Selection By Consequences: Recovering Skinner’s Key Insight About Learning As An Evolutionary Process
Until recently, evolutionary psychologists considered behavioristic accounts of human behavior incompatible with evolutionary theory. They characterized B.F. Skinner’s work merely as part of the “standard social science model” and gave it scant attention.
But Skinner was in fact an evolutionist who extended evolutionary thinking to the selection of behavior. He argued that the open-ended capacity for behavioral and cultural change was itself an evolved capacity of the organism and an evolutionary process in its own right. In essence, we could study behavioral development according to the same principles of variation and selection by consequences that were involved in genetic selection (Wilson, Hayes, Biglan, & Embry, 2014).
Over the past 50 years, pursuit of this insight has led to considerable progress in our ability to treat and prevent most problems of human behavior (Biglan, 2015). Beginning in the 1960s, research conducted within the behavior analytic field began to show the impact of positive reinforcement on human behavior. That work has contributed to numerous effective interventions for nurturing prosocial behavior in families (e.g., Patterson, Forgatch, & DeGarmo, 2010), schools (Horner et al., 2009), and workplaces (Daniels, 1994).
Selection by consequences can account for most human conflict. Conflict not only results in interpersonal violence, it contributes to the development of most of the psychological and behavioral problems of children and adolescents, including antisocial behavior (Biglan, Brennan, Foster, & Holder, 2004). Recently, studies have identified a link between cardiovascular disease in middle age among people who had faced the stress caused by childhood conflict (Miller, Chen, & Parker, 2011).
Empirical work on the selection of conflict and aggressive social behavior began with the work of Gerald R. Patterson and his colleagues (Patterson, Reid, & Dishion, 1992). They directly observed moment-to-moment interactions in families of aggressive children in an effort to understand why such behavior would develop. The result was an empirically based theory of coercion (Dishion & Snyder).
Comparisons of the interactions in these families with the interactions of families with little aggression showed that the aggressive behavior of the child — and other family members — was selected by its benefit in producing brief respites from the aversive behavior of others. Humans have evolved the capacity to receive reinforcement through the cessation of attack or threat by others. In families with aggressive children, children and adults alike get relatively little positive reinforcement for prosocial behavior; the family is less likely to listen to them, hug or smile at them, play with them, etc. Instead, family members are more likely to tease, criticize, yell, hit, and ignore each other.
Analysis of the moment-to-moment interactions in these families showed that family members would engage in “bouts” of aversive interactions, which ended when another family member escalated their behavior in a way that got the first person to stop their aversive behavior. A child might repeatedly tease or whine while a parent kept telling the child to stop. Eventually the parent might yell or hit the child and the child would stop whining. Because their aversive behavior was occasionally successful at getting others to back off, family members began to select aversive behavior habitually.
Subsequent research showed that marital conflict persisted due to the occasional success of marital partner in getting the others to cease their angry, critical, or argumentative behavior (Patterson & Hops, 1972). And, in work I did with Hyman Hops (Biglan, Hops, & Sherman, 1988; Biglan et al., 1985), we found that the depressive behavior of mothers received reinforcement thanks to the brief respites such behavior produced when the other family members behaved aversively.
Patterson and his colleagues followed the lives of aggressive and non-aggressive children into adulthood. At the time this work began, no one believed that such mundane unpleasant interactions in families could account for the development of life-long criminal behavior. But that is precisely what they found. Children whose aggressive repertoires took shape in these families arrived at school lacking cooperative, prosocial behavior and, as a result, failed to learn and then faced rejection by their peers. Numerous studies have tracked the trajectory of these children as they joined peer groups of similarly deviant children and begin to use drugs, to engage in delinquency, and to have children at an early age. Recent work suggests that this pattern of behavior is consistent with the thesis that in a threatening world, having babies early may be the only means of survival of one’s genes (Dishion, Ha, & Véronneau, 2012).
Understanding the coercion process has contributed to development of a host of interventions that can significantly reduce the burden of problematic human behavior. In my new book, The Nurture Effect, I describe numerous family and school interventions that reduce coercive interactions and increase positive reinforcement for prosocial behavior. These interventions have proven capable of preventing the development of delinquency; tobacco, alcohol, and other drug use; academic failure; and depression.
They do so by making environments more nurturing. The key features of nurturing environments are that they (a) keep coercive interactions to a minimum, (b) richly reinforce prosocial behavior and values, (c) limit influence to engage in harmful or risky behavior, and (d) support a resilient approach to life in which people pursue important prosocial values even in the face of significant challenges, including distressing or discouraging thoughts and feelings.
We can evolve a more nurturing society by widely implementing tested and effective programs for families, schools, and workplaces. But in addition, we need to understand and modify the larger social context that affects families, schools, and workplaces. In my next essay, I will describe the recent evolution of American society, how it has contributed to increased conflict and coercion, and how we can evolve a more nurturing culture.
This article originally appeared on evolution-institute.org