0 Items $0.00

“Mind the Gap”: Inconsistencies between Rules and Consequences

“Mind the Gap”: Inconsistencies between Rules and Consequences

Anglophiles will recognize the first part of the title as being borrowed from the London Underground (subway, for the uninitiated). It is an instruction admonishing users to be aware of the space between the platform and the train when embarking or disembarking. I have another suggestion for its use: to describe the disparity between the rules or instructions we give one another and the actual consequences that do or do not follow following these rules or instructions.

The fact of the matter is that most often rules are consistent with consequences, the so-called back-up consequences. People usually don’t post “danger” signs unless a potentially dangerous situation exists. A highway sign indicating that the road veers to the left isn’t posted if the road is either straight or veers to the right. Parents don’t usually tell their children that if they don’t stop doing what they are doing there will be consequences unless the parents intend to apply the consequences.

But not always. We’ve all encountered disparities or inconsistencies between what we are instructed to do and what happens when we follow those instructions. You get to the end of entering all of your data on website X and then are told to press the enter key on your computer to log in your entered data. You do so. Instead of entering the data, your action wipes out all that you have so carefully typed in, including the various numbers and codes you had to look up before entering them. Argghhh!

The disconnect between rules and back-up contingencies takes different forms. In some instances, there is no back-up contingency, as in a so-called “empty threat.” Like the Wizard of Oz, such rules are all bluster and not really rules at all. In other instances, there are back-up contingencies, but they are applied inconsistently.        

It is interesting that rules without back-up contingencies often work. Our individual histories of following rules can be so strong, that questioning a rule by testing it never, or sometimes rarely, comes into play. Perhaps this is because we operate under so many other rules where back-up contingencies are in place. Of course, once the disconnection is apparent, the likelihood of following the rule diminishes, but still may not disappear entirely.

There is some psychological research showing that when rules instruct people to do one thing but the back-up contingencies reinforce something else, the behavior tends to follow the back-up contingency rather than the rule. And indeed once the incongruence between the rule and the back-up contingency is corrected, people sometimes ignore the rule, even though following it would make their behavior more efficient. All of this was shown in an experiment by behavior analyst Mark Galizio, whose research is cited at the end of this commentary.

When rules are backed-up inconsistently with consequences, mixed control over behavior results. Think speed limit signage. In instances where rules seem to be so powerful that they override contingencies, there also may be even more potent contingencies backing up the rule. Consider a soldier given an order to attack even though the contingencies might suggest that she has some likelihood of being wounded or even killed. Failing to follow orders, however, also has unpleasant consequences for the disobeyer, greatly complicating the relation between rules and consequences.

Bottom line: If you want your rule or instruction to have an optimal effect, ensure that the back-up contingency is (a) in place and (b) is consistent with the requirements of the rule. 

Posted by Andy Lattal

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.