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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

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

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

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