Universal contingencies June 16, 2014

We know that no two people behave in exactly the same way – even identical twins.  Each person’s repertoire is unique because no one can have an environmental history that is exactly like anyone else’s.  We are accustomed to the resulting variety, which is today displayed on YouTube in countless videos for everyone to see.  It’s not just unusual talents that might catch our eye; even the way people go about the routine of everyday life seems to encompass endless differences.

As behavior analysts, we understand how these varied repertoires develop, one contingency at a time, moment after moment, without ceasing, throughout our lives.  Most of what we learn comes from our interaction with others.  This dependency can hardly be avoided, given the helplessness of human infants.  We would not survive without early parental care, and our social world continually expands and changes throughout of lives.  The contribution of our social environment can hardly be overstated.  It gives us that most precious human characteristic – our verbal repertoire – and so much more that it is difficult to imagine what human behavior would be like without social influences.  But this is the question: If we could take away our varied social histories, what repertoire would be left?

What we have in common

The opening paragraphs of Chapter 9 point out that all humans unavoidably share their biology and its interface with the physical world.  There are a number of questions raised by this relationship. What natural contingencies do we experience merely as a result of being a member of our species?  What repertoire would we share merely by virtue of our physical characteristics and our interactions with the laws of nature?  Are these contingencies universal in the human experience?  Would the result be a relatively homogeneous repertoire – the essential human being?  If we could magically remove all of the effects of our social experiences, what would we find?

In addressing these questions, we may start with a review of what all humans have in common, regardless of differences in their social environments.  An assessment of the interface between our biology and the physical environment must include a catalog of our biomechanical and sensory capabilities.  Our bodies allow us to do a finite range of movements, for example.  We can crawl, walk, and run, but we can jump only so high, we don’t swim especially well, and we can’t fly at all.  We can move our limbs only in certain ways, and our strength is what it is.  We must maintain our balance or we fall down, which can be pretty limiting if you think about it.  We have to be careful about our physical contacts with the world around us lest we injure ourselves.  The details seem endless once you get started, but they are the same for each of us.

Our sensory systems contribute their possibilities and limitations as well.  Each of our senses allows only a certain range of capabilities, which becomes more apparent if we compare ourselves to other species.  For example, our visual acuity is better than a dog’s but not as good as an eagle’s.  We can see color only if there is enough light, but we can’t see as well as a cat under dim light.  We can’t hear as well as many mammals can, and our sense of smell is pathetic compared to that of dogs.  We don’t tolerate temperature variations as well as many species.  The point is not the inter-species comparisons, but the fact that our behavior is largely the captive of our senses.

There is one other aspect of our biology that plays a crucial role in the shared experience of being human – our ability to learn from our experiences.  This capability is difficult to evaluate, however, and it doesn’t help that we have been taught by our verbal community to be especially impressed with our ability to learn.  A more objective assessment requires imagining the adaptive characteristics of human behavior without the contribution of having learned anything from others – a sort of Robinson Crusoe if he had never known any environment but that desert island.

Here, even comparisons with other species are hard to defend.  Would we bring more to the game than a chimpanzee?  A dolphin?  A dog?  Remember, the question isn’t whether they are as “smart” as we are, but how good we are at profiting from our experiences.  We might learn some things easily, but others may require considerable experience.  In any event, the basic processes of operant learning are the same for all of us, aside from minor variations in brain functioning that might make some a bit quicker than others.

A core human repertoire

When we combine these biological characteristics, we get a catalog of what we all bring to our interface with the environment when cultural contributions are not in the picture.  The object is to facilitate consideration of contingencies – and their behavioral outcomes – that are the same for everyone merely as a result of being a member of the species.

For example, Chapter 9 points out that just based on our biology and the laws of physics, we learn the behavior of throwing things.  We learn what items work and don’t work as projectiles based on how heavy they are, how well we can throw them, and the effects they accomplish when they land.  There should be little variation in this behavior around the world, aside from the contingencies associated with specialized environments, because it is based on contingencies that are universal.  True, some people might get much better at throwing things than others by virtue of greater environmental demands and payoffs, but contingencies governing this behavior are presumably the same for everyone.

The same should be true for the behavior of finding the right balance point when lifting a heavy object, holding our hand over our eyes to see better by reducing the glare of the sun, moving into the shade to avoid getting too warm, covering our ears to lessen the discomfort from a loud noise, sipping an unknown liquid to assess its flavor or temperature with minimal risk, using a walking stick to cover uneven terrain more safely, adjusting our clothing to maintain a comfortable body temperature, and swinging a hammer.  The list of behaviors that result from universally shared, culture-free contingencies should be long indeed.

The fact that we hold our hand over our eyes in a bright sun or that we swing a hammer with our elbow bent rather than straight should vary not much at all from person to person because they are controlled by the features of human biology and their inevitable consequences in our physical environment.  The physics involved in hitting something with a hammer are invariant, and each difference in how the hammer is held, swung, or lands will have the same effects each time on what is struck.  The influence of these universal contingencies on how someone holds and swings a hammer will be the same, given the same reinforcer, such as getting a nail fully into a piece of wood.  A different reinforcing outcome, such as chipping away small pieces of marble in carving a sculpture, may generate somewhat different topographies, but the invariance in the relationship between behavior and its physical consequences remains.

The result of these consistencies is a universal core of the human behavioral repertoire.  Aside from minor variations in each person’s biology, the behavior acquired from the non-social contingencies of nature gives each of us an inevitable behavioral foundation that is at the root of what it means to be human.  This essential human nature may seem largely hidden by the colorful overlay of cultural learning, with its dazzling differences that make each of us very special indeed.  Yet, we are, at base, remarkably similar, and it could be no other way.

Some practical ramifications

The general question is more than an interesting intellectual exercise; it has important practical utility.  Understanding the universal interface between human biology and physical laws is a necessary foundation for the task of designing physical environments and objects intended to produce targeted behavioral outcomes regardless of variations in individual social histories.  Whether designing a public park, the dashboard of a car, a hotel lobby, a cell phone, or a coffee mug, knowing how the features of human biology are reliably influenced by the physical environment is crucial to being able to consistently generate specific and predictable behavioral outcomes.  Although users of such products or spaces bring the impact of their social history with them, there is also an essential core underlying their behavior that is the same for everyone.

For example, people in many countries learn to walk more or less to the right in a sufficiently wide walkway – an outcome of a cultural history.  However, it is also the case that where people tend to walk is influenced by the texture of walking surfaces, which is probably the result of universal contingencies associated with stability and comfort, rather than cultural factors.  These kinds of design considerations are the focus of the discipline of human factors and ergonomics, among other fields.  There are a number of relevant literatures to draw on, although behavior analysis has not yet offered the substantial research contribution it could.

Are there shared social influences?

When the influence of other people is added to our histories, it is more difficult to specify contingencies that might still be universal, at least in their details.  Social environments are notable for their variations, not just around the world, but within subcultures such as family, friends, and co-workers.  Nevertheless, there are some social contingencies would seem to be widely shared.  For instance, the fact that we all require adult caregivers to survive our early years establishes at least some common social history in the larger human experience.  Adults are invariably bigger and stronger than children and have many skills children have yet to acquire.  Furthermore, they control access to many reinforcers and punishers and thereby are able to establish powerful contingencies.  Although these contingencies certainly vary, there may be some fundamental commonalities for children and for parents associated with the general challenge of child rearing.  Nevertheless, any shared social contingencies are not identical in their features across instances and from one person to another.  They incorporate many variations and therefore aren’t universal in the detailed manner forced by our biology and physical laws.

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Universal contingencies

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Jim Johnston

Dr. Johnston received his doctorate from the University of Florida in 1970 and held faculty positions at Georgia State University, the University of Florida, and Auburn University. He has published both laboratory and field research with both human and non-human species on a variety of topics. He has longstanding interests in the area of developmental disabilities and founded the Master’s Program in Applied Behavior Analysis in Developmental Disabilities at Auburn University. He has served as editor of The Behavior Analyst and on the editorial boards of the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, among others. He has served as president of the Association for Behavior Analysis International, as well as for the Florida, Alabama, and Southeastern behavior analysis organizations, and was the first president of the Behavior Analysis Certification Board and the Association of Professional Behavior Analysts.

Universal contingencies June 16, 2014


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