Rule Governed and Contingency Shaped Behavior

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People are said to solve problems either by discovery or by instruction. From a behavioral perspective, the difference is between the direct effects of contingencies (discovery) and the indirect effects of rules (instruction). When performance is attributed to direct exposure to reinforcement contingencies, behavior is said to be contingency-shaped. As previously noted, performance set up by constructing and following instructions (and other verbal stimuli) is termed rule-governed behavior (Catania, Matthews, & Shimoff, 1990; Hayes, 1989b).

Skinner (1969) illustrated the differences between contingency-shaped and rule-governed behavior in his analysis of a baseball player "catching the ball" and a naval commander "catching a satellite":

The behavior of a baseball outfielder catching a fly ball bears certain resemblances to the behavior of the commander of a ship taking part in the recovery of a re-entering satellite. Both (the outfielder and commander) move about on a surface in a direction and with a speed designed to bring them, if possible, under a falling object at the moment it reaches the surface. Both respond to recent stimulation from the position, direction, and speed of the object, andtheyboth take into account effects of gravity and friction. The behavior of the baseball player, however, has been almost entirely shaped by contingencies of reinforcement, whereas the commander is simply obeying rules derived from the available information and from analogous situations. (Skinner, 1969, p. 146)

Although behavior attributed to rules and contingencies occasionally may look the same, the variables that affect performance are in fact quite different. One difference is motivational—reinforcement determines the rate of response (probability) for a given setting, while rules only affect how the response is executed (topography). Recall that a rule is a special kind of discriminative stimulus and that SDs affect behavior because they set the occasion for reinforcement. This means that rule-following itself must arise from contingencies of reinforcement. The advice of a friend is taken only because such directions have been useful in the past. For example, a friend may have recommended a certain restaurant and you found it enjoyable. Based on these consequences, you are now more likely to follow your friend's advice, especially for dining.

Reinforcement for following the advice of others in various situations may establish a general tendency to do what others recommend. This kind of reinforcement history may underlie generalized susceptibility to social influence (Orne & Evans, 1965). You probably know someone who is a sucker for a sales pitch. Many sales pitches are presented as advice, in the sense that a salesperson describes the benefits of owning a product. Often, however, the purchase results in more benefits to the seller than to the buyer. The television evangelist does not have a material product, but uses advice, promises, and threats of retribution to get people to send in money.

When directions are backed up with social punishment rather than natural consequences, they are called orders and commands (see Zettle & Hayes, 1982, on generalized compliance or pliance versus tracking). Individuals follow orders because they have been punished for disobedience. Of course, obedience often results in avoiding aversive consequences, as when a child is told, "don't play in the street," by a parent who has punished disobedience. Generalized obedience, however, may be a problem. Governments can induce blind obedience in which a person harms another without regard for moral consequences. In many countries, Amnesty International has documented the torture of political prisoners by guards and police. In these cases, obedience to authority is unquestioned and obviously results in serious harm or death to the victims (Milgram, 1974). Figure 11.10 shows Dr. Stanley Milgram (left) with a shock panel that subjects were ordered to use. The right-hand photograph shows an elderly gentleman who was given the supposed shocks. Participants in the experiment delivered bogus shocks that they considered real. Many participants delivered

Stanley Milgram

FIG. 11.10. Stanley Milgram's famous study of obedience to authority illustrates the impact of orders and commands on human behavior. Based on the experimenter's orders, subjects administered what they thought were increasingly severe electric shocks to a 59-year-old man who complained of a heart condition. Photograph of Stanley Milgram (left) with the shock generator used in the obedience experiment. Photograph of learner (right) being strapped into chair is from the film Obedience © 1965 by Stanley Milgram and distributed by Penn State Media Sales. Both reproduced with permission of Alexandra Milgram.

FIG. 11.10. Stanley Milgram's famous study of obedience to authority illustrates the impact of orders and commands on human behavior. Based on the experimenter's orders, subjects administered what they thought were increasingly severe electric shocks to a 59-year-old man who complained of a heart condition. Photograph of Stanley Milgram (left) with the shock generator used in the obedience experiment. Photograph of learner (right) being strapped into chair is from the film Obedience © 1965 by Stanley Milgram and distributed by Penn State Media Sales. Both reproduced with permission of Alexandra Milgram.

the shocks even though the man complained of a heart problem. The tendency to obey the commands of the authority (experimenter) outweighed the signs and sounds of distress from the elderly victim.

The importance of reinforcement contingencies in establishing and maintaining rule-following is clearly seen with ineffective rules and instructions. One kind of rule that is likely to be weak is based on statistical analysis of contingencies. For example, it is unlikely that a person will give up smoking merely based on the directive, "Stop smoking—smoking causes cancer." The actual consequences are too remote and the statistical chances of getting cancer too unlikely. Of course, smoking usually declines when a person gets cancer, but at this point it is too late. When rules describe delayed and improbable events, it is necessary to find other reasons to follow them.

Recently, government reports of second-hand smoke and its effects have led some communities to classify public smoking as illegal. Towns and cities arrange fines and other penalties for failing to obey the no-smoking bylaw. In this case, smokers follow the antismoking rule for reasons unrelated to smoking itself (i.e., social punishment). A similar effect is obtained when smoking is called sinful or shameful and religious sanctions are used to promote compliance. Generally, social contingencies may be used to establish rule-following when natural contingencies are too remote or improbable to affect behavior.

Baum (1995) emphasizes the importance of rules in terms of long-term contingencies between behavior and fitness. As a discriminative stimulus, the rule strengthens listeners' behavior that is reinforced in the short run by social contingencies, but the rule also enters into the long-term contingencies that enhance the listeners' fitness. For example, in following the rule "Do not smoke" the listener is reinforced by the speaker's consequences in the short run, but this behavior is also related to better health and longer reproductive years. When the rule is said to be "internalized," the listener's behavior has switched from short- to long-term control. The fitness-enhancing consequences of long-term contingencies are health, resources, relationships, or reproduction. Baum's analysis of fitness and rule-governed behavior, therefore, integrates behavior analysis explanations of human behavior with evolutionary theory and natural selection.

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Responses

  • lochlan dickson
    When to use contingency shaped behavior?
    1 year ago
  • martina bachmeier
    How to turn contingencyshaped behavior into rulegoverned?
    5 months ago
  • taylor
    What is a remote contingency Skinner?
    2 months ago

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