Steven C. Hayes.

Variation and Selection in Rules and Rule-Governance: The Perspective of Behavioral Psychotherapy
Posted on April 6, 2012 by SEF Editor The Latin root of ―rules‖ (regula) originally just meant a straight stick, and later a stick used for measuring. That sense remains in English (e.g., a wooden ruler), but a later sense was simply that of any consistent pattern (e.g., ruled paper, or ―I don’t eat before noon, as a rule‖). The most recent sense of the term etymologically speaking is ―to govern.‖ A ―rule‖ in that last sense is a verbal statement (or a person who makes them – a ―ruler‖) intended to produce some behavioral regularity. Ostrom limits the term ―rule‖ in this article to the final sense, which is helpful because it avoids confusing verbal rules that are derived by scientists merely from the observations of behavioral consistencies, with the verbal specification of contingencies (contexts, actions, and consequences) so as to regulate human behavior. The ultimate question in the target article is how such rules evolve. In her hands, rules are cultural genotypes – a powerful and apt metaphorical extension of genetic evolution. Evolution of Rule-Governance As a psychotherapist and language researcher, in my comments I want to point several steps that behavioral and cognitive practitioners have learned can be helpful at the psychological level in altering rules and rule control. As Wilson and Gowdy (in press) point out, in the same way that disruption of gene flow leads to increases in speciation, disruption of communication between islands in the academic archipelago can lead to divergence so great that intellectual cooperation is impossible. The academic island I live on is a historically isolated one — behavioral psychology. Evolution science is a kind of ―water taxi‖ to other academic islands, but I hope I can be forgiven for presenting some background first so that part of my ―island culture‖ can be in this conversation. B. F. Skinner long ago distinguished contingency shaped behavior from rule-governed behavior (1966) and although his specific analysis failed, scholars in his contextual behavioral tradition have continued to work on the mechanisms, development, phylogeny, and function of verbal rules. Rules involve the verbal framing of contingencies (a modern tweak of Skinner’s definition, 1966, p. 243), but ―verbal‖ needs to be defined. Tinbergen’s ―four questions‖ (1963) provide a struc ture for considering the issue. Mechanisms or Processes. Verbal humans derive relations even among arbitrary events, mutually and in combination, and stimulus functions change as a result (Hayes et al., 2001). Humans without this ability do not develop normal language (e.g., Devany et al., 1986). The core phenomenon was shown with the discovery of ―stimulus equivalence‖ (Sidman, 1971), but it has expanded over the years to include many other types of verbal relations, such as difference, opposition, comparison, and the deictic relations (e.g., I-You, Here-There, Now-Then) that are central to perspective taking (Berens & Hayes, 2007; Weil & Hayes, 2011; Steele & Hayes, 1988). As a practical example of this skill, consider comparative relations. Very young children who know that coins can be used to buy candy will prefer a quarter over a nickel over a dime based on the nonarbitrary relation of relative size. When comparative relations become fully verbal and thus arbitrarily applicable, that same child will prefer a quarter over a dime over a nickel. The actually stimuli used no longer matter – anything in a variety of comparative network can be reliably related once the core skill is training (e.g., A < B < C, or A < B > C etc., see Berens & Hayes, 2007 for an empirical demonstration with young children). The derived and arbitrary nature of human verbal relations enormously expands possible variation. If a non-human primate learns eight sign à object relations, only these eight are available. In verbal humans these eight trained relations lead to several thousand derived relations because every sign

p. Clinical researchers in the area of rule governance have distinguished three major functional classes (Hayes. rules tend to induce a relative insensitivity to direct consequences of responding outside of those specified in the rule itself (Hayes. 1989): expanding social influence (called ―pliance‖). the symbolic inheritance stream in humans (likely at least 100. 2012). 2004). Nichols. different. If that is correct. For humans. Such a perspective fits with the centrality of multi-level selection in human evolution (Nowak et al.. 1993).. Sheldon et al. 2005. 2011). speaking and listening stimulates the same linguistic regions of the brain (Menenti et al. Flexibility and Rigidity in Rules and Rule Following The approach to rules I have described has emerged from clinical behavior analysis and cognitive behavior therapy. Thus. These insensitivity effects are especially strong with pliance. 2007).and relationship between and among the signs can be related one to the other in all directions.. I realize that many of these observations are already supported by the work of Ostrom and others. 1989). Too much focus on what ―should‖ have occurred instead of what did occur. but human infants do not (Lipkens et al.. Although cognition. see Mercier & Spencer. . 1993.g. 2001). orienting the listener to environmental contingencies (―tracking‖). The major human transition might have provided the cooperative environmental context for human symbols to operate in this relational way (cf. Development. Luciano et al. Nowak & Highfield. 2007) but moreover it explains how the relational aspect of verbal events might have been immediately advantaged as they evolved in the context of a highly social species.. Behavioral health problems are called ―mental‖ illness because they involve the domination of unhealthy or unworkable rules over behavior and in that sense clinical practitioners deal with the evolution of rules and rule-governance at the psychological level as an everyday matter. 2003. and that is precisely what non-humans do not do. The capacity to learn arbitrarily applicable relational responses is innate in humans. In what follows I will simply list five major findings on that topic that have emerged from this wing of behavioral psychology occasionally adding possible implications for the target article. 2010. make it more difficult to move toward chosen goals (cf.. 1993. although in the present the functions of verbal reasoning and problem-solving are primarily thought of as instrumental. 1. in the human sense. culture. then relational framing is how ―cognitive nucleotides‖ are a ssembled into coherent sequences that can produce behavior. Tomasello et al. The ability to derive such relations is central to human reasoning and problem solving (BarnesHolmes et al. The reversibility of speaking and listening roles in a single communication system requires the ability to reverse the order between signs and referents. or bigger.g. McHugh & Stewart. learning to point to an object when hearing or seeing a characteristic sign. 2011. as response frames (―relational frames‖) that can be applied to anything. Children learn classes of relational actions such as same. 2007.. If rules indeed are genotypes. Phylogeny. 1997).. 2000). but it appears to require operant training during the developmental period to take advantage of this capacity (e. Tomasello. will not thereby know to produce that sign when seeing the object. while even 12 month old babies show that ability (Lipkens et al. This is a very common clinical situation.. A non-human species. and altering motivation (―augmenting‖). 168. their primary original roles were likely social (e. the phylogeny of relational framing seems more readily understandable if it is assumed that cooperation came first. and to every object and relationship between and among the objects in all directions (cf.. Thus. Wilson & Wilson. Deacon. When tightly held.. but I will not stop to document that fact in this short comment. a person teaching a listener [name] à [point to object] can for example later ask the listener across a canyon or around a corner to report and be told what is there based on the relation [see object] à [say name]. and cooperation are all characteristic of humans. 2001). 1992) is itself initiated by learning processes that arguably date to the Cambrian period (Ginsberg & Jablonka.. Lipkens et al. intend to provide it‖ (Seyfarth & Cheney.. and too much focus on ―being right‖ or following the received wisdom from others as op posed to relying on experience. Non-human speakers and listeners communicate in an interlocking system but ―listeners acquire information from signalers who do not. 2011) because learning object à sign. Luciano et al. Language trained chimpanzees fail this task (Dugdale & Lowe. 2008).. Events are ―verbal‖ when they have their functions because of these relational frames (Hayes et al. Verbal meaning and rules themselves can thus be thought of in a functional sense as acts of social cooperation and communication that afford greater environmental and social control. see Tomasello. 2009). Function. 2010).000 years old. implies sign à object by derivation..

Seppala. and that do not allow expressions of distress to be linked to open processes of conflict resolution.. satire and theater has long been used to trim . 2003. view values as a matter of choice.. Cognitive flexibility is more important over time.. it seems important to track other streams of evolution and inheritance (behavioral. 2. do a better job of persisting or changing in rule-governance as needed (Cohen et al. and contact with the short and long impact of rules as part of creating more psychological flexibility. Williams et al. If one data source dominates over all others.. Avoidance based rules are particularly rigid. 1989). Examples of what we might call episymbolic processes may include the use of humor to deal with embedded racism. contact with the present moment is helpful in providing experiential feedback for behavior.g.. under submission). for example. and able to experience a wider range of emotions or thoughts without escaping or avoiding (e. in press). will do better over time regardless of starting point. There is some evidence that this in turn is fostered by greater mindfulness and emotional flexibility (Palm & Follette. than having the “right rules” at any one point in time. and embrace those values they hold as important. or wander into territory that is simply poorly governed by rules (e. 2006). personal responsibility. This suggests we need to know what the larger set of values and goals are of a group in order to predict and understand rule adherence and change. that is a problem. 3. This suggests to me that groups that can tolerate ambiguity. Bond & Bunce. that organizations that are more flexible are more effective (e. psychological acceptance to deal with difficult emotions. or bodily sensations. at the social level we should consider social institutions that undermine unhealthy rule control. that are weak in perspective taking. Flexible attention to the now is necessary for the healthy evolution of rules and rulegovernance. Trying to improve life by avoiding difficult thoughts.. 5. positively focused rules linked to specific and direct experience will be more modifiable. feelings. We have known for some time. and voluntary way. Instrumental rules about resource allocation occur in groups that may have other values at stake (e. 2004). it is important clinically to have processes at hand to regulate the behavioral expression of unhealthy cultural genotypes or ―symbotypes‖ (Wilson et al. This implies two things to me. 2000). 2006). Clinicians foster choice. 4.. Much as gene expression is regulated by epigenetic processes.. will reduce the ability of rules to change.This implies to me that anything that fosters rule-governance as a matter of mere social compliance only. even if these are unavoidably part of behavior change processes.. but we are learning that organizational flexibility cannot be taken advantage of by participants unless they themselves are psychologically flexible. 6.. Conversely. Extending this to the social level suggests that rules will work best when they are linked to good quality and timely data. 2006). Fresco et al. First. and some understanding of these would be helpful. epigenetic. or perspective taking or contemplative practice to deal with difficult thoughts (Hayes et al.. Practically speaking.g. not just those that sustain rule governance. If the squeaky wheel always gets the grease. including rule-governance.g. and rapidly generate good quality alternative rules without closing down alternatives. A classic example in the clinical domain is experiential avoidance (Hayes et al. Second. Hayes et al. that too is a problem.g. For example.. are going to interfere with rule flexibility and change. Both attentional persistence and change are important. and voluntary way (Wells. 2010). 2009. 2007. This implies to me that cultures and customs that avoid uncomfortable topics. fluid. but especially so if groups can allocate time and effort to decisions in a flexible. You can only evaluate pragmatic workability with reference to a goal – values provide part of the selection criteria for rules as cultural genotyopes. Not all behavior is rule-governed. Values and meaning matters. Rules can be ironic or self-contradictory.. genetic) when dealing with rules and rule governance.g. Bond et al. but especially so if attention can be allocated in a flexible. see Wenzlaff & Wegner. impacting the function not just of individuals but also organizations and groups. self-contradictory rules such as ―be spontaneous‖ or ―don’t think about your fears‖ are examples. and difficult to change. In clinical situations. people who allow positive values to provide meaning in the moment. maintenance of community). The ability to step back and consider a variety of rules is clinically predictive of positive behavioral development (e. This approach is passed down socially (Cheron et al. arguably accounts for more of the variance in more problem areas than any other psychological approach to change known in clinical science (Chawla & Ostafin. 2008).. 1996). fluid. 2000).

B.. (Ed. T. C. D. M.). The first four of these promote healthy variation and the last two promote the selection of effective practices. Behaviour Research and Therapy. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology. Roche (Eds. contingencies. D. T. and the application of rules to areas that are not well rule-governed. Hayes. C. W. and instructional control. & Hayes. Clinical practitioners have learned to undermine rigidity. and work performance. Hayes. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. & Strosahl. C. (2004). (1989).. Hayes. Chawla. L. S.. K. D. S.. Some advances have been made in doing so. W. 88. & Linehan. K. & Roche. D.. A. and when and how to rely more on intuitive or trial and error processes when rule governance per se is not applicable. B.. Several possible extensions to the situation Ostrom describes seem possible. and to promote cognitive flexibility. & Nugent. and outcomes. 266. (2006b). Wilson. N. Hayes. O. Gifford.. F. & Lowe. 1152-1168. C. 44. Cohen. M. Garcia. Journal of Applied Psychology. Barnes-Holmes. The evolution of associative learning: A factor in the Cambrian explosion. Hayes. C. S. (1986). P.. Arbitrarily applicable comparative relations: Experimental evidence for a relational operant. M. J. C. Masuda. 1-25. W. E. 73.. Reducing the racial achievement gap: A social-psychological intervention. M. (2001).. The role of acceptance and job control in mental health. D. Assessment of Parental Experiential Avoidance in a Clinical Sample of Children with Anxiety Disorders. (2001). . 5–22. 45-71. Ehrenreich.g. W. T. F. Rule-governed behavior: Cognition. Follette. N. O’Hora. Bond. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. 40. New York: Guilford Press. R. processes. (2006). B. N. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy: Model. (1997).. B. avoidance. L. The symbolic species: The co-evolution of language and the brain. (2009). New York: Plenum. & Lyddy. Cheron. Relational Frame Theory: A Post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition.D. Understanding and verbal regulation.Relational Frame Theory: A post-Skinnerian account of human language and cognition (pp. R. 11-20. Flaxman. flexible attention to the now. C. J. (2000). In S. Journal of Theoretical Biology. C.. & Ostafin.. F. 93. 1057-1067. 383-403. The findings are one level of analysis need not apply to another. 30. & Bunce. 64. & Nelson. M. Roche. (2006). Deacon. 1307-1310... New York: Norton. (1996). S. 103-117). & Pincus. 243-257.). 2006). but whether they are worthwhile is an empirical question that can only be answered at that level of analysis. & Master. V. Follette. M.. Apfel. C. Williams.. 871-890. Social groups with such institutions will likely be more flexible in rule governance and change. job satisfaction. but often analogies can be drawn.. M. J. References Barnes-Holmes.. F. D. Hayes et al. Conclusion This was a brief report from a distant island. & Bunce. E. Mindfulness and acceptance: Expanding the cognitive behavioral tradition. Testing for symmetry in the conditional discriminations of language-trained chimpanzees. Experiential avoidance and behavioral disorders: A functional dimensional approach to diagnosis and treatment. & B. N. V. Hayes. Hayes. Barnes-Holmes. 46. S. (2010).. Association of explanatory flexibility and coping flexibility to each other and to depression and anxiety. M. S. Bond. Cognitive Therapy and Research. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. Bissett. D. (2007). J. 63. (2008). N..). D. R.. D.. Bond. S..the over-reach of some social rules and indeed some rulers. Berens. C. as meta-analyses of outcomes and processes of change suggest (e. 313. 645-654. A. Journal of Clinical Psychology. 201–210. The influence of psychological flexibility on work redesign: Mediated moderation of a work reorganization intervention.. Devany. Rules both enhance and restrict behavioral variability. The clinical challenge is learning how to formulate and follow workable rules that are modifiable by experience. V. Child Psychiatry and Human Development.. (2003).. Equivalence class formation in language-able and language-disabled children. Experiential avoidance as a functional dimensional approach to psychopathology: An empirical review. Journal of Applied Psychology. N. (Eds. G. Dugdale.. how to abandon rules that aren’t working.. S. (2007). Fresco. Luoma. & Jablonka. Ginsberg. New York: Plenum Press. E. F. New York: Plenum Press. Hayes. S. J. Science. and positive values choice and clarity. and Lillis. 40.

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