Science of consequences

Schneider - Science of consequencesPUBLISHING YEAR: 2012

SUMMARY: A multidisciplinary look at the scientific body of knowledge on the concept of consequences.

AUDIENCE: I will say ‘academic’ because it is laced with interconnected theoretical concepts that you’ll need a solid academic grounding to follow comfortably. Or many coffees and Advils and iron-clad willpower.

03 Academic


The author: Dr. Susan M. Schneider is a biopsychologist. She is a psychology lecturer and researcher and her research interests focus on the biopsychology of choice and generalization.

Style and contents: Dr. Schneider famously took ten years to write this book. Considering its breadth and depth, it’s not hard to believe it. Reading “The Science of Consequences” felt like listening to Sheldon (The Big Bang Theory)  on fast forward. It is dense, fact-packed, relentless.

Here are some snippets of my thoughts on it. A word of warning, the review too is, well, dense, fact-packed and relentless…

The book cited a source for each statement it made about research results. Yes! This is not a given even in science-focused books, so brownie points for Dr. Schneider here.

The mind-blowing interactions between ethology and behaviourism weaved the central theme of the book. Dr. Schneider examined consequences as a system with many interconnected parts, drawing from neuroscience, genetics, evolutionary biology, cognitive psychology, psychiatry, addiction medicine, habits management, education and… economics.

She highlighted research in many species, not just humans. This comparative approach resonated with me: Dr. Schneider did not fall into the trap of anthropocentrism. She collected cognitive data across the whole animal kingdom. Take the chapters on procrastination in pigeons (p. 180), owl monkey’s sensory learning stimulation (p. 58), the Ken Ramirez’ (Shedd Aquarium Director) and Karen Pryor’s (former dolphin clicker trainer) protraits.

Whilst she made abundant use of jargon – ‘sympatric speciation’ anyone? – she followed the terminology bombs with a layman’s definition. If you, like me, find specific words delightful, you’re in for a treat. But I won’t like to you. It did make for heavy reading at times.

Possible improvements

1/ The book could easily have been divided into three independent volumes, which could have saved me from that “how MANY pages left?” feeling as I was plowing my way through the more interminable passages.

Something along the lines of:

  1. Consequences and how nature/nurture works: consequences in evolution and genetics;
  2. Conditioning, communicating and game theory: On pain, aggression, schedules of reinforcement, punishment, choices and signals
  3. Consequences shape our destinies: From self-control to macro economics – a consequence-focused look at incentives.

It is ironic for a book covering schedules of reinforcement, that many chapters had me close to ‘ratio drain’ (when the payoff just isn’t worth the effort anymore). Don’t get me wrong, most chapters were incredible, but some felt like Stakhanovistic endurance contests.

3/ She waxed at length about (in my view) non-essential points. Perhaps my own training (zoology and behaviourism) did not prepare me for this, but I would have been better off if half the subtleties in the chapters on genetics, for example, had been footnotes.

4/ A minor point, but the section covering zoo animals was woefully naive about zoos’ role in conservation and welfare (p. 199).

The gems 

1/ The book contained some compelling formulas:

  • “The pursuit of happiness means the pursuit if consequences, large and small, sunsets included” – p. 19.
  • “Fewer consequences can support more behaviour” About intermittent ratios of reinforcement and disconnects between reinforcers and behaviour – p. 76.
  • “Disentangling real but delayed consequences from the red herrings is one of the triumphs of the scientific method” about going after complicated cause and effect in science – p. 179.
  • “A perennial source of conflict stems from the lure of the immediate: the rewards of grabbing are always hard to resist. Delayed consequences pack a lot less punch, now matter how important they are” p. 252

2/ One of the most powerful ideas in the book is the systems-wide approach to consequences. A mind-blowing idea for me, was to reconcile operant conditioning with evolutionary biology. Dr. Schneider masterfully illustrated how consequences drive everything, from evolution to immunity.

3/ Except for the more technical chapters, the jargon conveniently labelled elegant concepts. In a similar vein, the overview of comparative cognition on page 41 neatly compartmentalized and labelled different cognitive abilities across the major animal taxa.

4/ As an applied behaviourist and dog trainer, the operant conditioning chapters were useful to my professional life. Take the reminder, steeped in science, to keep the reinforcers varied for a keener response. I don’t mean the intermittent ratio of reinforcement. I mean changing the actual reinforcer contantly to make THAT surprising. In one session, you would alternate cheese, kibble, and bread, for example.

And how’s this for a mind-blowing concept? Variability itself is a reinforcer. It is a subtle variation from the point I make above.I don’t mean that it just boosts reinforcers (point above). I mean it IS a reinforcer in itself. I should preface this with the classic word of caution on anxious animals, who badly need predictability. But aside from considerations for these anxious clients, it dawned on me that I had been placing too great a premium on predictability. For the average dog, predictability can easily slip into boredom, and boredom into a punisher. It reminded me of what I knew all along but had buried deep under: variety can be the spice of life for most dogs.

Another highly applicable idea that this book re-validated for me was neurological flexibility. It is that blessed ‘modifiability’ (p. 58) that I have to put my faith in at the start of every project. It is brain plasticity that allows me to save even the dogs who seem to be desperate cases.

I also drew a lot from the chapters on education and addiction, respectively. They were jam-packed with insights about making or breaking habits, and how to get clients to stick things out and keep clear of bad patterns. Any instructor owes it to their students to be aware of these tips.

The verdict: To be onomatopoeic about it, it was at once Wow! and Pfffff… “The Science of Consequences” is a tightly wrapped, marathon-sized, intellectual bomb. It is jam-packed with mind-blowing theoretical insights and handy life hacks.

If you’re a behaviourist, make the time and get this one under your belt. If you’re on the nerdy end of dog training, same thing. If you’re a Psych student or researcher, it’ll give you a system-wide perspective of that powerful concept: consequences.

So I absolutely recommend it, but you’ll have to free up some time to get through it.

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Author: Schneider Susan M.
Genre: survey of peer-reviewed literature
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