as Pavlov and Skinner believed that in order for psychology to be a respected realm of scientific study, then it should focus on observable behaviors.
Notions of ids and superegos (from psychodynamic theory), and thoughts and feelings (from cognitive psychology), were all considered constructs which could not be directly observed, and therefore not worthy of analysis. If they can’t be observed, then they can’t be measured properly; if they can’t be measured, then they cannot be studied scientifically.
The behaviorist Watson (1913) illustrated this philosophy succinctly,
“Psychology, as the behaviorist views it, is a purely objective, experimental branch of natural science which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of chemistry and physics” (p. 176).
However, in the 1960s, psychologist Albert Bandura began conducting research on observational learning (i.e., learning by observing).
In a series of studies, he demonstrated that children could witness an adult’s actions and then imitate those actions. The children did not have to directly experience any rewards or punishments to learn.
They learned through observation, a purely cognitive process.
Other researchers also began studying cognitive processes such as problem-solving and the formation of judgment. This eventually led to the field of cognitive psychology.
Ulric Neisser, sometimes referred to as the “father of cognitive psychology,” facilitated the emergence of this discipline in his 1967 book Cognitive Psychology.
He once stated:
“Cognitive processes surely exist, so it can hardly be unscientific to study them” (p. 5).
His somewhat elaborate definition of cognitive psychology is presented below:
“The term cognition refers to all processes by which sensory input is transformed, reduced, elaborated, recovered, and used…Giving such a sweeping definition, it is apparent that cognition is involved in everything a human being might possibly do” (p. 4).
Although it can be easy to see cognitive psychology and behaviorism as antagonistic perspectives, many believe that Bandura’s SCT provides a framework for combing the two (Mimiaga et al., 2009).
SCT incorporates the notion of cognitive processes as well as the impact of rewards and punishments.
Measuring Covert Behaviors
1. Neuroimaging Techniques
Although covert behavior such as cognitive processes and emotions cannot be observed directly, technological developments have allowed us to get remarkably close.
We might not be able to see a thought process, but we can see the electrical impulses and blood flow patterns that are involved in a thought process. Neuroimaging techniques allow this to happen.
Some of the more commonly used techniques include: functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), computerized tomography (CT), positron emission tomography (PET), and electroencephalography (EEG).
Alvarez and Emory (2006) reviewed the literature pertaining to neuroimaging of the frontal lobe and executive functions such as problem-solving and verbal fluency. Their review found mixed support for using neuroimaging techniques to identify areas of the brain connected to executive functioning (most likely located in the frontal lobe).
They caution against a paradigm shift in psychology towards the study of behavior as the study of the brain. The use of technology to pinpoint areas of the brain involved in covert behavior such as thought processes should avoid a “strict localizationist approach” (Duffy & Campbell, 2001, p. 113) in which “psychology and anatomy are inseparable” (Tranel et al., 1994, p. 126).
Instead, the authors argue for “a more integrative approach that incorporates the behavioral, theoretical, cognitive, and neuroanatomical approaches” (p. 33).
2. Measuring Emotions Via Facial Expressions
Early behaviorists rejected the study of internal states such as emotions because they could not be observed and therefore not measured scientifically.
However, research today has demonstrated that covert behavior such as emotions can be measured via observable facial expressions. A great deal of this research has been conducted by Dr. Paul Ekman.
For instance, each of the six basic emotions that exist in all human beings, regardless of culture, have remarkable similarity in regard to specific movements of the facial muscles.
Ekman developed the Facial Action Coding System (FACS) that provides a systematic approach so psychologists can code facial expressions objectively and scientifically (Ekman & Friesen, 1978; Rosenberg & Ekman, 2020).
Over the years, FACS has improved to the point that it has become the foundation for numerous technological applications such as digital effects, video games, and animation in major films (e.g., Pixar, LucasFilm; Rosenberg & Ekman, 2020, p. 2).
Covert behavior refers to behavior that cannot be observed directly, such as people’s thoughts and feelings. As a subject of widespread study in psychology, measuring covert behavior presents several challenges.
Classical test theory informs us that any observed score is actually comprised of a true score, plus error. That error is where the problem lies.
To reduce error and improve accuracy of measurement tools, a great deal of work is put into assessing the reliability and validity of those tools.
Even though measuring covert behavior is difficult, modern technology in the form of neuroimaging has made cognitive processes about as visible as can be imagined.
Facial coding systems have also made assessing facial expressions so precise that they are central to animated movies and highly realistic video games.
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