Correspondences to:

This article explores children’s rule-following behaviour, as part of an ongoing study underway in the Contextual Behavioural Science lab at University College Dublin. It builds a critical case regarding the most suitable methodologies to approach this topic, emphasising the need to meaningfully capture children’s voices and views regarding their own rule-following behaviours, with particular reference to the suitability of qualitative research methods. This will contribute to/inform research in the field and improve the level of understanding that is currently available of children’s rule-following behaviour.

Rule-following affords us many adaptive advantages. For example, rules allow us to respond to abstract consequences and profit indirectly from others’ experiences (McAuliffe, Hughes, & Barnes-Holmes, 2014). However, rule-following can overwhelm learning from direct experience which can render us insensitive to shifting environmental contingencies (Törneke, Luciano, & Valdivia-Salas, 2008). Simply put, when we rigidly follow rules, we may fail to notice when they are no longer working for us.

One pattern of rule-following that precipitates this contingency insensitivity when it dominates our behaviour is pliance. Pliance occurs when an individual follows a rule to access arbitrary socially mediated consequences, such as social approval/ disapproval (Törneke et al., 2008). For example, if a parent tells a child, “Clean your room – it’s a pigsty”, and the child cleans their room solely to receive the parent’s praise, then the child is adhering to a ply.

Although pliance is useful in some contexts (e.g. following school rules), problems arise when it becomes our “go-to” pattern across all contexts, i.e. when it is generalised. With generalised pliance, the only consequences that matter are those controlled by others (Törneke et al., 2008). Consequently, part of our experience gets blocked, leading to a restricted life and limited contact with other potentially reinforcing consequences (Salazar, Ruiz, Flórez, & Suárez-Falcón, 2018). Essentially, overreliance on arbitrary social consequences can blind us to the natural consequences of our behaviour, meaning we are more likely to maintain rule-following even if it is no longer adaptive and despite hindrances it may cause. Given these associated problems, recognizing when a child is displaying generalised pliance (and the extent to which it causes them problems) is important.

In terms of assessing generalised pliance, recently Ruiz, Suárez-Falcón, Barbero-Rubio, and Flórez (2018) developed a quantitative self-report measure of generalised pliance. This measure has since been adapted for use with children and adolescents (Salazar et al., 2018) and employed in the Irish context (Stapleton & McHugh, 2020).

However, while this quantitative self-report measure is undoubtedly useful (particularly in clinical contexts), it may not always effectively identify generalised pliance (see Waldeck, Pancani, & Tyndall, 2019 for further discussion). To illustrate this point, take item seven of the eight-item quantitative self-report measure; "It is very important for me that others have a good impression of me" (see Salazar et al. (2018) for the full questionnaire). If a child responds “frequently true” to this item, then they are not necessarily reporting generalised pliance. For example, the child could have a learning history where they previously experienced positive treatment when others had a good impression of them, leading the child to derive that “if others have a good impression of me, then I am treated kindly”. Therefore, in this instance, the child is tracking the non-arbitrary consequence of positive treatment arising from good impressions (learned via direct experience), rather than adhering to a ply.

This nuance is lost when the quantitative self-report measure of generalised pliance is used in isolation and could be revealed via qualitative exploration. Children’s learning histories, interpretation of scale items, and derived self-rules can impact on the accuracy of this self-report measure. Nuances are likely lost when the quantitative self-report measure of generalised pliance is used in isolation, as is the case with the use of any other quantitative measure in isolation. Using quantitative Likert scales in isolation may provide a limited understanding of the phenomenon under investigation.

Recently, Villatte et al. (2015) outlined linguistic cues that are indicative of pliance. For example, if an individual states a rule without specifying the consequence, cannot state a consequence when prompted, and/or states a behavioural cause rather than a consequence when prompted, then pliance is likely occurring (Villatte et al., 2015). This type of qualitative investigation could also be applied to explore generalised pliance: if this pattern seems to dominate an individual’s repertoire, then they are likely displaying generalised pliance.

In response to this gap in the literature, and in line with the theme “Children Should be Seen AND Heard”, Alison Stapleton and Professor Louise McHugh from University College Dublin are currently conducting qualitative interviews with adolescents to explore generalised pliance. Via these interviews, the researchers will determine whether there is a link between linguistic cues that are indicative of pliance and the existing self-report measure (i.e., the Generalised Pliance Questionnaire – Children). Simply asking a child about their rules and learning histories can capture some of the nuance potentially lost to quantitative self-report measures alone. If researchers want to better determine whether a child is displaying generalised pliance and determine the quality of our current measures, then listening and including children in the process is vital.