The Behavior Analyst

, Volume 18, Issue 1, pp 1–21 | Cite as

Rules, Culture, and Fitness

  • William M. Baum


Behavior analysis risks intellectual isolation unless it integrates its explanations with evolutionary theory. Rule-governed behavior is an example of a topic that requires an evolutionary perspective for a full understanding. A rule may be defined as a verbal discriminative stimulus produced by the behavior of a speaker under the stimulus control of a long-term contingency between the behavior and fitness. As a discriminative stimulus, the rule strengthens listener behavior that is reinforced in the short run by socially mediated contingencies, but which also enters into the long-term contingency that enhances the listener’s fitness. The long-term contingency constitutes the global context for the speaker’s giving the rule. When a rule is said to be “internalized,” the listener’s behavior has switched from short- to long-term control. The fitness-enhancing consequences of long-term contingencies are health, resources, relationships, or reproduction. This view ties rules both to evolutionary theory and to culture. Stating a rule is a cultural practice. The practice strengthens, with short-term reinforcement, behavior that usually enhances fitness in the long run. The practice evolves because of its effect on fitness. The standard definition of a rule as a verbal statement that points to a contingency fails to distinguish between a rule and a bargain (“If you’ll do X, then I’ll do Y”), which signifies only a single short-term contingency that provides mutual reinforcement for speaker and listener. In contrast, the giving and following of a rule (“Dress warmly; it’s cold outside”) can be understood only by reference also to a contingency providing long-term enhancement of the listener’s fitness or the fitness of the listener’s genes. Such a perspective may change the way both behavior analysts and evolutionary biologists think about rule-governed behavior.

Key words

rule rule-governed behavior culture fitness evolutionary theory rule giving rule making rule following bargain 


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Copyright information

© Association for Behavior Analysis International 1995

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of New HampshireDurhamUSA

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