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 1.

    Doesn't the Obama administration also employ "behavioural" economists? You could see this as the latest shift in the great saga of cognitive economics. Your friend Philip Mirowski was particularly pointed about this recenntly:

    There's also a great article by Paul Krugman that, at the very end, suggests that the salvation for economics as an academic class following the Great Embarrassment that was the 2008 financial crisis lies in something he calls "behavioural finance":

    And I've also found an interview with behavioural economist Robert Frank among a bunch of great academic articles that I recently found online (there's also an interview with Mirowski which serves as a good introduction to his ideas):

    Interview section:

    Robert Frank interview:

    The latest book by "New Atheist" Sam Harris seems to take a similar approach to the "Nudge" writers, in that he portrays neuroscience as the best possible indicator of proper moral behaviour:

    So it does seem to be something of a growing undercurrent. On a different (but still related) note, I recently read the book adaptation of John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" and was wondering if it had in any way influenced your thinking, his criticisms of advertising seem awfully similar to those you (Adam) make in The Century of the Self. I loved the TV series (which is on Youtube) as well as book, it clarified things quite a lot. I wonder what he (and you) said about consumerism stands in relation to this new development; does advertising still have the need to appeal to your inner feelings by creating dreams of desire which you want to inhabit? Maybe, but now that advertisers are able to target "you" through the accumulation of personal data (as you described). This could prove to be even more isolating that the current state of affairs, because you are forced to inhabit this personal world of carefully targeted behavioural modifications: "Buy This!" "Don't do that" etc.

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    Comment number 2.

    Ok, I wrote a stupidly long post which was deleted when I clicked "post comment". Anyway, I'll post again the links I thought might have a relevance to the discussion...

    Philip Mirowski article that is particularly pointed about the new behavioural economics:

    Interview with behavioural economist Robert Frank:

    Long article by Paul Krugman which slates the way economist got the 2008 crisis so wrong, and which at the end suggests that salvation with the proffession lies with what he calls "behavioural finance:

    The latest book by Sam Harris suggests that we should use neuroscience as a guideline for what's morally acceptable:

    That's all I could think of now. I've also heard that the Obama administration employs behavioural economists in addition to Cameron (not sure what they're called though).

    Besides all that, I wanted to ask you: have you ever watched John Berger's "Ways of Seeing?" I did recently, and I also caught up with the book adaptation as well. I'm just mentioning it because it seems to pre empt a lot of the points you made in The Century of the Self concerning consumerism. It's a great series, which I would recommend to anyone.

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    Comment number 3.

    ARGH, I douple posted. Apologies for that. Stupid computer.

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    Comment number 4.

    I don't know if you get much credit for your blog but I really enjoy it and learn a lot reading it. Thanks for putting so much time into it and mining the BBC archives.

    I'm only a E but you don't mention that one of cornerstones of the behaviour economics is the recognition that Human beings can be highly irrational in even simple situations. As far as I'm aware B F Skinner didn't do much research into irrationality. I think the ideas of people like Dan Ariely are far ahead of Skinners e.g. rewards often have the opposite effect to those intented. (his blog is good too)

    I read nudge and as far as I remember the authors were aware of the dangers...they mention how it is essential for 'nudges' to be totally transparent and very easy to opt out of. I don't see why carefully using experimental evidence on behaviour to improve the way that governments/businesses/etc. work is a bad thing e.g. I think most can agree that people getting shot in the street over an argument is a bad thing.

    Evidence based violence disruption in Chicago (Ceasefire project)

    "CeaseFire launched in West Garfield Park, one of the most violent communities in Chicago in 2000 and was quick to produce results reducing shootings by 67% in its first year"

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Thanks again Mr Curtis for an excellent article.

    I only get the impression that the political 'classes' are terminally stupid. Behaviourism is truly dead, and not only pseudo-science but unscientific. If I were an insect or a pigeon then things may be different.

    All this suggests is that the politicians are truly losing all sense of purpose and control in the wake of technology and science. The problem is, scientists are not the ones controlling the people but rather, this strange parasitic group of politicians, brainwashed and educated to think they're fit to rule.

    As for Sam Harris, he is seeking a scientific approach to morality, although I do think that the kind of scientific morality he is looking for is the one that closely resembles his own conservative worldview. Hence also why Skinner's utopia seems to resemble his own eccentricities. Science cuts out personal bias and subjectivity, even of scientists, to provide objective understanding; and if possible, application of that understanding.

    Since morality is personal, it is a fool's errand to seek scientific justifications. The only role of the state is to govern and administrate via rational law making. But the state is not so rational and therefore society is not so rational. The problem is that until the state is truly scientific and rational, our societies never will be.

    I think we already have a kind of scientific approach to morality within politics, otherwise known as natural law. Natural Law definitely needs a proper modern scientific basis, but if it does, then we can have a greater justification for individual rights; and then all attempts at coercion and interference by the state within society can cease. Society must be governed by rational laws, and only by having a rational state can this be possible.

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    Comment number 6.

    Really fascinating.

    I don't have time for anything coherant, but these are the questions that are going through my head -

    Is this 'Big Society' talk a load of old rubbish in this case? Have we misunderstood what this idea really means? Has Cameron? I thought this would be the tranfer of further power to the market. If this is a break with Mises/Hayek and the neo-liberalism of the Tories, why? As a consequence of being out of power for the long time have they done what New Labour did i.e. reverse fundamentals of their ideology?

    Re: Behavioural Economics - this field is used to justify a comparison between economist and psychopaths in the Trap, but it's central tenets are being attacked here aren't they?

    Are the two options, individualist market power and government paternalism really opposites? I think it's easy to see them as such. Or are they ideas that stand next to each other, and seeing them as the outer extremes of possible organisation of power has limited our view. Is there another way that we can't see or put finger on, an alternative?

    Is the Superman in the title a reference to Nietzsche, the idea of an empowered independent individual?

    Re: Roy Jenkins in Screenwipe - how does this current strain differ from paternalism/elitism that neoliberalism reacted against? Is it a question of rational argument as opposed to coercion? Where is the line between these?

    There was a program on the BBC this week about whether fatty foods should be taxed to deter people buying them. I think it was a Tory who said 'taxation isn't a nudge, it's a shove", I guess he may be alluding to this book or the broader emerging idea.

    Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?

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    Comment number 7.

    Adam, really interesting post and good to hear about the downsides of the Nudge theory and Behavioural Economics. But are you conflating two things here: namely 1) rewards with 2) choice architecture.
    For example the urinals at Schipol airport have a mock 'fly' designed into the porcelain to encourage peoples' aim - it nudges their behaviour in a positive direction but is not of itself a reward-based nudge. Another example would be menu design - e.g. putting three sizes of a cola drink on the menu encourages people to choose the medium sized one - again there's no reward as such.
    Is there a less unpleasant and yet still useful aspect to behaviourism?

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    Comment number 8.

    my favourite behaviourist joke:

    "hello how am i?"

    "you're fine, how am i?"

    i'll get my coat.

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    Comment number 9.

    Went to an RSA presentation last night that is relevant for this topic.

    Paul Ormerod in Public Policy and the Power of Networks basically says that Nudge is simply a smarter way to think about economical incentives, but behavioural theories don’t enable governments to plan for widespread behavioural change (i.e. beyond the individual) because of the complexity and dynamic nature of networks.

    Yes – we copy behaviour from those around us (conformity, peer pressure, etc) etc. However, whilst nudging provides a potentially valuable insight for the initial task of trying to steer behaviour in one direction, once the network takes over the outcomes are entirely unpredictable!

    As such, Ormerod argues that – to enable individuals to make better decisions – they are the ones that should be given the tools to understand how their brain, behaviour and environment affects their decision making.

    Rather than the conspiracy theories of behaviour modification, the discussion should be about behavioural enlightenment.

    The potential for abuse is real. However, the opportunity for positive applications are also there, such as reducing levels of obesity in society.

    Unless the concern is about soft paternalism and the individual’s right to live an unhealthy life?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Hi Adam,

    I'm a great fan of your work, and in particular the Century of the Self is something I have watched over and over again. This is a fascinating article, but I feel you somewhat misrepresent the current applications of behavioural economics by conflating them with Behaviourism in the Skinnerian sense. They are very different approaches to understanding (and influencing) people's behaviour: behavioural economics (at least in the tradition of Kahneman & Tversky, and indeed pioneers of idea along these lines, such as Herbert Simon) seems to be much more about _understanding_ human decision-making via uncovering cognitive processes, abilities and limits, whilst Skinner almost goes out of his way to _avoid_ examining what's going on in the mind by looking only at the behaviour.

    As such, both approaches can and have been applied to influence behaviour, but in very different ways, and indeed with very different models in the influencer's mind of 'what the public are actually like'. A 'Nudge' approach assumes that people are basically cognitively limited - not stupid, but that they will follow certain decision-making heuristics and shortcuts, often very sensible given the limited time we have to investigate. The canonical examples here are things such as the use of defaults, or measures of popularity - if I get a choice of pension plans, and one of them is pre-selected as the 'best' or most popular choice, I am probably more likely to choose it because of this social proof.

    On the other hand, a Behaviourist approach models the public much more crudely: primarily driven by being 'pushed' and 'pulled' by stimulus-response, rewards, punishment, conditioning and so on. Of course a pattern of rewards for 'successful' behaviour may lead to people developing the kinds of heuristics that behavioural economics examines, but I don't think this is the point. The two approaches use very different models of how people behave.

    There is, of course, at least one more model of how people behave. That is, that people genuinely do think rationally and weigh up the evidence before making decisions, and so should be provided wih useful, clear, honest information on which to make decisions. I would like to see a society like this, and I'm sure that almost everyone commenting here probably models him/herself like this.

    The way I've tried to explain this (overly simplified) is by calling the models 'pinball', 'shortcut' and 'thoughtful' - see - in the context of helping designers understand different ways in which the design of systems - including Thaler & Sunstein's 'choice architecture' - can influence people's behaviour. This is part of a larger project examining methods designers can use to influence behaviour for social and environmental benefit -

    I appreciate that overall it may seem as if all this is the same thing, wrapped up together. But (maybe it's being too close to the subject) the field seems much more nuanced than you give it credit for. I am pretty sure Skinner would have disagreed strongly with Nudge, for example.

    Dan Lockton, Brunel University

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    Comment number 11.

    For the most part people think rationally, though imperfectly based on limited and flawed information. However, our values and preferences are not primarily rational but are instead accidents of history. We're conditioned from day one by biology, language, culture, religion, technology, and personal circumstances.

    Certainly society is a nonlinear dynamical (chaotic) system, but government can still work to improve environments and yield better outcomes on the whole (i.e. fewer social problems and more social justice). Systemic chaos is not the same thing as completely unpredictable randomness. It's not the basis for throwing up our hands and walking away from progressive goals.

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    Comment number 12.

    Great article, Adam, but for a moment I could have sworn you were a graduate of the University of Surrey.

    Or maybe you're able to expose the tricks of the media messengers because you didn't attend that school.

    Those whom know will know those whom know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    There seems to be some lazy analysis of behaviourism here. There are many versions of behaviourism. Radical behaviourism (Skinner's version) is alive and well, serving as the philisophical grounding for Applied Behaviour Analysis.

    There are a series of common misconceptions regarding Skinner and the philosophy of radical behaviourism. It is incorrect to align the S-R psychology of Watson's methodological behaviourism with Skinner's operant conditioning. Ironically, the model of S-R methodological behaviourism has more in common with cognitivism (S-O-R psychology) than operant conditioning.

    I think there are some interesting points in Beyond Freedom and Dignity that have been lost here. Regardless of what you make of the value judgements presented made in terms of survival and design of culture etc., there is plenty in this book which can serve to enlighten and liberate. One of the main points he makes is that by preserving the idea that we are in any sense autonomous and free, we bury the environmental contingencies responsible for behaviour further out of reach. This creates the potential for a greater degree of hidden intentional control by others and a situation where the potential for counter control becomes weak or impossible.

    In talking about the 'literature of freedom' Skinner states "It has been successful in reducing the aversive stimuli used in intentional control, but it has made the mistake of defining freedom in terms of states of mind or feelings, and it has therefore not been able to deal effectively with techinques of control which do not breed escape or revolt but nevertheless have aversive consequences."

    To Mcjhn1

    The idea that rewards = reinforcement is incorrect. Positive reinforcement is a technical term for a consequence following a certain behaviour that increases the probability that a particular behaviour will occur under similar circumstances in the future. This is quite different from a 'reward'. If behaviour does not occur again at a greater frequency in the future then the consequence was not a reinforcer. It is the effect that defines a reinforcer, not the intended effect.

    Dan, in response to

    "whilst Skinner almost goes out of his way to _avoid_ examining what's going on in the mind by looking only at the behaviour"

    What the thoughts, feelings and sensations which I assume you are refering to as 'mind' here, Skinner would argue ARE behaviour. Just because they are only observable by one, does not make them any less so. Skinner's point is that the behaviour that we experience as private events are no less susceptible to environmental contingencies than the behaviour that is observable to others. Examining what occurs in the 'mind' is effectively examining by-products - thoughts feelings do not cause 'behaviour' they are behaviour. Analysis of behaviour (including public and private) in a casual sense will alway lead back the environment (both in terms of phylogeny and ontogeny).

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I see this worldview as fundamentally anti-spiritual and anti-life. If we are machines then who cares whether we or civilisation lives or dies? It would matter no more than a videogame; in fact no one would even be there to witness the thriving or failing.

    The fact that there IS someone who witnesses is the mystery people like Skinner cannot account for or pay due consideration to.

    Egbert, it so happens that I am a big fan of Sam Harris, and I cannot understand why you have described him as conservative. I've never heard any such views from him. His 'scientific morality' enterprise seems to me entirely credible and better than leaving people to arbitrary and ill-informed morality. So far humans have been too often caught between arbitrary absolutism and spineless relativism.

    Think of it this way: 'science' in Harris's usage is nothing other than 'intelligent observation'. You get the best possible info to make the best possible choices. No Buddha or Jesus would have had any objection to this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    This is a very interesting post with excellent comments. I think the problem comes in confusing individual psychology with applied social psychology.

    If we think of the complex relationships in business and community as complex adaptive systems then several things become quite clear.

    First, these systems will self organise.

    Next, under certain circumstances, some kind of collective intelligence will appear.

    Which is why Cameron will never succeed in cutting public sector costs from top down. Resisting change initiatives like those is the central purpose of such bureaucracies - it gives them focus and meaning.

    Change means learning. Learning means communication. And communication is not what you say, it is everything you do; it's the environment you create. Communication is about individuals, groups, and organizations and the relationships between them... the quality of dialogue at interfaces, and the ethics of the discourse as a whole.

    To influence the discourse, we must shape who talks to whom, what they talk about, how they talk about it, who else knows, and why they should even be talking to each other at all.

    Fortunately, the web is a sovereign tool for discourse management, a illustrated by this site, this post and these comments.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    Hi G, 

    I would agree that Skinner's world view is anti spiritual in the sense that he would exclude the notion of metaphysical influence.  I'm not entirely sure what you mean by anti life? 

    My interpretation of Skinner is that he would agree that we are machines only in the sense that behaviour is lawful and determined. Not, however,  in the robotic, push-pull, automated and mechanistic conceptualisation of a machine of the sort that may spring to 'mind' ;-).  

     Whether we care about anything at all beyond our own survival essentially boils down to values. Values are shaped and maintained by environmental contingencies and are subject to the same analyses as any other behaviour.  It is simply incorrect to state that Skinner cannot account for and paid no consideration to such questions. In the very book that the blog post discusses there is an entire chapter devoted to 'values'.

    Here are a number of  clarifications and glaring inaccuracies present in the original blog post.  So in the service of accuracy and fairness:

    Adams original post:
    "Skinner's guiding belief was that you completely ignored what went on inside the minds of human beings."

    Skinner's actual writing in Beyond Freedom and Dignity:
    "what is called "methodological behaviourism" limits itself to what can be publicly observed; mental processes may exist but they are ruled out of scientific consideration by their nature....but self-observation can be studied, and it must be included in any reasonably complete account of human behavior."(p190)

    Adam's original post:

    "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".

    Skinners actual quote:( describing how members of a culture contribute to their own environmental circumstances and thus have a hand in shaping their own behaviour)

     "the evolution of a culture is in fact a gigantic effort in self control" (p206)

    Adam's original blog post:

    "And humans, Skinner said, are just like pigeons."

    Skinner quote in Beyond Freedom and Dignity:

    "it is true that much of the experimental analysis of behavior has been concerned with lower organisms....comparable similarities in behavior are being discovered. There is of course, always the danger that methods designed for the study of lower animals will emphasise only those characteristics which they have in common with men, but we cannot discover what is essentially human until we have investigated nonhuman subjects." (p201)

    Adam also makes a point about Skinner stating the "idea" of individualism being a prison. I don't recall this in the book, but i could be wrong. Skinners general point is more about revealing the illusion of individualism

    I would also love an operant learning account of the confirmation of class membership example that Adam gives.

    The naive and simplistic way that the blog post addresses a wide variety of topics here does little justice to the comprehensive, challenging and thoughtful account presented by Skinner in Beyond Freedom and Dignity. 

    As an aside, Skinner was awarded Humanist of the Year, the year following its publication. 

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    Comment number 17.

    On Operant Conditioning I like this description from Wikipedia

    "For example, while a rat might press a lever with its left paw or its right paw or its tail, all of these responses operate on the world in the same way and have a common consequence. Operants are often thought of as species of responses, where the individuals differ but the class coheres in its function—shared consequences with operants and reproductive success with species. This is a clear distinction between Skinner's theory and S-R theory"

    See also the Skinner -Chomsky debate on language aquisition from the 1960s

    Chomskys then going on to write The Management of Consent the best account I know of how the Ruling Class attempt to shape our political, economic and social lives.

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    Comment number 18.

    Hi Xavier,

    Thanks, my question however was not regarding a clarification on a definition of an operant class but rather how the example given of social class membership is 'operant conditioning at work' as Adam stated.

    The issues surrounding of language acquisition is a little more complicated than the 8 minute youtube presentation suggests :-)

    See Chomsky's review (1959) of Skinner's 'Verbal Behavior' (1957)

    see reply to Chomsky by Kenneth MacCorquodale in 1970....

    There are arguable strengths and weaknesses in Skinner's analysis of language, as with any account (see contemporary alternative operant accounts of language such as Relational Frame Theory for a discussion of such issues)

    The point of my postings was to highlight a number of lazy inaccuracies and simplifications.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    sounds like what old Obama's trying to do over here..

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.


    There's a mystery about whether humans have free will. Culture never rests on the right answer and goes through destructive trends where it settles on some sort of half-baked answer.

    Metaphysical influence must exist because here we are talking about consciousness and being conscious of the discussion about consciousness. If we were machines ticking along without metaphysical influence consciousness would be not only nonexistent but redundant.

    This does not mean that I subscribe to Western/Christian notions of free will: I don't. When people mess up in life, it is tragedy, not 'bad choices', like one always hears from American Christian free will fundamentalists these days.

    Nor does the foregoing mean that I rule out any advanced theory that might one day unify physics with what's been designated here as 'metaphysics' or consciousness.

    B.F. Skinner was a human full of nuance and no doubt self-contradiction, like most of us, but the essentials of his doctrine are dangerous because they rest upon fundamental errors. The essentials, which Adam is interested in, are what tend to be transmitted like a virus. Skinner would have warned against the actions of his present-day followers, just like Isaiah Berlin explicitly warned against a crudase to spread his own concept of 'negative liberty' - which was again lost on his own followers. Adam has shown abundant understanding of all of this.


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