By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Founding Editor, bSci21.org
B. F. Skinner is best known for the development of operant conditioning — the process by which the consequences of our behavior affect the future probability of its recurrence given particular antecedent conditions. What you might not know is that he conceptualized operant conditioning as a type of selection, analogous to Darwin’s biological selection.
In other words, Skinner thought of those behaviors which are reinforced and recur more often in the future to be “selected” by those consequences. Much like Darwin thought that biological traits are selected based on their survival value, Skinner thought of reinforcement as a type of “survival” in the sense that the behavior of which reinforcement is contingent is more likely to continue into the future. Those behaviors that do not contact operant consequences undergo “extinction” and fade away — just like the dinosaurs.
However, Skinner also talked of a third type of selection — cultural selection. This type of selection differs from operant selection in two ways. First, cultural selection pertains to the spread of innovative technologies or ways of doing things within populations of people. For example, long ago there was MySpace — one of the most popular social media sites up until that time. A few years later, however, Facebook came along. Today you hardly hear of MySpace and it seems that everyone across all age groups is on Facebook. Skinner’s cultural selection could help explain why Facebook is more reinforcing than MySpace and how the practice of using Facebook spread and overcame the practice of using MySpace.
Secondly, cultural selection is based on group consequences, rather than consequences for the individual. Skinner (1981) makes this point abundantly clear. However, exactly what he meant by “group” consequences that are different than individual consequences was never precisely articulated. If you look through his writings, though, a clearer picture begins to emerge.
In Science and Human Behavior, he talks about “controlling agencies” as groups that control other groups. For example, a government passes a law to reduce texting and driving. The government here is the controlling agency and the group to be controlled are those citizens who text while driving. To assess the effectiveness of the law, however, the government is not interested in the particular individuals who text while driving. Rather, they are interested in the incidence (i.e., rate of texting while driving) and prevalence (i.e., the number of people texting and driving) in a given population. The concrete psychological responses and histories of particular individuals are masked in favor of statistical aggregations. Particular leaders in the government might then adjust the parameters of the law in response to group data. The latter would be an example of a controlling agency engaging in cultural selection.
The applicability of Skinner’s analysis to non agency-mediated practices are a bit unclear, however. For example, how is the practice of using Facebook vs MySpace selected for based on group consequences? Clearly more work is to be done on the issue, though it has inspired a good deal of work already. To read more about behavior analysis and culture, a good place to start is the journal Behavior & Social Issues.
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Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com. Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues. He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas. Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at email@example.com.