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Rule Governed Behavior vs. Driving In the Out Entrance

In Selection by Consequences, Skinner (1981) explains human behavior as a joint product of three levels of selection:

1. Natural Selection: The environment selects which variations survive and are passed on. You can think of these as the contingencies of survival; "Survival of the fittest''. Individuals survive and reproduce traits, therefore we see the transmission of traits across generations. Natural-behavior selection is associated with phylogeny; which accounts for respondent behavior.

2. Operant Selection: Specific responses are selected by consequences. Those selected are repeated (reproduced or survive in the organism’s subsequent behavior) and those non-selected responses suffer extinction. "To put it more colloquially, organisms do things that pay off and stop doing things that do not. The environment determines what pays off, so the environment is what selects the things that the organism does (Catania, 1992)”. Operant selection “operates” during the lifetime of the individual organism and is therefore ontogenic selection. It is called operant selection because the behavior operates on the environment and the environment operates in turn on subsequent behavior.

3. Cultural Selection: This is a special kind of operant selection by an evolved social environment. Cultural practices evolve as they contribute to the success of the practicing group. Cultural selection includes observational learning, imitation, and the survival of cultural practices and is mostly mediated by verbal behavior. The verbal behavior that has survived within and been shared among the members of a group is part of the culture of that group. In cultural selection, behavior is selected and maintained by a social environment, as opposed to strictly the reproduction of evolutionary “survival traits” (natural selectionism) or individual learning (operant selectionism).

Language and selectionism: Language involves all three types of selection. Phylogenic selection endowed the human species with those physiological attributes that are prerequisite for language. Language acquisition is developed through ontogenic selection by the process in which sounds or other topographies of language are selected and reinforced by the social community through direct contact with the contingencies of reinforcement and punishment. And finally, languages shared by groups are selected and shared through cultural selection, in which verbal behavior is passed on from one individual to another. The primary function of language is that it is a very efficient way in which one individual can change the behavior of another. Giving verbal information is a special way of changing another individual’s behavior (Catania, 1992).

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Where do rules fit into this? A rule is a verbal description of a behavioral contingency.

Rule-governed behavior (RGB) is verbally controlled behavior that is maintained by indirect-acting contingencies. RGB is dictated by the stated/written consequences (i.e., the “rule”), not necessarily by consequences that one may have experienced personally; there has never been any punishment or reinforcement for the behavior, but there is a rule in effect. Verbal-analog training, therefore is a verbal pairing procedure where previously neutral stimuli become conditioned punishers or reinforcers for humans without direct pairing. One drawback of rule-governed behavior it that it is often less efficient than behavior that has been directly shaped by natural consequences. Why? Because, RGB has delayed consequences (a consequence delay of 30+ seconds is most likely RGB, whereas contingency-shaped behavior has immediate, direct consequences).

According to Malott, Whaley, and Malott (1997), a rule is an establishing operation that establishes rule-breaking as an aversive motivating condition.

RGB includes when the listener's performance is regulated by contingency-specifying stimuli (the behavior that is influenced by verbal antecedents), such as following instructions (as when a behavior analyst students study 20 hours per week for the board exam because their supervisor tells them that’s what they need to be pass) or reacting to one’s own private thinking (a self-generated rule, such as when a behavior analyst student commits to a strict study schedule after thinking “I need to pass this exam!”).

So, why do we follow rules? We follow rules because we have a history of reinforcement for behavior that corresponds with rules, therefore rule-following develops as a generalized operant. A generalized operant means that contingencies apply to the class of behaviors, not just the individual instance of a behavior.

The generalized operant RGB accounts for the fact that people follow novel rules. Compared to contingency-shaped behavior, rule-governed behavior is topographically more rigid with less variation. Have you ever met a highly rule-governed individual? (I’m looking at you, Billy). Do they strictly adhere to rules, even ones that are indirect and seemingly arbitrary?

True story:

Me: We are going to Lowe’s to buy succulents (and a new dishwasher). I am driving my car and miss the entrance to a parking lot (the “in” arrow painted on the asphalt). I shrug and drive in the “out” entrance.

Billy (Husband): “You can’t drive in this way!”

Me: “Why? Who cares? Who is going to stop me?”

Billy: “But, it’s the rule!”

Clearly, my husband is the more rule-governed of the two of us!


Catania, A. C. (1992). Learning. 3. ed. Englewood Cliffs: NJ Prentice Hall XVI.

Malott, R. W., Malott, M. E., & Whaley, D. L. (1997). Elementary principles of behavior. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Skinner, B. F. (1981). Selection by consequences. science, 213(4507), 501-504. doi: 10.1126/science.7244649

Trudy Georgio is a Board Certified Behavior Analyst and Licensed Behavior Analyst in the state of Texas. She is the founder of Tru Behavior Development, LLC who is motivated by effecting socially significant behavior change and disseminating the science of behavior to the next generation of behavior analysts!

Learn about Cultural Selectionism, Rule Governed Behavior and
more with our #TruLiveCrew!
Check out member testimonials here!
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