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20210821 – The Science of Consequences




The main idea of this book is somewhat trivial: actions have consequences, which define conditions of actor’s existence and consequently lead to the new set of actions based on this conditioning. Generally, it is just restatement of the notion of feedback, albeit with deeper look at mechanics: nurture/nature and somewhat valuable presentation of experiments and research demonstrating various aspect of this simple notion.  


PART 1: Consequences and How Nature-Nurture Really Works
Chapter 1. Consequences Everywhere:
Origins and Definitions; Waltzing Pigeons and Roller-Coaster Fish: Consequences across Species; Getting Stimulated: Sensory Consequences; The Spice of Life: Variety as a Consequence; The Creative Consequence; Taking Advantage of Variety; The Positive Side of Problems; Taking Control

In this chapter author defines the notion of consequences similarly to the notion of positive or negative feedback that either amplify or suppresses some behavior:” …research illustrates what reinforcers are: By definition, reinforcers both depend on behaviors and sustain them. If a behavior gets going and keeps going because of a consequence, that consequence is a reinforcer. If a behavior declines because of a consequence, that consequence is a negative (a punisher). Things that seem like rewards sometimes aren’t: what matters is what actually happens, not the intention.”

After that author presents examples from variety of experiments with animals that demonstrates how it works and defines what happens when there are no consequences either negative or positive: the awful condition of Boredom. Then she discusses the Variety, Sensory stimulation, and Taking control as conditions necessary for well-being not only humans, but also other animals.

Chapter 2. Consequences and Evolution: The Cause That Works Backward: Dance of the Balloons; Flexible Instincts; Songbirds; Bugs That Learn; Which Came First? The Evolution of Consequences; Bird Beaks Pointing the Way: How Consequences Lead Evolution; The Cause That Works Backward

Here author discusses interplay between instincts and learned behavior using several examples from research on bugs and birds, eventually concluding that “consequences lead evolution” that basically means recording into genetic code effective response to specific and consistently occurring environmental signals, resulting in positive consequences.

Chapter 3. Genes and Consequences: Meet Your Genome; Getting Turned on; The Genetics of Consequences; Interactions Everywhere; What’s Inherited—and What Isn’t; Epigenetics: New Kid in the Neighborhood

In this chapter author moves to discuss the recently acquired understanding of flexibility of genetic mechanisms when not only genes get switched on and off by environmental signals, but also epigenetics could modify genes expression and consequently condition of organism. Author also refers to research, which demonstrated that “DNA methylation patterns—and behavior patterns—could be reversed when disadvantaged rat pups were given extra licking and grooming by adult females (regardless of genetic relationship”.  

Chapter 4. Neuroscience and Consequences: Enrichment on the Brain; Neurons and Connections; Rewarding Chemicals: Dopamine and Its Cousins; Pleasure Centers; The Sky’s the Limit: Neuroplasticity and Real-Life Applications

In this chapter author discusses:” the neurophysiological flexibility that plays with all this genetics/epigenetics/nature-and-nurture flexibility—and the cavalry-to-the-rescue role of consequences to take full advantage of it.” She reviews structure and some electro-chemical processes in the brain that support this flexibility. Author also describes experiments demonstrating this flexibility: for example, long time blindfolded person’s brain switching visual cortex to process touch and sounds.

Here is how author summarizes Part one:” The chapters in part 1 illuminate how essential a systems approach is to understanding nature-and-nurture: genes, past history, behavior, environmental factors of all sorts, “pleasure centers,” neurotransmitters, long-term potentiation, synaptogenesis, neurogenesis, epigenetics, and other biological factors—everything working together. Newly revealed are reserves of tremendous flexibility previously undreamt of.”

Part 2: There’s a Science of Consequences?

Chapter 5. Consequences on Schedule: simple Principles with Surprising Outcomes: False Consequences; Consequences on Schedule; Work-Based Schedules and the Power of Unpredictability; Consequences on Time; Progress and Perseverance; Making the Most of Schedules; Schedules Everywhere

This chapter is about earning consequences or in other words planning and implementing some actions with expectation that some specific consequences will follow. Initially author discusses widely occurring situation when consequences incorrectly linked to previous, but inconsequential actions. Then she discusses schedules that supposed to produce specific consequences, but rarely do it completely and therefore require perseverance to achieve intendent consequences.

Chapter 6. The Dark Side of Consequences: Shades of Gray; Feelings; Choosing Pain; Aggression; Making Negatives Work—Positively

Here author moves to discuss unpredictable negative consequences. Author discusses “gray” or mixed consequences: something good and bad, both coming from complex actions. She refers to research that demonstrates that ratio 5 to 1 for complex actions such as marriage to be perceived generally positive. She then looks at feelings that paint consequences as either positive or negative or mixed. Author then moves to talk about range of consequences for example more or less pain and how sometimes lower-level negative is willingly accepted to avoid higher level negative, as in case of surgery. Another interesting point is to look at aggression as an attempt to avoid negative consequences by inflicting high levels of negative consequences on somebody or something that perceived as cause of this negatives. The final part of the chapter is about handling negatives. Overall author concludes:” Negatives can be downers, there’s no escaping that. But we’ve seen how lifesaving they can be—how grateful we should feel for evolution’s painful solution. And let’s not forget that positives have a negative side, even when good feelings abound.”

Chapter 7. Choices and Signals: The Matching Game; So, What Can the Matching Law Do? Winning Matches; Getting the Signal; A Smorgasbord of Signals; Of Signal Importance

This chapter starts with Frost’s “less travelled road” and talks about choices. Author describes matching law:” The matching law was originally derived from animal research in the lab, where conditions can be precise. In its full technical form, the equation gets complicated, covering a host of factors and parameters: bias between the behavior choices (an SO who really dislikes baseball), different levels of effort (someone lost the remote, so you have to get up and change channels manually), different types and values of the consequences, delays, schedules, signals, and so forth.”

The author discusses what this law does, which matches are winning, getting correct signal out of multitude of signals and noise, and, finally how important signals are.

Chapter 8. Pavlov and Consequences: An Essential Partnership: Compensating Reactions and Drug Tolerance; Not All in Your Head: The Placebo Effect and Other Mind-Body Surprises; Getting Emotional; Value, Anticipation, and Learned Consequences; Learned and Unlearned

This chapter is about Pavlov’s conditioning and its implication in drugs’ use, and other interactions between mind and body that lead to such things as placebo effect, link between emotions and bodily reactions. Author also discusses habituation of emotions to levels of signals such as use to violence in entertainment. At the end of chapter author moves to discuss learned and unlearned consequences, meaning some unlearned consequences that results from intrinsic qualities of organism like perception of tase or reaction to alcohol and learned consequences as result of signals transferred via language. 

Chapter 9. Observing and Attending: The Many Roles of Attention; Not-So-Simple Observations; Beneath the Radar: Consequences without Awareness; It’s Automatic; Observing Others; The Ultimate in Observing: Imitation

In this chapter author discusses role of attention and it starts with the famous “not seeing gorilla” experiment. Author points out link between attention and learning as in case of driving in the new place with attention and in well familiar place without. It is also about human need for attention of other that sometime achieves pathological levels. Author then discusses methods to attract attention as in experiment with animals. In humans paying attention or not is also dependent on expectation of positive or negative consequences as for example, when investors check portfolio more often when market goes up. Author also describes some interesting experiments with consequences without awareness, for example, when people rewarded for something unrelated to the task there are doing, but linked to their behavior. The result was subconscious adjustment of behavior to maximize award, even if there is no conscious understanding of what is rewarded. Author also discusses automated behavior and interaction with others, including imitation.  

Chapter 10. Thinking and Communicating: Categories Large and Small; Simple Communication; The Understanding Animal: Simple Language; Human Language and Its Consequences; Same Word, Different Consequence; Babble On; Language Learning in Real Life; Strictly Private; Making Up the Rules; Language and Biology

In this chapter author looks at communications and language in animals and humans from point of view of consequences of designating categories, transmitting and receiving signals via language, process of language development and learning, and use of all this to create rules to support effective communication and interactions between individuals.

Part 3: Shaping Destinies

Chapter 11. Everyday Consequences: Creating Rewards; How We Treat Each Other; Altruism; Shaping the Future; The Challenging Side of Parenting; What Marriage Can Be; Real Self-Esteem

Here author looks even deeper into human communications, interactions, and how much they are based on consequences, meaning creating awards and punishments, that is consequences for variety of different actions. It is also about internal consequences such as taking responsibility or avoiding it and how raise children to be able dealing effectively with life’s challenges. Finally, author discusses use of consequences in long term relationships such as marriage that could be stable and effective if ratio 5:1 positive to negative successfully maintained.  The chapter ends with an interesting take on validity of consequences in relation to building self-esteem. Turned out that undeserved rewards or, in other words, false positive consequences, do not help, mainly because it distorts signal about effectiveness of action, resulting in absence of valid feedback that is necessary to fix errors and mistakes.

Chapter 12. Fighting the Impulse: Self-Control, Anyone? Detecting Delays; The Disappearing Reward; The Marshmallow and the Kid Fighting the Impulse: Using What We Know; Taking Charge of Weight

This chapter is about self-control or lack thereof that usually leads to a bunch of negative consequences. Author describes a number of research experiments, including famous “marshmallow test” demonstrating this link. She also provides some technics of fighting impulse and achieving difficult objectives such as weight loss.

Chapter 13. Endangered Species, undercover Crows, and the Family Dog: Applications for Animals: Animal Companions; At the Zoo: Animal Care the Easy Way; Life at the Zoo; From Endangered Species to Farm Animals; Animals That Save Our Lives;

This chapter describes how better understanding of animal and human processing of consequences of their actions and ability to manipulate such consequences allowed completely new way of interaction and training of animals without cruelty and excessive punishments. Author describes how this approach is used in variety of environments from Zoos to Farms to Schools for animals used for direct support to humans.

Chapter 14. The Rewards of Education and Work There Are No Shortcuts; Consequences in Classroom Management; Maximizing Potential; Successful Programs; More on Motivation Consequences at Work;

In this chapter author expands the same way of using consequences to train animals to training humans. She describes how it is done in LA school so it opened potential of poor children. She even claims that:” It is well established, for example, that simply rewarding disadvantaged children for trying hard on intelligence tests can immediately raise their IQ scores by ten points or more. (Without some source of motivation, why strive to do their best?) A recent meta-analysis assessed the findings of many such experiments, including over 2,000 participants altogether—children of all sorts, not just disadvantaged children. Overall, rewarding youngsters for trying harder significantly raised IQ scores, and larger incentives consistently produced larger effects. The effects were greatest when the original IQ scores were lower (not surprising).” Then author discusses motivation and claims that if paying kids real money to learn the improve their results is real possibility, with a very important caveat that payment should be applied as reward for behavior, not results and applied immediately. The positive results occurred in due time as consequence of improved behavior and motivation. Same applies to adults in their work activities.  

Chapter 15. Help for Addiction, Autism, and Other Conditions Churchill’s “Black Dog”: Depression; Anxiety and Fear; Getting Unhooked: Addiction; Autism; Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder: Drugs or Consequences? Brief Notes;

In this chapter author discusses application of the same methods to people with variety of mental disorders from depression to dementia. Author reviewing some examples of application of consequences-based method and claims that sometimes there is clear success story.

Chapter 16. Consequences on a Grand Scale: Society, the Long Term, and the Planet Obedience and Disobedience; Overcoming Prejudice; Politics: The Art of the Possible Meets the Science of Consequences; The Short Term versus the Long Term: Having It All?

The final chapter is about using method of consequences in politics and controlling of people within society. Here author discusses Milgram’s experiments, My Lai massacre, Gandhi’s disobedience, prejudice, group loyalty to “us” and hostility to “them”, and so on. Finally, she also discusses political implication of consequences from MAD strategy to zero/non-zero games. The final part of the chapter is about solutions, which author defines as adding and subtracting consequences in order to achieve targeted behavior. She also presents list of technics such as control over schedules, checklists, commitments, and role models. 


The approach of trying understand actions of living things via understanding of their perception of consequences of such actions in my opinion is highly productive, providing it is done seriously, with open mind and scientifically valid protocols, rather than cherry-picking process with predefined objective to prove some point or achieve some result. Too bad that it is often applied in latter way rather than in former, especially when in the area of politics. One thing that I’d like to add to all this is that consequences in real life are always unpredictable and could be easily predefined only in case of simple and repetitive actions. Consequently, in real world any complex action plan should be build not only on expectations of specific consequences based on previous experience, but also on incorporating as much flexibility as possible in action plan so one could achieve effective dynamic process leading to the same objectives via variety of different ways that would allow to handle inevitable occurrence of unexpected intermediate consequences popping up elsewhere due to complexity of rial live.      

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