On The Applied Side Design Of Culture

Many governments throughout the world are faced with mounting population and declining food and resources (and many other problems). Economists, demographers, and other social scientists are frequently hired by government agencies to develop programs to help with these difficulties. Consultants often formulate plans of action based on assumptions of rational human choice or popular psychology. Because their analyses are based on assumptions that do not take contingencies into account, the programs are often ineffective (Hernandez, 1981). Behavior analysts are skilled at specifying the behavior classes that underlie the contingencies that support social behavior. Behaviorists can, for this reason, play a major role in the regulation of human social problems by providing analyses and research on controlling variables and designing new systems of reinforcement (see Lamal, 1997).

Consider the control of human populations (see Figure 14.11). Many scientists (and others) have suggested that people will eventually decimate the resources of the planet. They ask, "How can we stop this explosion of humanity?" A behavioral approach to human fertility has already been developed. As early as 1974, Wiest and Squire reported a reinforcement analysis of the adoption of birth control methods. They analyzed how different birth control methods were related to the time of use before sexual intercourse, the frequency of use, and the sex of the user. The researchers noted that "contraceptive performances that are [dependent on sexual intercourse]... are difficult to measure directly simply because heterosexual behavior always occurs in private" (Wiest & Squire, 1974, pp. 251-252). One solution suggested by Wiest and Squire is to target behavior that is reliably correlated with contraceptive behavior. For example, research may show that talking about the negative consequences of unwanted pregnancies and the long-term advantages of a small family is positively correlated with contraceptive use. Reinforcement contingencies applied to talking about contraception could indirectly increase the use of contraceptive devices (Krull & Pierce, 1997).

Low L-Middle U-Middle Income level of countries

FIG. 14.11. Increasing population and declining resources as a function of the income level of countries. The low-income data are based on countries other than China and India. The label L-middle is low to middle income countries and the U-middle is middle to upper income nations. The data are plotted from World Development Report 1989, by the World Bank, 1989, Oxford: Oxford University Press, Table 1, "Basic Indicators."

Wiest and Squire's analysis separates those who are "strongly motivated to avoid pregnancy" from people who want to have several children. The researchers suggest that little reinforcement is required to contact family planning agencies if pregnancy is not wanted. In these cases, how to use contraceptives may be the problem and teaching techniques of instruction and modeling could be employed.

On the other hand, it may be more difficult to alter the behavior of those who want children. One solution is that the "government might pay each female a monthly sum, beginning [at the time when she is able to conceive] until a birth occurs. The amount would increase as pregnancy risk became greater in early womanhood, and drop as the woman aged. This would regularly reward the successfully nonpregnant, and focus attention on the cost to a woman of bearing a child" (Wiest & Squire, 1974, p. 252). Although the authors do not mention it, a similar contingency could be applied to males who do not father children (e.g., payment to men for having a vasectomy). Importantly, this kind of intervention does not force reduced family size; it simply pays (reinforces) anyone who chooses to limit the number of children they have. We are not advancing the argument that having many (or no) children is better or worse. We are suggesting that social problems such as overpopulation may be informed by a behavioral analysis of contingencies of reinforcement and metacontingencies (see Krull & Pierce, 1997, for government incentives to increase fertility in Quebec, Canada—a French-speaking province below the population replacement rate).

There is a clear role for behavioral analysis in the study of society and culture (Guerin, 1994). Behavior analysts are capable of designing socially important programs and policies (Glenwick & Jason, 1980; Lamal, 1991, 1997). Currently, behavioral researchers are tackling social problems at both the theoretical and applied levels. Experiments on social processes such as cooperation, competition, and exchange are being conducted (e.g., Baker & Rachlin, 2002; Gueth, Ockenfels, & Wendel, 1997; Molm, 1990; Molm, Peterson, & Takahashi, 2001; Schmitt, 1976, 1981, 1984; Tjosvold, 1995), but more is required. Empirical research is needed on the transmission of cultural practices and the metacontingencies that regulate such practices (Pierce, 1991).

Dr. John Nevin at the University of New Hampshire is concerned with cultural practices that are designed to prevent armed conflict but, in fact, increase the probability of making war. In a recent article, Nevin (1988b) suggested that the behavior of preventing war by threats of greater retaliation is counterproductive. This is because the actions of deterrence "form an operant class maintained by powerful contingencies of reinforcement. Therefore, any events that raise the probability of the military components of deterrence, such as a show of force in a time of crisis, also raise the probability of war, the very outcome that deterrence is intended to prevent" (p. 46). This analysis of deterrence leading to war received some support from the armed conflict that occurred after Iraq invaded Kuwait and was told by the United Nations to leave or "face the consequences." One must realize, however, that such a threat cannot be empty; once made it must be completed.

The work of Nevin and other behaviorists suggests that our government and culture may profit from an analysis of contingencies operating on a large scale (Rakos, 1992). Currently, the formation of policy and evaluation of government programs is conducted by politicians, bureaucrats, economists, and others. These public servants are not usually familiar with effective contingency management, and their planning could be improved by increased knowledge of behavior principles. Behavior analysts who help design social systems will thereby contribute to the science of human behavior and to the long-term survival of humankind.

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