Tutorial: Selection of Cultures and the Role of Recurrent Contingencies and Interlocking Behavioral Contingencies


The interplay between a population’s traits and environmental events feeds evolution by natural selection. These traits may vary from innate predispositions to acquire specific behavioral topographies to the ability to learn through local environmental changes (operant behavior). Thus, learning capability is historically inseparable from evolution by natural selection. In humans, besides inheriting behavioral predispositions and the ability to acquire novel behavioral repertoires, learning is dependent on social learning of culturally transmitted practices. Cultural practices are selected by environmental events as a function of their adaptive value to the group and also enhance members’ adaptive capability. Within a verbal community, individuals cooperate and coordinate their behavior, producing environmental changes that would not be possible otherwise. Those cooperative and coordinated responses are under the control of the verbal community’s sets of contingencies (i.e., culture), which also evolve over time. In this paper, the coevolutionary processes involving natural selection, selection of operant behavior, and selection of cultures (environmental settings) will be discussed within a behavior-analytic perspective. A special focus will be given to interlocking behavioral contingencies (IBCs) involved in maintaining and transmitting practices (controlling IBCs) and in the verbal community’s joint efforts (execution IBCs).

The behavior-analytic conceptual framework, experimental studies, and applied field are grounded in the selectionist approach, which was first extensively used by Darwin to explain the evolution of species (Dawkins, 1989; Ruse, 2012). In the Darwinian view, species’ most adaptive traits are selected from variation within the species population by environmental variables and transmitted through generations. These traits vary from sensitivity to physical characteristics of the environment (e.g., the ability to perceive a specific acoustic frequency) to innate predispositions for acquiring specific behavioral topographies. The capability of learning new behavioral repertories (operant behavior) during ontogenesis also has adaptive value and is part of the phylogenetic history of many species, including humans. Thus, selection of human behavior during ontogenesis is historically inseparable from evolution by natural selection. Whereas the behavior-analytic community readily accepts the influence of phylogeny on behavioral acquisition, the emphasis in research has been on how environmental variables select organisms’ behavioral repertoire during ontogenesis.

Humans inherit behavioral predispositions for specific behavioral topographies (e.g., the ability to communicate through vocal sounds) and the capability of incrementally acquiring new behavioral repertoires during ontogenesis. The incremental learning of novel behavioral repertoires frequently occurs in social settings. Behavioral patterns shared by a verbal community (i.e., cultural practices) are selected by environmental events due to their adaptive value to the group and also serve to enhance members’ adaptive capability (Skinner, 1981). In their turn, cultural practices vary across geographically separated populations as functions of local environmental characteristics and within- and between-group competition. Such cumulative behavioral and cultural lineages are historically stored, from storytelling to law and literature, as sets of environmental settings (Couto & Sandaker, 2016). Environmental settings within a verbal community are sets of conditional relations specifying and providing consequences to classes of responses emitted in certain contexts. Thus, these conditional relations are selected within verbal communities, connecting the behavior of individuals to the joint group effort. For that connection to occur, controlling contingencies must be selected over time and are informally and formally established and transmitted. As described by Skinner (1953), group control of individual behavior happens when people have interacted for sufficient time and different classes of behavior are characterized as “good” and “bad” or “right” and “wrong,” and reinforced and punished accordingly. Members will be incentivized or punished to act in ways that increase the fitness of the group, even at a cost to their own fitness. The present paper discusses how sets of contingencies and interlocking behavioral contingencies (IBCs) may become recurrent within cultural-level selection. First, social behavior, cooperation, and coordination are described as the basis for groups as units of selection. Next, the method by which within-group sets of contingencies and IBCs are selected as environmental settings, which provide controlling variables to group members and shape them toward engaging in the verbal community joint effort, will be discussed.

Social Behavior

A functional analysis of social behavior will consider how frequently and with what magnitude individuals are antecedents to or consequences for each other. Thus, the learning principles in social behavior are not different from those at work when interacting with a nonsocial environment. Social behavior is different because of its complexity rather than its nature (Schmitt, 1998). Although the learning mechanisms in social behavior may not differ from those found in other forms of operant behavior, the contingencies of survival involved in natural selection have equipped each species with a different potential for using social information.

Social insects may be among the most efficient species when it comes to using social information in favor of group fitness. Bees use sophisticated group decision-making to precisely localize the best potential nest sites within several kilometers around their colony (Seeley & Buhrman, 1999). Bees cooperate in such a coordinated fashion that they are often described as superorganisms (E. O. Wilson, 2000). The coordination of labor in insect colonies makes it possible for different specialized groups to work on different activities simultaneously (Robinson, 1992), similar to organ systems within an organism. Despite their learning limitations, bees are also capable of acquiring new behavioral topographies through operant conditioning (e.g., string pulling to feed) and of transmitting practices to the colony through social learning (Alem et al., 2016). Vertebrates are incredibly flexible learners and often capable of transmitting complex skills across generations by social learning. However, they are limited in how many individuals can coordinate their responses in a common effort. Their capability of behaving cohesively rarely exceeds 200 individuals (Moffett, 2013) and relies on individuals being able to recognize every member of the group. The only known exceptions are naked mole rats and humans (Moffett, 2012). Through natural selection, humans acquired both the ability to learn and socially transmit complex behavior and the capability of coordinating their behavior as a superorganism.

Cooperation, Coordinated Responses, and Metacontingencies

Within groups, natural selection favors competition among individuals, and genes and their expressive traits are selected. A between-group competition will favor cooperation among individuals to outcompete other groups from the same or different species. As stated by D. S. Wilson and Wilson (2007), “Selfishness beats altruism within groups. Altruistic groups beat selfish groups” (p. 345). Cultural practices within a given group may (a) emerge by the simple cumulative effects of members’ behavior (i.e., macrobehavior; Glenn, 2004), (b) emerge by their cooperative effort, or (c) require coordination of responses. Smoking behavior, for example, has probable short-term consequences for individuals, such as a pleasurable feeling, and it may have long-term consequences, such as lung cancer. The cumulative effect of smoking as a practice of many individuals produces consequences at the societal level, such as increased health care costs and reduced air quality. Other practices require cooperation among the agents involved. For example, keeping the streets of a neighborhood clean depends on the cooperative behavior of most of its residents. The behavior of each resident is maintained by the cumulative effect of their effort (e.g., a clean neighborhood) and by supportive contingencies (e.g., social reinforcers). However, those cooperative responses do not depend on the coordination of behavior among residents of the neighborhood. Individuals can work at their own pace.

Within coordinated practices, members must behave in relation to each other to achieve the common goal. Coordinated responses will increase the availability of resources for the group and may or may not produce immediate reinforcing consequences for individuals. In a volleyball game, for example, members of the team have to pass the ball at least one time before throwing it back to the other side of the court. The behavior of each player serves as antecedent or consequent stimuli to the behavior of the others, and throwing effectiveness is the product of this coordination. The ultimate instance selected by scoring points is the last throw, but as the last throw is also dependent on the patterns of coordinated responses of multiple players, the coordination may also be selected.

When considering interactions among organisms as a unit of selection on its own, we arrive at a phenomenon described by Skinner as a social episode. A social episode occurs when two or more persons coordinate their behavior to produce an environmental change that would not be possible for persons working alone (Skinner, 1953). Coordinated behavior, as defined by Keller and Schoenfeld (1950), involves the behavior of two or more organisms taking place in some specified order, resulting in the production or removal of environmental consequences. The frequency and type of cooperative and coordinated responses within a group will increase or decrease as a function of their effect on a selecting environment (SE), similar to response classes in operant behavior. The metacontingency concept emerges (Glenn, 1986, 1988; Glenn & Malott, 2004; Malott & Glenn, 2006) as a conceptual tool (Todorov, 2006) that describes a functional relation between coordinated responses in the form of IBCs and the product of this joint effort (aggregate product; AP) with an SE (Glenn et al., 2016). The first two terms of the metacontingency (IBCs and AP) can be defined as a culturant. The third term of the metacontingency (SE) is an environmental event that influences the probability of culturant occurrences in the future. Figure 1 depicts a metacontingency where the behavior of each individual serves as antecedent or consequent stimuli to other individuals (IBCs), producing an AP that would not be possible by the simple sum of individuals’ behavior. Events occurring within an SE influence the probability of future occurrences of IBCs and APs (i.e., the culturant). Individuals engage or leave the metacontingency; however, the culturant is still a function of its functional relation with the SE and is recognizable over time (i.e., cultural lineage).

Fig. 1

Schematic representation of a metacontingency. Together, IBCs (1) and their AP (2) can be analyzed as a culturant (3), which is shaped by its interaction with an SE (4). Members of a metacontingency may be substituted over generations (5); however, a culturant is still a function of its interaction with the SE

Selection of Cultures: Controlling and Execution IBCs

In a classic example of a metacontingency presented by Glenn and Malott (2004), employees of a restaurant coordinate their behavior in IBCs, producing an AP (i.e., meals and service) that interacts with an SE (i.e., customers). The IBCs and AP within the restaurant will vary and be selected as a function of their effects on the SE, including competition with other restaurants. In their turn, the recurrent sets of IBCs will function as conditional relations necessary for maintaining the behavior of employees involved in service and meal quality and also provide stimulus control to new and current members. Couto and Sandaker (2016) suggested that selection of conditional relations (i.e., environmental settings) within groups can be described as selection of cultures, whereas the control that those conditional relations exercise on the behavior of the members can be described as cultural selection. Whereas the selection of cultures occurs at the cultural level, cultural selection may take place at the behavioral level.

Due to their adaptive value, specific patterns of IBCs will become recurrent among populations, and they may have at least two functions: They may be directly involved in (a) the production of APs and (b) the selection and maintenance of new and current members’ behavior. Going back to Glenn and Malott’s (2004) restaurant example, the SE may influence the frequency of sets of IBCs directly related to the improvement of meals and service quality (AP) and sets of IBCs involved in providing within-group stimulus control to new and current employees’ behavior. This operational differentiation is defined here as execution IBCs (eIBCs), for sets of IBCs related to the improvement of APs, and controlling IBCs (cIBCs), for those related to within-group stimulus control.

Selection of cultures as the selection of conditional relations may be exemplified with a metaphor: gene and phenotype selection in natural selection. Within a species, the genetic code is a set of rules encoding instructions used for organisms’ general functions. However, it is the phenotype’s characteristics, not genes, that are in contact with the SE. In a metacontingency, the APs are in contact with an SE, and the sets of IBCs carry the instructional code by which the group practices are maintained (cIBCs) and their function is executed (eIBCs). For example, cIBCs may include control over free riders, support contingencies, and transfer mechanisms of practices, and eIBCs, related to the production of APs, include adoption of innovative strategies and group decision-making processes (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

A metacontingency where IBCs can function as cIBCs (1), providing stimulus control to members of the verbal community, and eIBCs, when they are directly related to the production of APs (2). Both c- and eIBCs are part of the cultural system, which interacts with an SE (3), including competition between groups

When analyzing the selection of cultures from this perspective, the distinction between eIBCs and cIBCs is made by function rather than by topography. For example, IBCs directly involved in the improvement or maintenance of an AP (eIBCs) can function as cIBCs when they provide stimuli control to a member of a group who is learning (e.g., by observation) the practice of the group. In the same way, cIBCs may also influence the maintenance and improvement of APs and therefore can be analyzed as eIBCs depending on the angle at which the analysis takes place.

A similar account of functional differences within metacontingencies was offered by Glenn (1986) when describing ceremonial and technological contingencies and metacontingencies. Glenn (1986) describes ceremonial contingencies as socially mediated contingencies that maintain the behavior of individuals through social consequences, often related to authority or social status. Glenn writes, “Ceremonial control is exemplified by ‘Do it because I say so’” (1986, p. 3). The behavior under ceremonial control is not necessarily in direct contact with the SE. Similar to cIBCs, the conditional relations described by Glenn (1986) as ceremonial provide contingencies to members of a verbal community. However, cIBCs are a generic description of functional relations, as they describe the reinforcing effects over members of a verbal community rather than the type of control. Technological metacontingencies involve IBCs that are selected by their usefulness and that are constantly shaped by direct contact with the AP’s effect on the SE; eIBCs may be an operational account of IBCs directly related to the production of APs.

Todorov (2013) proposes the concepts of conservative and transformative metacontingencies. Conservative metacontingencies require stringent APs—that is, there is little room for variation. Conversely, transformative metacontingencies require originality in the AP. Todorov provides an example of a transformative metacontingency by describing a group of researchers who work together to produce a paper (AP). The production of a paper is under the control of a transformative metacontingency, as the AP is always original. From the perspective taken here, conservative and transformative metacontingencies vary in their frequency and type of cIBCs and eIBCs. For example, researchers working on the production of a paper will behave under the control of both the sets of rules (e.g., research literature; cIBCs) of their verbal community and the direct interactions that contribute to the final, unique, and original paper (eIBCs). To achieve the role of a researcher, each individual who contributed to the paper has, perhaps for many years, engaged in cooperative behavior under the influence of cIBCs more often than eIBCs. Still, their participation when engaging in cIBCs indirectly contributes to the production of the AP’s execution. Thus, researchers will engage in cIBCs and eIBCs depending on their roles, expertise, and the nature of the paper.

Controlling IBCs and Execution IBCs in Context

The distributions of e- and cIBCs vary according to the group’s context and its function. In for-profit organizations, eIBCs are usually stated in their strategic plan, vision, and mission statement, and cIBCs are found in their organizational structure, internal rules, and training programs (e.g., Sandaker, 2009). The extent to which individuals can benefit from self-serving behavior may also influence the frequency of cIBCs required for that group to function optimally. One example is groups within common pool resources (CPRs) contexts. In a CPRs situation, it may be advantageous for each member to explore economic opportunities that achieve maximum individual benefit; however, the cumulative effect of many individuals behaving in this manner may be disadvantageous to the collectivity. Economists describe this phenomenon as the tragedy of the commons (Hardin, 1968). A well-known example of the tragedy of the commons is a finite area of land with limited resources shared by multiple farmers. It might seem advantageous for each farmer to exploit the land resources for maximum individual benefit. However, if all farmers decide to do so, the resources of the finite area of land will be depleted, thereby prejudicing all farmers at once. It was believed by many economists that groups within CPRs environments needed external management to avoid the tragedy of the commons. Ostrom (1990) found that groups that work well without top-down management interference had developed internal control mechanisms to overcome the tragedy of the commons. Thus, a CPRs context, where individuals are tempted to benefit from short-term reinforcers, may require different distributions of cIBCs from those of a company in which an individual does not have access to reinforcers by working alone.

Laws can be analyzed as sets of written IBCs created to control individuals’ behavior within a verbal community (Todorov, 2005). Thus, laws can be interpreted as written descriptions of cIBCs. Sets of cIBCs may describe existent practices or may be arbitrarily created as an instrument of change. Several studies have investigated the occurrence of contingencies and metacontingencies in written laws (e.g., de Carvalho and Todorov, 2016; Todorov, Moreira, Prudêncio, & Pereira, 2004). Controlling agencies such as government, religion, and economy have formally established sets of controlling contingencies for sets of behavior within a verbal community (Skinner, 1953). Schools are another example of controlling agencies that make strong use of cIBCs. Schools, as environmental settings, provide the stimulus control that shapes students’ repertoires, preparing them for the challenges of adulthood. Evidence-based interventions within schools are used to support teachers in classroom management by clearly specify controlling contingencies and IBCs in which students should engage (Bowman-Perrott, Burke, Zaini, Zhang, & Vannest, 2016; Simonsen, Fairbanks, Briesch, Myers, & Sugai, 2008). At the societal level, controlling agencies have the function of sets of cIBCs as contingencies involved in providing stimulus control to members of that verbal community. At the level of controlling agencies, the same sets of IBCs may be considered eIBCs, as they are involved with the AP of that specific controlling agency—namely, the quality of teaching in a particular school.

Final Remarks

When participating in a group’s joint effort, humans are capable of both coordinating their responses to achieve the collective group goal and transmitting complex interaction patterns over generations. Those patterns of interactions evolve, shaping the behavior of new group members. As currently described, metacontingencies (e.g., Glenn et al., 2016) focus on the selection of coordinated responses that enable groups to achieve shared goals. The inclusion of the selective mechanisms, by which sets of contingencies and IBCs are selected and transmitted, adds the second aspect of human cultures: how environmental settings evolve. The differentiation between both processes is pointed out by Couto and Sandaker (2016) when describing cultural selection and selection of cultures. The present paper expands on Couto and Sandaker’s interpretation, identifying two possible recurrent sets of IBCs within metacontingencies (cIBCs and eIBCs).


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The author would like to thank Ingunn Sandaker, Lucas de Carvalho, and Gunnar Ree for their support and feedback during the writing process. Tara Grant, the two anonymous reviewers, and the editor also gave valuable comments when revising this manuscript. The present text was adapted from the introduction of the author’s PhD thesis.

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Couto, K.C. Tutorial: Selection of Cultures and the Role of Recurrent Contingencies and Interlocking Behavioral Contingencies. Behav. Soc. Iss. 28, 37–45 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s42822-019-0001-y

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  • Selection of cultures
  • Controlling and execution IBCs
  • Metacontingency