Socratic Method
at a glance

What can
Socratic Effect
do for your

classical and
modern forms

The Law of Effect

Core Readings


In French
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Win Wenger


Why You "Obey" the Law of Effect

Informal definition of the Law of Effect:
“You get more of what you reinforce.”

It is the business of life to find what works. In nearly every aspect, every detail, life discovers — and occupies — what works, and is shaped thereby.

Whatever your situation — what is the effect of your being there? What effects are you getting from (and as feedback from) your actions? Immediate, short-term, long-term, large and small? What works; what has worked; what has worked occasionally so that maybe you keep trying? What once worked that no longer does, but you keep doing and hoping?

From flagpole-sitting to squally brats, to the delights of reading, to the arts of love, to the making of wills or the satisfaction of giving, to racing, to rap, to crime, to prayer, to that morning cup of coffee, to suing McDonald's for that so-hot cup of coffee spilled on a lap — we are all seeking out and moving toward what we find working, and to what we found working before.

Some of the better psychologists do understand that we repeat a certain behavior because in some way something from the effects of that behavior is or was working for us. That simplifies things, in the sense that if it’s a behavior that needs changing, find what it is that’s working or that once worked in response to that behavior, and change that.

The Law of Effect is as universal as any Law of Physics

This is universal, not just a law of animal behavior. To survive for long in a changing world, every very complex system has to sense how its surroundings are responding to its presence and to what it’s doing, and adapt its own behavior accordingly. This is true not just of humans and animals — it applies to plants, microbes, even one-celled organisms; viruses, collectively and individually; prions. Any such very complex system which did not do these things, which was not susceptible to what its feedbacks were telling it and which did not adapt its behaviors accordingly, very soon perished. All that remains — ourselves, all that is within us, all that is around us — are systems which do “obey” the Law of Effect.

The same will be true for life of whatever nature wherever it occurs in the universe. The details may be different as to what life finds working on some other world, in a nebula somewhere or even in the core of a star — but it will have, in common with us, susceptibility to the Law of Effect. It will be drawn in the direction of whatever works. It will seek experience, reward, positive reinforcement.

Adaptation and Learning:

Living systems — every one of these “obeys” the Law of Effect or very soon perishes. The growing-up of an infant is a matter of his or her discovering — in a million and one ways — and moving into a succession of those behaviors — internal and external — which work. The whole array of life in all its innumerable forms, even extremophiles (and, to the occupants of the original conditions on Earth we are the “extremophiles”!), consists of its past and present of finding what works and moving into what works.

“Function determines structure.”

This is a medical and biological truism. Our brains and how well they work are determined by the feedback, past and present, that they get on our actions. Our very hip joints are literally carved out into place by the physical activities of infancy, which is why there is such a high incidence of physical, structural hip problems in adults whose physical activities in infancy were for some reason greatly curtailed.

This is why the natural rate of learning in infants is thousands of times greater (for real!) than it is in us soon after we’ve been to school for a year or so. For the infants the learning is a natural feedback, a reinforcement on their own natural activities, and not an alien imposed structure precluding most of one’s growth and learning activity. This is why both John Dewey and Maria Montessori emphasized “learning by doing.” Function determines structure. “Use it or lose it.” Our very physical structure — in us and in all life — even within our own individual lives, reflects the history of what we found working for us and how we responded to what we found working.

And, of course, amoebas and animals and aardvarks and ourselves as humans, how we even got here, how we are shaped, our evolutionary biology, in every detail reflects the history of what life found working and then occupied.

Long- and Short-Term, Greater and Lesser:

Some of the “niches” thus found and occupied — biological niches in our individual lives, economic niches, social niches, as well as general ecological and bio-evolutionary niches — are more advantageous than others. In a changing world, always some niches are opening and others closing (and not at a tidily sedate, orderly pace, but in cascades and surges). We humans evolved intelligence so we could go after the more advantageous, greater and long-term niches. With intelligence and wisdom we could take conscious self-direction in our lives and not have to pay the 99% extinction price which plodding lifekind has all along had to pay for stumbling into the smaller and shorter-term immediate niches which later proved a fatal trap when life forms couldn’t work their way beyond those cul de sacs.

We humans are, of course, above that.

  • We all — don’t smoke.
  • We all — don’t wreck the environment.
  • We all — don’t overeat.
  • We all — don’t abuse substances.
  • We all — don’t commit crime and punishment.
  • We all, because of our vaunted human intelligence, find our way into the greater things which work for the long haul, and don’t fall into any of the deadly niche-traps where we “sell our heritage for a bowl of porridge.”

Just look around our lives, just look around us in the world, to see how well we are finding our ways past the traps to those things which work greater and for the long haul.

How do we get from here to there and avoid that 99% failure rate? Find what will reinforce you in (and into) the greater, longer-term contexts. As most smokers have found, willpower alone is problematic — “nature abhors a vacuum.”

Key References:   Dynamic Format | Mutual Listening

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Win Wenger

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