Prevention Science [PREV] PP996-prev-473910 September 26, 2003 17:26 Style ﬁle version Nov. 04, 2000
Prevention Science, Vol. 4, No. 4, December 2003 (
Selection by Consequences: One Unifying Principle
for a Transdisciplinary Science of Prevention
The principle of selection by consequences is critical to the analysis of a broad range of
phenomena 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 should improve the ability of prevention science to reduce the
incidence and prevalence of human behavior problems.
KEY WORDS: consequences; parenting interventions; prevention science; reinforcement; selection.
Kellam (in press) noted that prevention science
is characterized by diverse theoretical and method-
ological paradigms with origins in diverse disciplines.
He argues that many of the features of paradigms de-
veloped 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 general orientations such
as life course development and community epidemiol-
ogy (Kellam et al., 1999). Research on preventing the
development of antisocial behavior has been strength-
ened by the integration of epidemiological and de-
velopmental perspectives (e.g., Kellam et al., 1994).
There also have been several efforts to identify cross-
cutting 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 se-
lection by consequences has broad applicability and
can be a useful basis for integrating diverse disciplines
and diverse substantive areas of concern in prevention
science. At its most basic level, the principle might be
stated: The organization of living systems is shaped
Oregon Research Institute, 1715 Franklin Blvd., Eugene, Oregon
97403-1983; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
and maintained by the consequences of that organi-
zation at any given time. The principle provides a good
account of the evolution of species, the shaping and
maintenance of behavior, and the evolution of cul-
tural practices. In this paper, I will describe the scope
of the principle in analysis of the behavior of individ-
uals 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.
THE SELECTION OF BEHAVIOR BY
Although others, such as Thorndike (1932), con-
tributed to the recognition that behavior was affected
by consequences, Skinner (1938, 1953, 1972) tren-
chantly demonstrated the broad generality of the
principle. His empirical work on the effects of rein-
forcement prompted numerous other behavioral sci-
entists 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 it has this effect. Such consequent
events can involve the presentation or occurrence of a
2003 Society for Prevention Research