Tuesday 16 November 2010, 16:53

Adam Curtis Adam Curtis

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I am fascinated by the group David Cameron has set up in No.10, called The Behavioural Insights Unit. I think it is evidence of a massive shift that is just beginning in British politics which will change the way politicians govern and manage the rest of us.

Tony Blair believed in a consumerist idea of democracy. He used focus groups to try and find out what people wanted as a way of shaping policy (except, of course, over Iraq). Like Mrs Thatcher, he believed that the people knew best. They expressed their desires and wants clearly through the market. And politics, he believed, should imitate this.

The Behavioural Insights Team believe the opposite. That in many cases you can't trust the people. That if you let them just follow their desires they will often do things that are bad both for themselves and for society.

This doesn't mean you get rid of the market. Instead governments should find ways to manipulate ordinary peoples' feelings and desires so they "choose" to do the right thing.

Behind this are the ideas of what is called Behavioural Economics. They were popularised by a book called "Nudge" written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

The idea of "nudging" citizens to do the right thing sounds cute. But in reality it marks the return of a powerful psycho-political theory that rose up in the mid-20th century. It was called Behaviourism. And it was hated by both the right and the left.

Behaviourism's most famous exponent was an American psychologist called B. F. Skinner who was an idealist and a utopian. He believed that his techniques of behaviour modification could be used to create a completely new kind of world.

In the 1960s and 70s Skinner became a controversial figure. Students in America and Britain protested wherever he spoke.

The reason was that Skinner showed just how easy it was to manipulate and change human behaviour. He called it "operant conditioning". Skinner used pigeons to demonstrate how you simply "reinforced" the behaviour you wanted with rewards.

And humans, Skinner said, are just like pigeons.

Here is film of Skinner with his pigeons showing how it is done - and explaining how operant conditioning can be used in human society. It was shot in 1968.

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The Downing Street unit uses a lot of language from contemporary brain science but their fundamental ideas come from Skinner's pigeons.

The key figure is Richard Thaler, one of the authors of Nudge. He has been powerfuly influenced by behaviourist theories including the work of a psychiatrist called George Ainslie.

Ainslie did operant conditioning experiments in Skinner's pigeon lab in the 1970s. He showed that the pigeons could be trained to choose deferred gratification - by making them realise they could get even more food if they waited.

Drawing on these and other behaviourist ideas Thaler wrote a paper in 1981 with a great title - An Economic Theory of Self-Control.

This is what lies behind the Downing Street unit's plans to find mechanisms to manipulate people so they will do "good" things - like save more for retirement or eat less bad food.

Skinner himself was acutely aware that modifying human behaviour in these ways raises serious political questions. Not just about individual freedom, but about who decides what is "good" behaviour, and what happens when others decide it is bad.

These are questions that the Nudge enthusiasts seem to be blithely unaware of.

But, despite the potential dangers, Skinner was convinced that his operant conditioning should be used by politicians to completely reshape societies in a good way. It would be a giant experiment in behaviour modification - "a gigantic effort of self-control".

Skinner ran experiments with humans to show this. Here is film of one experiment in a mental hospital where patients' behaviour is being modified. Followed by Skinner talking about the political implications.

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Skinner's guiding belief was that you completely ignored what went on inside the minds of human beings. The thoughts and feelings that went on inside the "black box" - as he called it - were unmeasurable and ultimately unknowable.

Instead you observed human behaviour from the outside. That was the only reality that could be scientifically described.

In this way Skinner was part of a much greater tradition that has been forgotten in our age of individualism. An age where our feelings are the most important thing.

But from the 1930s through to the end of the 1950s Sociology and Social and Market research were dominated by a behaviourist approach that observed, quantified and categorised human behaviour scientifically into groups whose behaviour could then be predicted.

Two powerful men helped shape this movement in the late 30s in America. One was a psychologist called Frank Stanton, who later ran CBS television. The other was a social scientist called Paul Lazarsfeld.

Stanton was fascinated by behaviourist psychology - and the two men developed all kinds of ways to measure and categorise human behaviour as mass consumerism developed.

Here is a lovely photograph of the two men with the machine they invented called The Program Analyzer.

The machine was given out to thousands of television viewers. The viewers sat with a green button in their right hand and a red one in their left. They pressed the green if they liked the programme and the red if they disliked it. The buttons connected to a pen that drew out their responses on a moving paper tape.

It measured their deviation either side of what was called "The Apathy Line", the straight line down the middle that resulted if no buttons were pressed.

Pigeons watching TV.

Getty Images/CBS Photo Archive

Lazarsfeld had an enormous influence on a British market researcher who I am fascinated by.

He was called Mark Abrams.

In the 1950s Abrams did as much as any politician to shape the way British society thought about itself. This is because he invented what is called the Social Grades system. It divides people into six categories - A, B, C1, C2, D and E.

Abrams originally developed the Social Grades for the National Readership Survey - so publishers of newspapers and magazines could objectively classify their readers.

But the six types quickly became far more than that. They worked their way deep into the national psyche, shaping the way people looked at themselves and their relationship to others.

Here is a great bit from a programme made in the mid-1960s called This Is Marketing - Know Your Consumer. The presenter uses three-dimensional environments to explain the different categories.

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The A, B, C1, C2, D and E categories were created by Abrams as scientific, objective ways of dividing the population into groups.

But that is not the way television-makers saw them.

Here are two sections from a documentary made in 1966 called Not in My Class, Dear which is all about the social grades. It is fantastically patronising and snobbish, and automatically links the categories with social class.

It shows how, as so often with the social sciences, what appear to be objective categories of behaviour and measurement seem to fit very neatly with the pre-existing power structure. And reinforces it.

The Nudge enthusiasts may not realise it - but this may be the reason why they have become so popular in Downing Street.

Here is a wonderful bit of two women market researchers judging what category people are as they come down the steps from St Pancras station.

And, although they insist "class is never mentioned", the researchers are just as bad underneath as the film-makers - "ghastly plastic flowers".

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The programme-makers then went and found people who fitted into the different social grades and asked them what they thought.

Here are four of them.

Mr Ryan - a tunneller on the Victoria Line - a C2

Mr Langrish - a prep-school master - a C1

Mr Tennant - a Lieutenant in the Royal Horse Artillery - a C1 on the way to becoming a B

The Duffels - a "with-it" couple in Islington - "A's beyond all question"

As you watch the people in the film, you realise that the social categories are also far from neutral in another way.

In all the interviews the people have been told they have been selected as representatives of a particular category. And, as they talk, you can see them helpfully describing their behaviour in ways so it fits with that category

What you are watching is another example of B F Skinner's "operant conditioning" at work. By defining people as members of social classes they become more like that. More like each other.

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All this seems now to be a lost world.

What replaced it was a different kind of theory of how to analyse behaviour in society. Its roots lay in Freudian psychoanalysis and radical psycho-therapy of the 1960s and its practicioners wanted to go inside the heads of consumers and voters and find out what they wanted - and give it to them. (It is the story I told in the Century of the Self)

Out of this came Lifestyle Marketing. This still grouped and segmented people - but according to their inner desires, wants and feelings. Our inner states of mind became the central focus of the age.

Both Paul Lazarsfeld and Mark Abrams were deeply suspicious of all this. They thought much of it was psycho-analytic charlatanism. But it was a losing battle. In the 1960s both the counter culture on the political left, and the promoters of a market based democracy on the right, said that the individual and their inner feelings were the motor of society.

And behaviourism was dead.

But now it is back - and not just in Downing Street. I have a suspicion that the politicians' revival of the old behaviourist ideas and techniques will be helped and reinforced by a powerful ally - the machines we have built.
The computers.

In our age of individualism we see computers as ways through which we can express our individuality. But the truth is that the computers are really good at spotting the very opposite.

The computers can see how similar we are, and they then have the ability to agglomerate us together into groups that have the same behaviours. And from that they can predict what choices and decisions we will make.

And they do it solely through our observed behaviour.

In 1964 B F Skinner wrote a utopian vision of the future called Beyond Freedom and Dignity. It argued that the idea of individualism was actually a terrible prison.

By following only our own inner desires and feelings human beings limit themselves, Skinner said, to a narrow, dessicated existence. Your feelings are not good, in reality they are horrible little demons that live inside you and possess you.

Skinner said that his techniques of "operant conditioning" could free human beings from those demons. And their behaviour would be modified so as to engineer a completely new kind of society. It was not fascism. It was a new kind of liberation.

And it is only our belief in our individual authenticity that is holding us back.

I leave the last word to the 1960s techno-theorist, Lewis Mumford, interviewed in 1968 about B F Skinner's utopian vision.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 61.


    Article Dated 9th September 2010

    I see no reason to think Curtis is deliberately making stuff up.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.


    Many thanks. Reading this puts Adam's post in a different light. Now I get it, including PP's take. I wish I had seen this earlier. I didn't find it with my initial searches. Call me low-skilled. :(

    So here's something that cought my eye from the article:

    "is to explore ways of encouraging citizens to behave in social ways relying on market incentives, as opposed to regulations."

    on the face of it, makes sense. But article byline, certainly sounds Orwellian:

    "Cabinet office team will look at how to create environments that help people choose what's best for themselves and society"

    Seems like the subject is rather complicated. Maybe this sums it up well:

    "Thaler has focused on how to nurture an individual's better instincts, or how to use nudge methods to persuade people, for instance, to save for retirement or hold back on excessive consumption"

    On the one hand, we are talking about manipulation, as "nudging" translates outside of doublethink. The assumption is that humans cannot come to the correct conclusion without help, and that there is a socially determined "correct" answer at all. Yet, in practice that is precisely what happens, people fail to save for retirement without strict regulation, and they over-consume. I dare say most intellectuals, and readers of this blog, are anti-consumption (wrong?) and would certainly welcome if no fellow citizens were mere slaves to their impulsese to spend spend spend. Wrong again?

    Finally, this quote makes sense:
    ""The challenge is to find ways to encourage people to act in their own and in society's long-term interest, while respecting individual freedom."

    But it seems to presume that government is not of the people, but on the people, and it also presumes that government can either team up with markets, or nudge markets in such ways, as to produce a citizenry...there seem to be a lot of assumptions...but its about control...and I think its naive. As Adam knows better than anyone else, the markets thrive on impulsiveness and irrationality, and if the nudge experts are going to get a hearing at this moment in time, its merely one voice among a million who will push for an altogether different model. Business wont simply cave into long-termism and nudging - business will encourage those manipulations which improve its bottom line.

    If I express my own political prejudice, I'd say No. 10 should have gotten together a team that would seek to nudge not people - who are supposed to be the rulers in this democracy - but the corporations - who are supposed to be merely registered legal persons.

    It is ignorant, to seek to manipulate the masses, not having first examined the conflict of interest at the heart of the very exercise!

    What am I missing here?

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    In any case, I hope Adam doesnt' read our comments here, because they might discourage him. I still sense his work is heavily driven by his interest in psychology, and key figures he met from the field, including but far from being limited Bernays. I revise my previous position in the sense that for Adam to start taking positions or attempt to find answers to any of the questions that are raised, will be counterproductive. While I would not go so far as to demote him to being an "artist", and instead prefer to call him an explorer, and someone who is attempting to produce - I assume his greatest challange is productivity. How does one keep on finding the material, and opening up door after door after door, until some satiation, some maturity is achieved, from which then all is regurgitated, and reassessed, from which a new personality is born.

    I assume this can only be achieved through a solid pursuit of the gut interest. In this case, the whatever the subtext, whatever his own psychoanalytical state - guilt, projection, externalisation, countertransference, hysteria...who cares, as long as it drives him on. As readers of his blog I am certain we all check it at a ratio of 10 times per one article. And when no new articles are here, we read back to the ones on Afghanistan that we skipped.

    But maybe as readers, some of us were right to protest the notion that Adam would "waste" his time doing a "thick" series on the UK, and its sense of itself for some three decades. This is parochial, and I think the growth for Adam might come from some parochialism, but the broader picture, might be kept in sight?

    Hope I am not too annoying posting here too much.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    @avishalom re. 'Hope I am not too annoying posting here too much'.

    Yes, you are a bit.

    (sorry, but you did ask)

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.


    I see Mr Curtis as a rebel. I was writing much the same about Christopher Hitchens. And yet, when you hear his very British authoritative voice (same applies to Hitchens) on his documentaries, you could be forgiven for being lulled that he was a conventionalist.

    And so Mr Curtis seems to gravitate toward freedom and opposes tyranny. But like most rebels, there is a quiet fascination or admiration even of eccentric tyrants, maybe perhaps because there is an element of rebel within the tyrant.

    That is why I value his work, as I too am a rebel, and I can't help but oppose the sinister motives behind such entities as The Behavioural Insight Unit.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.


    I am strongly of the belief that Adam Curtis *does* read through these comments...or, certainly, that he did when he first started posting to the blog. The reason we know this is because, on a number of occasions, he has directly replied to some of those who posted. Generally speaking, he has only intervened when there has been a technical matter to correct, however - for instance, I once pointed out that he had miscaptioned a picture used in one of his articles, and he thanked me for pointing this out and recaptioned the article.

    I am sure that Mr. Curtis is more than experienced and practiced enough that he finds most negative comments made on these forums an irrelevance to his work, and would hope that he finds the majority of comments are insightful, useful or intriguing perspectives on the material that he has made available, and the choices he has made in presenting it.

    We know that he values the voice given through the forums as he has, for instance when crafting his material on recreating the 1970's zeitgeist, asked for responses to the work, so that it may better guide his experimentation with new techniques.

    But, perhaps not unwisely, when the central arguments derived from the material tend to spiral off in many unforeseen directions, and occasionally lose sight of the original intention or spirit of his article, he declines to get involved.

    I would think that if Mr. Curtis genuinely *didn't* want an opportunity for direct response to the work then he would simply stop posting it to this site!

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    "In 1964 B F Skinner wrote a utopian vision of the future called Beyond Freedom and Dignity. It argued that the idea of individualism was actually a terrible prison."


    'Beyond Freedom and Dignity' wasn't a novel and it was published in 1971. Walden II (which is probably what Curtis is thinking about) WAS a novel, but was published in 1948.

    The one thing Curtis does get right (and much of what he says about the field is highly misleading as others have pointed out) is that Operant work was detested (and misunderstood) by many, even more than intelligence work. I suggest it's no coincidence that the two most practically useful areas of behavioural science have been most effectively buried only to be quietly, and egregiously, exploited by libertarian political correctness, and here's some of the cost:

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    This item was on Newsnight last night (03/12/2010):

    @20:10 onwards

    One of the authors of Nudge, Richard Thaler was interviewed on the programme. He was among at least two Americans interviewed on the same programme, Irwin Stelzer (see @10:00) who was interviewed on a separate item. Both Americans showed a kind of complete detachment of reality in their opinions, and I'm sure Mr Curtis would find both interviews of interest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    (as an aside: Every tyrant started as a rebel.)

    Cameron is fascinated by these psychological questions, but is that an unreasonable position for someone who's supposed to be leading a country? It seems more germane than an interest in fly-fishing for example. Whether he gets the right answers - or whether there are right answers to get - is a different question.

    What seems clear to me is that there is a point where wealth creation stops being useful and that other issues come to the fore once basic needs are satisfied. The US demonstrates the failure of the "just throw more consumer goods on the fire" model as its economy is fantastically wasteful but does not produce happy people compared to many other countries. Countries like Finland and Denmark know that there is more to life than more and more plastic tat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    Maybe this is veering away from Mr Curtis' blog post, but Panorama tonight deals with operant conditioning in computer games.

    "The "variable ratio of reinforcement" (or operant conditioning) basically sees people acting a certain way because they are rewarded for that behaviour."

    "Professor Mark Griffiths, from Nottingham Trent University's International Gaming Research Unit, said: "It's a neat little psychological trick and for most people this will not be something that's bad, but if you've got... that vulnerability or susceptibility to addiction that will keep you in the game probably far in excess of what the normal person would do."

    Prof Griffiths, who also told the programme insufficient research has been done, added: "The good news is that for the vast majority of people video games is something that is very positive in their lives. But we have to take on board that there is a growing literature that suggests that for a small but significant minority, things like gaming can be potentially problematic."

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    so based on the Newsweek program, some commentators here have an issue with policy that:

    tries to prevent obesity
    self-motivated pension savings rather than imposed by a government
    environment - for people not to litter, etc/

    you basically don't like:

    "helping people make better choices".

    you prefer the government just

    "makes people make no choices"

    as the Newsweek program claims, people who want Nudge, dislike laws and rules that force others what to do. equally, nudgers can be labeled as "libertarian paternalism".

    Two groups here? A) those who want government to continue telling us what to do blatantly, and B) those who prefer a government who tries to talk us into doing or not doing something.

    Thaler is basically saying we wont ban things. He's right that laws on food exist - Doesn't the EU ban GM food? He's imagining an intervention which incentives choices that are perceived as having greater social and personal utility. He is a superficial bloke, whose been given some limelight. So don't project Skinner on him, where the guy is just being fraternised because his ideas are a breath of fresh air for a stale government. That he's just a superficial guy is evident in something like the GM debate. What would someoone like Thaler do, with GM. His government, and hence his nation is economically wedded to GM foods. Hence, US policy finds utility in inducing behavior in foreign populations favorable to GM foods. Yet, he might equaly grasp that GM foods bring along severe long-term human digestive risks and biodiversity risks, as well as biopolitical threats. So the utility will go where?

    What I suspect Thaler is missing, is that he is reinventing the Wheel - as any idiot whose read Plato's Republic will tell you, and two, he's simply avoiding the issue. He's a clown praising his new technique, ridiculously oblivious to the fact, that the technique itself, provides zero answers to any actual questions. He basically avoids the question everyone seems to be avoiding, including here, - how do you actually define greater social and personal utility?

    In all this complexity, I would like to return to the question of pensions. It probably does make sense to increase people's motivations to save for retirement instead of levying it on them, and then letting the pension system crash as it is about to do in the Aging World.

    But then, even if this makes sense, the reality is that prior to the Social Security act 90% of all American poverty was Senior Citizens. Social Security reduced the share of retirees in the poverty line, basically to what, 10-20 percent? Excuse my skepticism, but I have a hard time imagining that Nudge could ever lower the original figure by anything other than a single percentage point.

    Thaler is not only a little quirky in his naivete - so would be we, if we were in his shoes - but he's forgetting something else. If government gets involved in Nudging, nothing on earth, no laws and no statues prevent others from being involved. And it strikes me that this is one field where Government will be the last, and weakest entrant. And if it does want to engage in this game, it will be beaten to tatters by those who have practiced these techniques from time immemorial. The spinsters, the marketers, the sales-men, and the charlatans and quacks...Coca Cola, Microsoft, Conspiracy Panderers, Political Parties, Unions, you name it.

    Nudge, after all, is merely a brainless neologism, for old terms whose roots go back to time immemorial....

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    Not sure if this has been discussed on this long comment thread, but the videos for the older blog posts from December 2009 and before, including the amazing Kabul series, are not available for US viewers. I am a big fan of Adam's stuff, use it in my sociology classes (god help those kids), and I'd love to go through these older videos to see if I can pull up any more mind-blowing stuff. Won't you help?

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    Excellent article. Thanks

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.


    To further this, I would recommend you read Grusin's book on Premediation.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    Interesting stuff. I do find it an odd idea that a hell where you think you are in heaven is worse than an ordinary hell though.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    'If government gets involved in Nudging, nothing on earth, no laws and no statues prevent others from being involved. And it strikes me that this is one field where Government will be the last, and weakest entrant. And if it does want to engage in this game, it will be beaten to tatters by those who have practiced these techniques from time immemorial. The spinsters, the marketers, the sales-men, and the charlatans and quacks...Coca Cola, Microsoft, Conspiracy Panderers, Political Parties, Unions, you name it. '

    If the government (potentially) fails to persuade, is that a mandate for coercion? I can see a justification if it's *not* principally about persuading someone to do something in *their* interest, but transparently in the government's interest - i.e. obesity imposes a high cost on government services => therefore it may be worth speculating a fraction of that cost in an attempt to persuade people to cut back.

    However, if it *is* explicitly about serving people's interests, then surely the people are free to disagree? If they decide they are happier fat - and are willing to pay for it - does the government have a mandate to attempt to coerce their behaviour, in the name of a superior judgement on what would make that person happy? That would seem to override individual sovereignty.

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    @ The Behavioural Insights Team believe the opposite. That in many cases you can't trust the people. That if you let them just follow their desires they will often do things that are bad both for themselves and for society.

    Behaviourist or not, the truth of that statement seems reasonable. The Chinese youth I've seen interviewed recently seemed to tend to that line of thought. The religiously influenced democracies of the past believed it. The Communists certainly believed it. The latter half of the American/secular-dominated democratic 20th Century world is possibly the only period in human history that people tried to behave as if it were otherwise. This possible change of mind actually reflects back to an earlier post of Adam's where he postulated that modern *democratic* politicians would never attempt to *lead* again, but rather just desperately attempt to find out which way the people would like to follow the politician and then the politician will walk that way.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    I haven't read through all 78 posts so apologies if the following point has already been made.

    Mary Midgely in her book, 'Science and Poetry' shows that many of the problems that come up in discussions of the individual and society arise because these discussions always start in the wrong place i.e. the notion of an individuality as a kind of atomic form. But the individual is not a simple thing at all, rather a composite entity referencing social, spatial, moral and cognitive constructs. Thus you may have an identity as a woman, a mother, Chinese, tall person, good at tennis, neo-conservative etc. So the individual can never be just a disconnected thing, pushed around by one desire after another. Likewise, desire is not some kind of blind instinct, but something with a cognitive and moral component, and thus open to rational examination. Thus that epitome of market individualism, the status-symbol seeking consumer, is actually chasing things which have a value which is socially conferred.

    I must emphasise that this is not to say that the concepts of individuality and desire are meaningless, but that they are just different to the how they are often described. Thus the fear that the individual will inevitably turn against society unless controlled from above is misplaced, because the individual already incorporates a good deal of 'society' in its make-up. Moreover, the way that the individual exists as a collection of concepts, means that we are capable of interrogating our own assumptions as to how we are supposed to function in the world. Thus, it's perfectly possible for a person who identified with a narrow nationalism to go away, think for a bit, and come back identifying more strongly with a generalised humanity.

    Finally, this shows why the various models of social behaviour that have been tried by the powerful to control us always fail in the end: They are no match for the kind of creative introspection that enable us to transcend the categories by which we live.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I'm sorry, but I get disillusioned by reading a post like this one, where the author unfortunately doesn't have the prerequisite knowledge to get things just half-way right. There are lots of problems with the nudge approach, but these problems get buried in blatant misunderstandings and, of course, the main character of the story - the straw man of behaviorism. Just to give readers one clue how to unravel this blog-piece think of the paradigm example used by Thaler and Sunstein in their book 'Nudge': the fly in the urinal. Now how does the fly work? By manipulation? No. It attracts the attention of men and reminds them that there are reasons to concentrate on what they're doing. Hereafter they may decide themselves, according to their own wishes. Of course, this is not how all nudges work. Take, adjustment of plate-size in order to make you eat less calories. Surely, that is a nudge that qualify as manipulation - but it's cheap and users don't get a chance to notice, judge by themselves and possibly deny to conform. Hence it is a type of nudge often preferred by Politicians, and that's problematic. But the above blog-entry never gets to discussing the real issues like this, since oversimplification in black and white is always easier to produce than documenting a complex issue in all its many colours.


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