A Review of "The Science of Consequences" by Susan Schneider

This 260-page book is written for the educated layman with an interest in science and behavior, but with no formal training in behavior analysis required. Schneider takes the reader on a broad-ranging tour of the role consequences play in many domains: affecting individual behavior, genes, neurophysiology, and society at large. Covering research in behavior analysis (extensive references to studies published in the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior and the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis), genetics, neuroscience, ethology, biology and behavioral economics, this is an important attempt to build bridges across disciplines. There are things that would be news to trained behavior analysts, and, of course, many insights about behavior for those with scant knowledge of the field of behavior analysis with its roots in operant conditioning and its diverse areas of practical application. The descriptions of the research are not tedious and thorough; rather, they are intended to extract the main points and stimulate the interest of the reader as many popular science books do.

In Part 1, the interaction of nature and nurture is addressed, finally getting us past the obsolete nature versus nurture arguments of the past. Chapter 2 discusses consequences and evolution (“the cause that works backward” as she says cleverly to explain the causal principle of selectionism so central to biological evolution and behavior analysis). Chapter 3 covers the role that consequences play in gene activation and, in the other direction, what genes seem critical to enabling learning by consequences. Chapter 4 summarizes the neuroscience of consequences. 

Part 2 is about the science and is familiar territory to trained behavior analysts, especially those with a background in basic research in operant and respondent conditioning. These chapters review schedules of reinforcement, aversive control, choice and matching, operant-respondent interactions (including some phenomena my peers discussed excitedly in the 1980s such as conditioned drug tolerance as a way to understand the run of drug overdoses by everyone from Jimi Hendrix to John Belushi), and thinking and language in humans and nonhumans.

Part 3 covers applications of consequences for improving behavior and people’s lives. Discussed here are topics such as self-esteem, self-control/impulsivity, improving animal welfare, motivation and consequences at work (including references to Aubrey Daniels’ work), autism, drug addiction, ADD, obedience, prejudice and politics.

Overall, this book gives us many more nodes of connection to an array of topics to explain consequences to those outside of the field of behavior analysis. I would recommend the book to behavior enthusiasts looking for further non-technical readings in the science. While consequences play a prominent position in our individual environments, it doesn’t mean we should neglect the entire area of antecedent stimulus control either (with such fascinating topics as motivating operations, discrimination/generalization, stimulus confusion, fading, blocking/overshadowing, concept learning/instruction, and rule-governed behavior, about which Schneider could have added several hundred pages to this book had she wanted to show all of the field’s wares to the public).

Personally, I enjoyed reading the book because it touched base with so many of the studies I “grew up” on in my graduate training and academic career. It is full of nuggets of intriguing scientific information from behavior analysis and other sciences. I will probably jump back in and re-read some sections again to refresh myself on a topic that Schneider summarizes so succinctly (the section on the fascinating area of epigenetics being one, for example). I read it front-to-back, but I don’t think skipping around would hurt the reading experience. For all of us who discuss and apply consequences for the betterment of individual lives or corporate functioning, this book is a stimulating review of the current state of knowledge.

Posted by Cloyd Hyten, Ph.D.

Cloyd is a senior consultant and thought leader in the field of performance improvement. Dedicating more than 20 years to this work, Cloyd has also served on the Editorial Board of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and served as President of the OBM Network. Outside of work, Cloyd enjoys history, food and football.