My entry point to this topic has to do with Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) training in the context of our native learning abilities. We’re getting a lot of mileage from thinking about Skinner’s selection by consequences—operant conditioning as an evolutionary process in its own right. With relational frame theory, we’re providing an overlay of language and symbolic thought that goes beyond Skinner. One of the insights from this is that if each person is an evolutionary process, then evolution often takes you where you don’t want to go. What’s adaptive in the evolutionary sense of the word is not always normatively good and adaptive in the everyday sense of the word.

A large fraction of social and personal problems are adaptive in the evolutionary sense of the word—for example, through a reinforcement process that led in a dysfunctional direction, such as families that have reinforced each other for obnoxious behavior. What ACT does is manage the process of personal evolution. And so there’s a sense in which it’s a form of niche construction. We’re actually creating an environment, a kind of cognitive environment or social environment, which is then steering the evolutionary process in a more helpful direction, both personally and socially.

It was a great pleasure to discuss these ideas with evolutionary psychologist Aaron Blaisdell and behavioral scientist Kelly Wilson and I hope you enjoy the conversation as much as I did.