What Behavior Analysis Has To Say About Gay Marriage

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By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B. F. Skinner discussed values at the biological, behavioral, and cultural levels.  In short, he regarded values at each level as what enables biological, behavioral, and cultural survival.  What we value is what is “good.”  But what is “good” differs depending on who you ask and the culture they live in.  Moreover, in Science & Human BehaviorSkinner regarded practices as governed by controlling agencies that affect their future probabilities (e.g., religious institutions, government, educational systems, etc…).

A case in point is a recent story from the Sydney Morning Herald on a couple who vowed to divorce if same sex marriage was legalized in Australia.  They regard their signing of the marriage license as a contract between them and the state.  Any contract, of course, has terms to which both parties agree.  If one party fails to uphold the terms, then the contract is terminated.

In this case, the couple entered into a marriage agreement “as a fundamental order of creation, part of God’s intimate story for human history, man and woman, for the sake of children, faithful and for life.”  In short, they regard marriage as a vehicle for the union of a man and woman for the purposes of raising children.

This case raises an important issue regarding the function of marriage as a cultural institution, or what marriage provides those who engage in “marriage behavior.”  Today, marriage seems to be partly a religious union centered on traditional views of the family, and partly a legal arrangement centered on tax incentives, power of attorney, and other benefits enforced by the state.  Some people place more emphasis on one or the other, but what does behavior analysis have to say about the current gay marriage debate?  To find an answer, let’s look at how marriage as a practice came to be in its present form.

LiveScience gave a succinct history of marriage encapsulated by 13 stages or 13 historical functions of marriage that have changed through the ages.  The 13 functions are briefly outlined below.

  1. Arranged Alliances: The earliest marriages functioned to build alliances among families, with no input from the newlyweds themselves.  Sometimes, a child would even be married to the spirit of a deceased person in the name of building alliances.
  2. Family Ties: Marriages also functioned to “keep it in the family” with marriages between first and second cousins being common occurrences.  This practice can be seen in the Bible and in the Middle East today.
  3. Polygamy: Also practiced in Biblical times, polygamy was a regular occurrence across centuries, with a few examples of women having multiple husbands.  Today, most marriages are synonymous with monogamy.
  4. Reproduction Not Required: In the early Church, married couples were obliged to procreate.  However, being unable to procreate was not grounds for divorce.
  5. Monogamy Established: In the Western world, monogamy became valued starting around the 6th century.
  6. Monogamy With Benefits: Though monogamy was established, men typically had much leeway in regards to extramarital affairs.  For women, however, promiscuity was met with severe consequences.
  7. The Church vs. State: In the 1500s, the state starting entering in to the institution of marriage, requiring witnesses to the union. Previously, marriages were contracts solely between the bride and groom, then became intertwined with the Catholic Church in it’s oversight of “invalid” marriages.
  8. Civil Marriage: This is what we know today as marriage based on the signing of a marriage license with a county court.  This practice began in the 1600s in the U.S. and were widespread by the 1800s.
  9. Enter Love: Around 250 years ago the notion that marriage was related to romantic love started gaining traction.
  10. The Market:  Shifting away from an agricultural world meant parents had less control over inheritance.  Subsequently, children had more independence in the new market economies to do as they pleased and marry who they wanted.
  11. Gender Roles: Until very recently, men and women had very sharply defined roles in marriage, with women unable to even open credit cards in their own name.
  12. An Equal Partnership: In the mid 19th century, the roles between partners started shifting from “gender roles” to “divisions of labor” that were not set in stone.
  13. Gay Marriage Gains Ground: Once gender roles started breaking down, with love and equality issues gaining ground, mixed in with state-endorsed benefits to marriage, it was only a matter of time before the conversation shifted to gay marriage.

So what does behavior analysis have to say about gay marriage?  Nothing!  Not an endorsement or a rejection in any absolute sense anyway.  A science like behavior analysis can’t tell us what we “should” do, but it can tell us how to do the things that the members of the science value in terms of behavior change.  Behavior analysis can also provide a framework for understanding how we got to this point in the evolution of marriage.  LiveScience’s list gives us a glimpse of how the influence of various controlling agencies, and how reinforcers for different topographies of marriage behavior, have changed over time.

What do you think about the evolution of marriage?  Let us know in the comments below!  Also, don’t forget to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com. Todd served as a Guest Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and is 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, media production, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org.

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2 Comments on "What Behavior Analysis Has To Say About Gay Marriage"

  1. “So what does behavior analysis have to say about gay marriage? Nothing!”

    Another quality clickbait from Todd Ward, PhD! Way to contribute to society’s understanding of behavior analysis! 10/10!

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