The Long and Short of Consequences

Everyone on the planet must by now be familiar with the notion of short and long-term consequences of things we do. For those of you familiar with the PICNIC Analysis® made famous by Aubrey Daniels, these lessons may seem obvious. Positive Immediate and Certain (PIC) consequences control the likely occurrence of behavior in the near term more than do Negative Immediate and Certain consequences over time (NICs). Smoking cigarettes is said to be reinforced in the short term (a PIC), but has more dire consequences in the long term (NIC) and exercise may not be “fun” in the short term but its long-term benefits typically are lauded by those in the know about such things. Short and long term consequence analyses are useful ways of putting immediate outcomes in perspective and context, and offer a way around considering behavior to be controlled only by the present circumstances. Indeed, it is hard to disagree with many such analyses.

Much of the research on short and long-term consequences involves qualitatively similar reinforcers (e.g., one food pellet for a hungry rat now versus five such pellets after a 1-min delay). Or a pellet that occurs with a probability of .25 immediately or .80 after a 1-min delay. There are few experiments exploring qualitatively different reinforcers delivered immediately versus after a delay.  

And there’s the rub. In the case of exercise and smoking, immediate outcomes are certain: the experience is going to have its usual effect both physically and behaviorally. The long-term effects are not only remote, but, also qualitatively different from the immediate reinforcers and much less certain (mainly because there are so many other things that enter into determining the long term outcome than the behavior in question itself).  So uncertain in fact as to be unpredictable and almost meaningless for many people, not tethered by “the future.” Smoking may indeed be correlated with horrible disorders like strokes, heart disease, and lung cancer, but there is always a chance that a chronic smoker will live to be 90, an outcome occasionally reinforced by reports in the media along with the more dire outcomes.

On perhaps a less extreme scale, a friend recently sent me some very useful information about the contamination of shrimp by salmonella and other things that can’t be good for you. These are certainly things that can be factored into the equation when assessing whether someone will or won’t eat that succulent little guy sitting there on the plate inviting gustatory delight. What do you think is going to happen? The long-term consequences of getting severely, perhaps even deathly, ill are so remote under the normal circumstances of being faced with the choice of the immediate gustatory delights that it hard to imagine any but the most analytic of us not jumping on that shrimpy and all of his little friends sitting on the plate with him. Of course, things would be different if we knew for a fact (or even a “pretty good chance”) that the shrimp had been laced with cyanide, that is, if there were more certainty that a few hours after eating the shrimp we would be dead. But that is a different tale indeed.

I am not discounting the invocation of a short-versus-long-term contingency analysis of consequences in attempting to assess the determinants of our behavior. But, I am suggesting that sometimes we invoke such an analysis when it really doesn’t apply with any real “meaning.” When long-term consequences are uncertain and remote, and immediate consequences are certain, we may be better off trying to determine how to better manage those immediate consequences and not even worry about remote ones with unknown likelihoods of ever even coming into play.

The more general lesson here for behavior analysts is one of relying on what sometimes turn out to be superficial similarities between situations in everyday life and the learning processes that we all know so well. Just because a situation superficially resembles something from laboratory research does not mean that the two are indeed the “same.” Assessing “sameness” requires a more in depth analysis based on behavioral function and control by similar variables regardless of the form of the behavior.  This is stuff for a future commentary.

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

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.