Truth and Consequences

Studying the consequences of behavior has shed light on a wide range of life-science phenomena, pathological as well as everyday.

By Susan M. Schneider | November 1, 2012


Nature versus nurture died a long time ago, for those who were paying attention. In its place has risen an enormous hodgepodge of nature-and-nurture variables at all levels, from subcellular to societal, interacting in nonlinear, go-figure-this-one-out fashion. Especially exciting is the discovery of the degree of plasticity that this nature-nurture interplay involves and enables. The role played by consequences is a big part of that story.

Consequences result from behaviors—and in turn drive those behaviors. Long ago, primitive invertebrates developed the capacity to learn from their successes and failures. It’s been suggested that this game-changing ability may have helped bring about the rapid expansion in the biodiversity of multicellular organisms known as the Cambrian explosion. If that indeed happened, what a dramatic illustration of the power of learning from consequences to reshape biology. As it is, the evolved ability to learn from consequences routinely initiates evolutionary change. Picture Darwin’s finches foraging in different niches (with rewarding consequences), beaks gradually changing accordingly. In addition, learning from consequences activates and deactivates genes and modifies brains. I elucidate these phenomena and more in my new book, The Science of Consequences.

Consequences abound in our own industrialized lives as well as in the lives of wild birds and bears. Whenever we weigh a decision, we’re vetting different consequences. Small-scale or large, immediate or delayed, positive or negative, it’s hard to overestimate their influence.

Some of the science that makes sense of the workings of consequences has been hidden in plain sight for generations. Different “schedules of consequences” turn out to produce orderly behavioral patterns across many different species and behaviors, for example. The analysis of how signals for consequences work (stopping at a red light, say) has produced its own set of elegant principles, culminating in signal-detection theory. Indeed, even what we choose to observe is a function of past and anticipated consequences: the “ostrich effect” (hiding our heads in the sand) results when we refuse to face an experience that could evoke serious pain. Our experiences with consequences also shape conscious awareness and emotions, and just using language offers consequences galore: ask for a cappuccino and be rewarded by getting one. The “pleasure centers” in our brains are busy places.

Learning from consequences—technically known as operant learning—helps us and many other species take advantage of the immense flexibility in interacting nature-nurture systems. We know enough about neuroscience now to realize how extensively this form of environmental influence rewires the brain. In a classic series of studies, University of California, San Francisco, neuroscientist Michael Merzenich and colleagues found that owl monkeys rewarded for learning to discriminate different sounds showed an increase in the size of the corresponding area in their auditory cortices—unlike monkeys hearing the same sounds merely as background noise. Consequence-based methods are now standard in stroke therapy, restoring mobility as they alter the brain.

Other methods based on this science have helped people with autism move out of mental institutions and into markedly improved lives, with treatments endorsed by many organizations, including the US Surgeon General’s office. Combined with Pavlovian principles, these methods also offer successful evidence-based treatments for depression and many other conditions.

Closer to home, the science of consequences can help us improve our self-control, maximize our intellectual potential, and bring more of the positive to our daily lives: at work, at school, at home, and in our interactions with animals.

B. F. Skinner, my friend and colleague, laid the foundations of this science in the 1930s. It has now expanded to feature sophisticated mathematical models and impressive knowledge of its neurophysiological correlates, and it has become an integral part of many of the life sciences. Its full scope and potential are only just coming to be realized.

Biopsychologist Susan M. Schneider is currently a Visiting Scholar at the University of the Pacific. Read an excerpt of The Science of Consequences.

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Avatar of: kpetrak


Posts: 14

November 27, 2012

It seems to me that an excellent and very meaningful application of the science described by Ms. Susan Schneider could be the reaction of our society to the phenomenon of global worming. the question that should be answered is


Global warming is here but can humans do anything to change it?

There is no doubt that our planet Earth is getting warmer. Whatever the reasons – and these are being debated “ad nauseam” – the only meaningful efforts should focus on what measures we can take to deal with the consequences of the rising temperature.

Data reported in Nature by the European Organization for Nuclear Research support the notion that cosmic rays and the Sun, not human activities, are responsible for global warming. I wonder whether the proponents (including the Nobel Prize winner Mr. Al Gore) of carbon dioxide being the key culprit will “warm up” to that idea… Interestingly, suggestions that sun and cosmic rays are primarily responsible for the Earth climate changes were proposed as early as 1996. The suggestion was officially denounced as being “scientifically extremely naive and irresponsible”.

The cosmic-ray hypothesis has been the main argument against the poorly defined model of self-amplifying action of greenhouse gases, mainly because of historic evidence of large influences of the Sun on global climate in previous centuries and millennia, with an obvious implication that the same mechanism applies to the 20th -century warming.

Be it as it may, the fact is that Governments globally, after accepting that CO2 emissions are responsible for global warming, failed to make any effective in-roads into decreasing such emissions. Further, the Governments failed to stop reduction in the Earth’s forestation – a huge “consumer” of CO2.

Since it is very apparent that we cannot take any effective action to prevent or even slow down global warming, whatever its causes, all efforts should be now directed to preparing for dealing with the global-warming consequences.

For more on this, look at



Avatar of: Roy Niles

Roy Niles

Posts: 115

December 1, 2012


This book is right on track, but there's more to it, which involves an assessment of expected consequences by all species from what must have been the start of life on earth.  OK, so sue me, but I wrote a book about that aspect, The Strategic Intelligence of Trust.  Obviously, if the book reviewed here is to be correct, all creatures have intelligently reacted to their circumstances from that start.  And they developed the need for a degree oft trust in what they reacted to first.  Because they also had to have became aware of the need to distrust the kindness of any strangers.

The book summary is available here:


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