NADD Bulletin Volume XII Number 2 Article 2

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The Potential Use and Misuse of Natural Consequences: What Makes Us Really Sit Up and Take Notice?

John Armstrong, Human Services Consultant/Practitioner, Senior Trainer in Social Role Valorization


Consequences have long been appreciated as a potent learning strategy in everyday life (Boeree, 2002). From the earliest age our parents exposed us to consequences for our actions: if we refused to eat we went hungry, or if we touched a hot stove we felt its sting. Ideally, our parents also shielded us from experiences with consequences that could not be repeated, like playing in traffic. Despite this learning, there are times when people fail to take notice of the likely consequences of their decisions and actions – sometimes with devastating outcomes. This article seeks to explore the uses and limitations of consequence as a means of learning, with consideration to its application as an intentional learning strategy in the lives of people with intellectual disabilities.


One of the first dilemmas in understanding people’s behavior is addressing the link between knowledge and outcome. A range of social problems are couched in terms of awareness: ‘More information must be given;’ ‘If only people knew;’ ‘Ignorance is the problem;’ or ‘With proper information, people can be informed and become responsible.’ However there is often a gap between knowledge and belief. People can tell you what can happen, but simultaneously deny that it will happen to them. The issue is not one of having the knowledge but rather of believing the knowledge. Smoking provides a vivid example of this dynamic. Few people could deny having learnt of the potential outcomes of smoking. However, few smokers believe that these consequences will actually occur for them (Elliot, 2002).


The problem of linking knowledge and outcome is compounded in childhood and adolescence due to the lengthy time the brain takes to fully develop. Neuropsychological research has demonstrated relatively recently that certain critical brain structures, such as the forebrain, are not fully developed until people are in their late teens and early twenties (Ellis & Toronchuk, 2005). The forebrain’s interaction with the amygdala – a major controlling structure for emotion and motivation – is therefore erratic and prone to rapid changes in capacity and direction. As a consequence, adolescents find it very difficult to predict the consequences of their own decisions. The delayed development of the forebrain and its interaction with the amygdala further limits the potency of consequence. It may explain why some adolescents cannot predict the results of reckless driving, binge drinking, drug use and unrestrained sexual behavior, staying up all night, failing exams, not showing up at work on time, and even being wrongly dressed for certain types of weather.


The amygdala also has been shown to mimic the feelings of addiction through the activities of everyday life (Grady, 1998). It forms part of the brain’s limbic system – the system that conveys such feelings (or affects) as euphoria and pleasure. This system swings into operation even by the anticipation of a sought-after event. Advertising has utilized these known factors in shaping our anticipation, engaging autonomic functions (e.g., arousal), motivation, emotion, recent memory (Heo & Sundar, 2000), and the olfactory influence of the limbic system. The resulting desire is linked to a product and used to encourage people to purchase the product and/or join a social trend. To do this, advertising uses a technique called ‘affect transfer’ (Jin, 1998) and is extremely powerful. The development of McDonald’s ‘Happy Meals,’ where the emotion of ‘happiness’ is linked to a menu choice, demonstrates the way in which this system can be manipulated with ease. The complication is that the limbic system can create the euphoria just through anticipating the desire. This is why various drug addictions cause people to become emaciated; the drug mimics the effects of satisfaction without the need to eat!

This concept has been further examined in experiments on laboratory rats conducted by B. F. Skinner.  It was found that rats pushed a leaver that provided a food and pleasure response. The pleasure response was linked to a light being shown on the rats’ sensory receptors, inducing pleasure. Later, the food was withheld and the only reward was the light that caused sensory pleasure. Skinner linked these responses to the behavioral occasions on which humans will behave in the pursuit of pleasure even when the activity might endanger their health.


But what about the predictions related to non-addictive behavior? People know that eating fatty food increases weight, that not exercising may reduce fitness, that speeding is dangerous, that staying up late will create tiredness the next day, and that eating junk food for breakfast will starve the body of needed nutrients. Yet people still continue to do a myriad of these and other maladaptive things. This brings us to another key point in understanding consequences: consequences can be denied. What the forebrain knows, the midbrain can dispute in a complex set of interrelated synapses (Walker, 1983). Even in very early behavioral research, in a contest of free-will and calculated action the power of desire was observed to prevail over rational thought processes. It is Russian roulette in everyday life! Of course there are calculated risks; however calculations can be easily and unconsciously distorted to satisfy the urge for instant gratification. This is evident when people go shopping and the unconscious desire for acquiring products overcomes the conscious knowledge that they cannot afford to pay for the products.


Another dilemma in the use of consequence as a learning strategy is that for many people there may be reluctance to connect the immediate urge with its long-term consequence. As with shopping, there is a conflict between the desire to have it now and the long-term awareness of the pain of the endless payments and the possible hardship it may cause. This desire for immediate gratification is key to understanding behavior. An illustration of this can be seen in a fascinating psychological experiment called the ‘marshmallow test’ (Goleman, 1997). Children under the age of four were given a marshmallow with the promise of a second marshmallow if they could wait twenty minutes before eating it. Very significantly, this simple little test ended up being the greatest predictor of future success in adulthood. It captured the essential dilemma of being human: can I bring my cravings, desires, and lusts under some conscious and thoughtful control so as to exact a beneficial consequence for myself and others close to me? The ‘craving’ seeks satisfaction immediately; the well-developed forebrain knows that this is misleading. Real satisfaction comes from fulfilling deeper purposes that almost always involve sacrificing cravings, comfort, and wants. The ‘good life’ has always involved extensive effort to become more than we are already. Our rapacious modernistic society refuses to bend to this truth and instead insists that desires must be immediately fulfilled. It was once said that the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak. Now it appears that the flesh will be indulged and only then will the spirit be satisfied.


These five factors are relevant for all people in diluting the potency of ‘consequence’ as a learning strategy: believing knowledge; the delayed development of the forebrain; the affect transfer of the amygdala; the denial of consequence; and the ability to delay gratification. So what about people with an intellectual disability – is it the same? To some extent, the answer is yes. The will is ever present and imposes itself on its owner.


What is less clear for people with intellectual disabilities is how well thinking informs drive and how well the connections between various events are understood. For example,  people may not connect an event and its consequence (cause and effect) and especially so if the event is some distance in time and space from its consequence or is highly abstract in other ways, like being fined or sent to court or jail. For example, people may not understand that obtaining cable television will bring expensive monthly bills later in time. Thus, whereas for people without intellectual impairment it is that we do not want to believe the consequences, for people with intellectual disability it may be that one cannot predict the consequence. An added dilemma is the social situation of people who through their isolation sign contracts for things as a means of seeking approval and affirmation (Wolfensberger, 2004).


Many support workers and allies of people with intellectual disabilities still believe that just permitting people to experience the consequences of actions will teach and modify the behavior of people. Yet if experiencing natural consequence was the most useful learning strategy, we could just leave people in the community, let them experience all of the likely natural consequences of life, such as being rejected, abused, condemned, evicted, arrested, and possibly jailed. This gross perversion of normalization results in people who require extensive advice and guidance concerning the consequences of their decisions being left to receive the full brunt of a disapproving society.


Another perversion in this learning strategy is the misuse of the ‘dignity of risk’. While it is true that dignity of risk assumes that people will learn and grow by experiencing the consequences of their choices, this risk is taken only to the level at which we can predict the person can cope, without endangering themselves or others and/or without losing ‘dignity.’ The dignity of risk is very conditional and the word ‘dignity’ is used deliberately. There is little dignity in repeated failure and punishment for things one cannot connect.


Learning the consequences of actions and decisions is an exciting and sometimes painful journey into the real world. As young children we were given a graduated experience guided by our parents who (for the most part) matched our experience to our capacity to predict and respond to the consequences of our actions. And to our pleas to move to more advanced levels of responsibility, they sometimes said ‘no.’ Through this process we become responsible adults, adaptive in our interactions and relationships, capable of extended periods of work and effort, able to forego creature comforts to bring about learning and experiences that nourished our human spirit. The more devalued members of our community have rarely had this kind of individual tutelage.


It is only by being guided to better decisions, through tutelage and individual experiences, that we learn the consequences of these decisions. Some people with intellectual disabilities have not had tutelage or exposure to positive or negative learning experiences. It is about time they did.




Boeree, C. G. (2002). Learning. Retrieved from Shippensburg University website: .

Elliott, D. (2002, September 3). Stop Smoking Program. Today’s Chiropractic. Retrieved from 

Ellis, G.F.R., & Toronchuk, J.A. (2005). Neural Development: Affective and Immune System Influences. Retrieved from

Grady, D. (1998, October 27).  Hardest habit to break: Memories of the high. New York Times. 

Goleman, D. (1997). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Heo, N., & Sundar, S.S. (2000). Emotional responses to web advertising: The effects of animation, position, and product involvement on physiological arousal.Paper presented to the Advertising Division at the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) Phoenix, AZ.

Herbert, R.R.. (1996). Major elements of the human psyche. The human psyche and the nature ofmMan. Retrieved from 

Jin, K. (1998). Brand Extensions in a Competitive Context: Effects of Competitive Targets and Product Attribute Typicality on Perceived Quality. Academy of Marketing Science Review.

Walker, S. (1983). The functional organisation of the vertebrate brain. In S. Walker, Animal Thought.  . London: Routledge & Kegan,, International Library of Psychology Series.

Wolfensberger, W. (2004). TIPS, 23(6) & 24(1&2).  Training Institute Publication Series.



About the Author: John Armstrong has had a long involvement with people who have an intellectual disability. John originally trained as a special education teacher and is one of three senior Social Role Valorization trainers in Australia. John conducts training for large government organizations, voluntary associations, tertiary institutions, and parent and advocacy groups throughout Australia and New Zealand.


This paper was originally published as an Occasional Paper by Community Resource Unit, Inc, Brisbane, Australia.


For more information, please contact Mr. Armstrong at: