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When is Behavior “Adaptive”?

When is Behavior “Adaptive”?

Behavior is said to be selected by its effects, or consequences, in a way that is similar to the selection of physical characteristics occurs in Darwinian natural selection.  In both instances, from a range of possibilities, formally called variation, some actions, characteristics, or physical traits survive, while others languish and disappear. What survives is said to be adaptive. There is, however, a circularity here if what survives is said to survive because it is adaptive. If something survives, it is adaptive, and it is adaptive if it survives. 

To speak of adaptive behavior in any absolute, Darwinian, selectionist sense is redundant. Whatever behavior we observe obviously has survived, and such survival is synonymous with its adaptiveness.  If it were not adaptive, it would not be around for us to see it. Adding adaptive to behavior when used in this way adds nothing to its description, and certainly does not explain the existence of the behavior under observation.

A related, but slightly different use of adaptive is when we consider one class of behavior relative to another, or in one context versus another. Used in this way “adaptive” also may consider the immediate circumstances. In this second usage, the label adaptive may be appropriate and useful. A child who is labeled “aggressive” by a teacher may be engaging in behavior that is indeed problematic and even “maladaptive” in the classroom, but may have been shaped and reinforced in the context of the rough neighborhood in which he lives. “Robbing a bank” usually is considered less adaptive than “working” as a way of getting money. But when a person is down and out and can’t find a job and his children are without food, the “adaptiveness” of bank robbery is perhaps at least understandable, if still not a very good idea.

Another context is a temporal one, specifically short versus long term consequences of one’s actions. Consider obsessive-compulsive behavior. In the broader societal context, such behavior may be labeled as “pathological” and “disruptive.”  Indeed, in the long run such behavior may create more problems for the individual than it solves. But, such behavior has been shaped by its consequences – selected - and also may be usefully thought of as a coping strategy by which the individual “gets through the day.” 

Adaptive also can usefully refer to malleability of behavior – flexibility to change as circumstances change. Thus, once behavior is no longer reinforced it decreases in rate or intensity or whatever dimension is being measured. Such behavior is said to adapt to the changing contingencies or as adapting to those contingencies.    

To label a particular response or class of responses as “adaptive” is redundant, because their very existence implies their selection by consequences.  To describe behavior in relative or contextual terms as more or less “adaptive” can be a useful way of identifying both the circumstances under which the behavior occurs and its short and long term consequences. "Adaptive" is never, however, a reason for or cause of behavior. 

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.