Consequences Control!

Consequences Control!  

There are at least three levels of influence or selection by consequences that affect the lives of humans. The first is natural selection; the second is behavioral selection; and the third is cultural selection.

 Psychology’s Law of Effect (consequences control the future frequencies of behavior), is operational at all levels of our existence. The influence of consequences on our behavior are so pervasive and commonplace that we fail to see and appreciate one of the most important and controlling forces of life: Consequences powerfully shape our biological, psychological, and social existence. What we also fail to recognize, appreciate, and use wisely is that we; through our own cultural practices, significantly determine how and what consequences will affect our own biological, psychological and social existence.

 Natural Selection

 In natural selection, the biological existence of species are determined by their ability to interact with their physical environment effectively. As creatures behave within various environments (enriched and supportive or harsh and barren), the environments select certain species, or certain physical and genetic features within species, into and out-of existence. This natural selection process is called phylogenetic selection, or phylogenesis. Phylogenetic selection occurs throughout the life-span of all species. The environment “shapes” biological and biologically based behavioral adaptations by “reinforcing” them with food, water, warmth, escape from predators, and increased reproduction rates, etc.. The environment may also reduce or eliminate certain biological and biologically based behavioral adaptations by “withholding” these essential reinforcers and weakening or “extinguishing” them. That is, the creatures and their gene pool do not survive to propagate.

This phylogenetic process is well documented and its mechanisms bear a marked similarity to the psychological principles of selection-by-consequences (reinforcement, punishment, and extinction) that “shape” the behavior of individuals within their own life-times.

 Behavioral Selection

 The scientific term for behavioral influences within the life-span of individuals is ontogenetic selection, or ontogenesis. A great many of the behavioral similarities and differences between the billions of people on planet earth are caused by more than genetic differences. The experiences that each individual has had in their own culture coping with their own physical and social environments will yield vast differences in the ways that their personal behavior patterns have been shaped by the basic principles of reinforcement, schedules of reinforcement, punishment and extinction.

 Cultural Selection

 Cultures are behavioral in nature. The physical, geographical, and population of a society exists in a particular place in time. These things are easily observed. But a society’s culture refers to the rules, mores and folkways, sanctions, and the combined behavior patterns and practices of its population. A society may exist in an identifiable form for a very long time, but its culture may change so dramatically over time that the older cultural practices are replaced by dramatically different new ones. Consequences strengthen or weaken cultural practices and consequences select sociocultures in, or out of, existence. A passive and peaceful culture may live until the barbarians invade it. An agrarian culture may prosper until it depletes its soil of nutrients. A nomadic culture in the Amazon basin may prosper until its forest is destroyed by entrepreneurs, then the nomadic culture may disappear.

Cultures do not exist forever. Some live long and well, only to slowly weaken and evolve into vestiges of their former selves (i.e., early Greece and Rome, or perhaps our own Western Culture). Some cultures disappear entirely (Incas, Aztecs and Maya). And some mini-subcultures flicker for only moments in history before they die (i.e., the suicides of Reverend Jim Jones and his subculture in Guyana, South America in 1978 and the Heaven’s Gate Cult of Santiago, California in 1997). Sociocultures are often selected-in or selected-out by the immediate and delayed social and physical consequences of their own actions.

The consequences of self-destructive cultural evolutions will further weaken citizen’s ability to produce competent and emotionally healthy children. These children will likely be even less competent, as parents, than their own parents were, and the downward cycle will accelerate. In short, if a culture fails to teach its children the beliefs and behaviors necessary to perpetuate that socioculture, it begins to weaken and may eventually collapse.

Self-destructive sociocultures will not be reinforced with continued viability. This eventuality results because a world of essential sociocultural reinforcers will be unavailable to them. The natural laws of the universe dictate that if a culture fails to teach its children to obtain food, it will starve; if it fails to teach its children to love and care for children, future children will be neglected, abused and become even more dysfunctional than past generations; if it does not teach relevant intellectual skills, future citizens will be ignorant; if children are not taught to work hard and invent, economic failure will follow; and if children are not taught to love and defend their culture and its beliefs, they will be overrun and dominated by other cultures. Other losses will also be in evidence: freedom from the fear of crime, the ability to cope with international aggression, and the ability to care for the incompetent, sick and old. Cultural behaviors that lead to these outcomes will not enjoy the reinforcing consequences of continued success in our world.

The psychological principles of reinforcement, punishment, and extinction are intricately involved in our outcomes at all three levels of selection by consequences. How skillful we and our socioculture are at using these behavior principles to strengthen and maintain adaptive behavior patterns will determine our evolutionary success or failure.

A socioculture that fails to educate its young; fails to teach them to avoid early sex or pregnancy without the means to raise and care for their babies; fails to teach them to avoid inebriates and violence; and fails to teach them a strong set of culture sustaining morals and values, etc., will set the stage for its own incompetence, decline and eventual failure.

V. Thomas Mawhiney, Ph.D.   12/14/09


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