Selection by consequences

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Prevention Science [PREV]


September 26, 2003


Style file version Nov. 04, 2000

Prevention Science, Vol. 4, No. 4, December 2003 ( C 2003)

Selection by Consequences: One Unifying Principle
for a Transdisciplinary Science of Prevention
Anthony Biglan1

The principle of selection by consequences is critical to the analysis of a broad range ofphenomena in the biological and behavioral sciences from the evolution of species to the
selection of cultural practices. This paper reviews the role of that principle in diverse areas
of the biobehavioral sciences and discusses how it can provide one dimension along which
the diverse disciplines relevant to the prevention of problems of human behavior can be
integrated. Such integration shouldimprove the ability of prevention science to reduce the
incidence and prevalence of human behavior problems.
KEY WORDS: consequences; parenting interventions; prevention science; reinforcement; selection.

and maintained by the consequences of that organization at any given time. The principle provides a good
account of the evolution of species, the shaping and
maintenance of behavior, andthe evolution of cultural practices. In this paper, I will describe the scope
of the principle in analysis of the behavior of individuals and the actions of groups and organizations and
will discuss ways in which the recognition of the scope
of the principle could contribute to progress on some
important current problems in prevention science.

Kellam (in press) noted that prevention scienceis characterized by diverse theoretical and methodological paradigms with origins in diverse disciplines.
He argues that many of the features of paradigms developed to work with one problem may have value
when applied to a different prevention problem. For
example, design and analytic techniques have been
borrowed from one area of substantive research and
applied to another, as have generalorientations such
as life course development and community epidemiology (Kellam et al., 1999). Research on preventing the
development of antisocial behavior has been strengthened by the integration of epidemiological and developmental perspectives (e.g., Kellam et al., 1994).
There also have been several efforts to identify crosscutting theoretical principles for prevention science
(Albrecht,1994; Flay & Petraitis, 1994; Messner et al.,
1989). Such efforts could facilitate the integration of
diverse disciplines into a more unified and effective
science of prevention.
In this paper, it is argued that the principle of selection by consequences has broad applicability and
can be a useful basis for integrating diverse disciplines
and diverse substantive areas of concern in preventionscience. At its most basic level, the principle might be
stated: The organization of living systems is shaped

Although others, such as Thorndike (1932), contributed to the recognition that behavior was affected
by consequences, Skinner (1938, 1953, 1972) trenchantly demonstrated the broad generality of the
principle. His empirical work on theeffects of reinforcement prompted numerous other behavioral scientists to explore the effects of reinforcing and other
consequent events on behavior (Kazdin, 1978).
The fundamental principle of reinforcement is
that certain events that follow a behavior increase the
likelihood that the behavior will occur on subsequent,
similar occasions. A consequent event is considered
a reinforcer if ithas this effect. Such consequent
events can involve the presentation or occurrence of a

Oregon Research Institute, 1715 Franklin Blvd., Eugene, Oregon
97403-1983; e-mail:



2003 Society for Prevention Research

Prevention Science [PREV]


September 26, 2003


Style file version Nov. 04, 2000

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