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Adam Curtis | 16:53 UK time, Tuesday, 16 November 2010

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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  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Comment number 3.

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

  • 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.

    https://vimeo.com/12298723 (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"


  • 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.

  • 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?

  • 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?

  • Comment number 8.

    my favourite behaviourist joke:

    "hello how am i?"

    "you're fine, how am i?"

    i'll get my coat.

  • 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?

  • 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 https://architectures.danlockton.co.uk/2009/07/02/modelling-users-pinballs-shortcuts-and-thoughtfulness/ - 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 - https://designwithintent.co.uk

    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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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. 

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Comment number 19.

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

  • 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.

  • Comment number 21.

    I think you might be wrong on this one Adam - Behaviorism is based on the fantasy of a lonely, inhibited and ultimately scared man. It has little purchase in reality. Here I wrote up an article on this:


  • Comment number 22.

    Sort of a P.S. - should it surprise anyone that Cameron is a Behaviourist given the nature of his election-campaign? I am far from the only one to have found it even more manipulative and rhetoric-over-substance than even Blair's New Labour. His presentational style is all about pushing buttons, not having a real conversation.

  • Comment number 23.

    I've come to the conclusion that this is my favourite blog post yet, superb. I've also had the chance to watch the videos now and they are fantastic. I love the pigeon in the first one. He/she is the star, no question. The links people have posted are fascinating, it's appreciated.

    I found the second video really moving. The first part of it was heartbreaking; I watched One Flew Over again recently and I think this amped the horror of it for me. It replaced A Clockwork Orange as the film I was associating with the post. What Skinner says after is also profoundly revealing I think, it almost crystallises a lot of things I've been asking myself.

    There's an extent to which in he echoes the analysis that was in The Trap. He talks about the positive role of government in people's lives and warns if government doesn't arrange the conditions under which people live then someone else will - and I think he implies these may be terrible. I wonder if this is in part significant against the backdrop of the conservatism that reacted against the relativism and nihilism that was perceived to be corroding civil society.

    As well as asking 'Who should arrange the conditions under which people will live?' he also asks 'What will inform their decisions?'. The answer he comes up with reminded me of the episode of The Living Dead about Thatcher at first. He says 'he (-which may or may not be significant-) will makes decisions based on what will make his group most powerful'. I say 'at first' because I thought it related to that story of Britain's past glory, the idealistic view of our previous empire, our economic and political trans-national power, the disrelish at it's decline and the attempts to return Britain to 'greatness'. But I think in this interpretaton I exaggerated the size of the group who's augmentation of power would influence decisions. I think now it relates much more to a particular class, and that even if it wasn't a concious factor in the decisions (and I'm not sure how aware Thatcher was of her biases), that the stratification of society and embedding and further accumulation of power by a certain group was not accidental, not a side-effect of making Britain great again.

    But where I think the arguments diverge is displayed in one particular thing Skinner says - 'the power to coerce is almost by definition what a government is'. I'm not sure it is. I wouldn't deny this has been a feature of most governments we can think of throughout human history. But is this all that government could be? I think Skinner, and sorry to use such a phrase, has his heart in the right place. I think there's some truth if he thinks 'By following only our own inner desires and feelings human beings limit themselves, to a narrow, dessicated existence.' But his solution to this fails because at it's core is the problem with the many revolutions and popular movements of the past - if you force people to be free then regardless of what means you use you guarantee that the goal of human freedom cannot be furthered, it's inherently a flawed idea. I mean to be fair I'm rehashing the argument of The Trap. But it is assumed that coercion is the same as any influence, and I'm not sure it is.

    I want to believe it isn't because it would mean there is a way that people could achieve true and authentic freedom, and that people might be able help others achieve this. After all I don't think we'll ever negate the influence people have or each other completely, and we shouldn't ever want to. And I'm on the side of believing it because learning and knowledge I think has freed me in very humble ways in my own life, from advertising, from coercion via certain techniques at my job, from accepting perceived wisdom that can make you scared or confused, from peer pressure. I mean not completely, I still buy things I don't need, I'm just not as much of a mug as I could be.

    @G - I agree with what you say and you've articulated it much better than I could. I'm not religious myself, and of course we don't know about free will, and I would say this - the argument against such things, as far as I can see, is necessarily deterministic, and if one is arguing based on this type of empiricist, natural science, low level physical determinism then they've gotta explain quantum mechanics definitively. I not sure if that's flawed thinking but until then, no dice in my book. To be fair even then I don't think it would end the argument.

  • Comment number 24.

    @ the art teacher

    "But where I think the arguments diverge is displayed in one particular thing Skinner says - 'the power to coerce is almost by definition what a government is'. I'm not sure it is. I wouldn't deny this has been a feature of most governments we can think of throughout human history. But is this all that government could be? I think Skinner, and sorry to use such a phrase, has his heart in the right place."

    The difference between Skinner and, well just about every other political theorist, is that everyone else sees systems of governance and economic transaction as systems of exchange - be that exchange one of information or of goods, or both.

    Skinner doesn't see things thus. He see's things in terms of stimulus and repsonse - or, to be rather more accurate, master and slave. One stimulates - the other responds. This is one-way communication - from the master to the slave - from the government to the "citizen".

    This resembles, to a great extent, the Soviet model - but then even that, at a certain point, began to try to incorporate conumer demand into its planning system.

    Skinner didn't have his heart in the right place. He's an authoritarian and a dangerous thinker. What's more, his ideas are demonstrably false and, as I tried to show in the article I wrote, guarenteed to fail.

  • Comment number 25.

    @ Phillip

    Your understanding of radical behaviorism is deeply confused, evidenced by your comments on here and the blog you linked to. A fleeting glance at something as basic as wikipedia prior to putting your 'analysis' together would have helped avoid some basic errors.


  • Comment number 26.


    As with any supporter of Behaviorism, you haven't actually raised any points. When I argue with someone, I have the confidence of pointing out where exactly they have gone wrong - rather than just asserting that they are generally wrong. The former is a sign of a desire to rationally debate and communicate - the latter is a sign of a desire to show oneself more specialised in a vague elite knowledge (which is why you back it up with... Wiki links... Good God, what has the world come to!?).

    Chomsky noticed this rhetorical strategy in BF Skinner's arguments:

    "It is for this reason that Skinner assures the reader that he has no "need to know the details of a scientific analysis of behavior" (p. 22), none of which is presented. It is not the depth or complexity of this theory that prevents Skinner from outlining it for the lay reader. For example, Jacques Monod, in his recent work on biology and human affairs,4 gives a rather detailed presentation of achievements of modern biology that he believes to be relevant to his (clearly identified) speculations. I should add, to make myself clear, that I am not criticizing Skinner for the lack of significant achievement in the behavioral sciences as compared, say, to biology, but rather for his irresponsible claims regarding the "science of behavior," which Skinner does not bother to tell the reader about but which has allegedly produced all sorts of remarkable results concerning the control of behavior.

    If a physical scientist were to assure us that we need not concern ourselves over the world's sources of energy because he has demonstrated in his laboratory that windmills will surely suffice for all future human needs, he would be expected to produce some evidence, or other scientists would expose this pernicious nonsense. The situation is different in the behavioral sciences. A person who claims that he has a behavioral technology that will solve the world's problems and a science of behavior that both supports it and reveals the factors determining human behavior is required to demonstrate nothing. One waits in vain for psychologists to make clear to the general public the actual limits of what is known. In view of the prestige of science and technology, this is an unfortunate situation."

    Needless to say, this is rife among Skinner's followers. They trade in tautologies. Then when you press them on it they argue in a discursive and self-referential way. It's depressing...

  • Comment number 27.

    I never fail to be amazed by your work Adam, and I wonder why you are the only one capable of producing such eye-opening material.

    But in keeping with my role, I will criticize what's up here. I personally believe incentives, rather than punitive action, is precisely what government needs to provide as a service. And I find your hysterical hermeneutics ghastly.

    Yes, I find your perspective hysterical. There is a tone of menace you are projecting on the behaviorist project, which I find unfounded. Let me explain.

    Let's take something democratically available to us all, wikipedia. Here's a simple quote from Skinner's wonderful Beyond Freedom and Dignity (a work you would have been well off quoting in The Trap, due to Isaiah Berlin's theories):

    "He is autonomous in the sense that his behavior is uncaused. He can therefore be held responsible for what he does and justly punished if he offends. That view, together with its associated practices, must be re-examined when a scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behavior and environment"

    Instead of being hysterical, let's hear your challenge to this quote. How will you answer it? On the face of it, it's perfectly true!

    You mention Richard Thaler's Economy of Self-Control, but it appears you didn't read the text or are aware of its corporatist orientation. It really doesn't fit well with what you are discussing, unless you want to introduce another factor - the assembly line. Since behaviorism is a sort of Fordism, while Consumerism is a sort of Freudism.

    At one point you transition from a discussion of Mark Abrams pento-classification

    "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."

    I don't see where you come up with this. How are we seeing anything from Skinner's at work? You're basically saying categories have consequences, so you're both talking about Code Bias, and yet you are certainly in no position to evaluate the accuracy of Mark Abrams classes for the society of the day. The connection to Skinner is lost on me, and I welcome any enlightened soul enlightening me.

    Pointing out the danger of computers, is done with equal facility, and hence unconvincing: "And they do it solely through our observed behaviour"

    If you consider the medium, the distinction between behavior and thought, is blurry, hence obsolete.

    Now watching Skinner's interview, I'd find it useful to point out to readers and viewers, that Skinner was a psychologist of the Pavlovian persuasion. He was neither political scientist, politician, or poet, nor a psychoanalyst. He had a set of objectives, a Pavlovian tradition, and he pursued them within his laboratory means. In the video he switches from a discussion of incentives and reinforcements to social issues, in a manner where he presents himself, via voice and intonation, as an equal authority on both. This is pure gibberish, but something scientists and scholars tend to do.

    They are know-it-alls, who seldome catch themselves overreaching, and babbling. A good old fashioned philosophilal anema exposes them for the old farts they are, when babbling beyond their area of expertise.

    Today, there are what we call behavioral economists, at large. They are not psychologists, and claim precious little connection to psychology. They are economists, who are fascinated with explaining the behavior behind economic phenomena. Many of them over-reach, and many of them fail to grasp just what they are impacting via their theoretizing. But this is not to say, that they are wrong in their intentions.

    And I put it to you Adam, that if you didn't approach the subject hystically, you would be stuck trying to treat far more serious questions. The hysteria here, is a kind of filter, which allows you to present unique material, in a mythopoetic manner. I.e. without knowledge of the field or subject.

    Surely, any number of readers, would agree that the choice is simple. Social Security and Pension withholding from monthly salaries, or an education system which cultivates an individuals concern for his/her future, and thus allows them to save money of hteir own free will, without government levy. It's easy to get hysterical, without ever having to take the notion of freedom head on, and without acutally considering what the alternatives are.

    So its a work of creative fiction this - and one that fits the Fear Pandering you yourself often criticize. Irony?

  • Comment number 28.

    "He is autonomous in the sense that his behavior is uncaused. He can therefore be held responsible for what he does and justly punished if he offends. That view, together with its associated practices, must be re-examined when a scientific analysis reveals unsuspected controlling relations between behavior and environment"

    Here, I'll do Adam a favour - that quote is not inherently true, it rests on a number of presuppositions that are demonstrably false. It's what we call a 'tautology'. Watch, I can say the exact opposite in identical language and it has just as much 'truth-content' as Skinners assertion:

    "He is lacking autonomy in the sense that his behavior is caused. He can therefore not be held responsible for what he does and any punishment would therefore be unjust. That view, together with associated practices, must be re-examined when a scientific analysis finds it difficult to pin down controlling relations between behavior and environment."

    See? It's a tautology. One statement is no truer than the other - as both are simply assertions. I could just as easily assert that bananas grow in the ground - and if you're gullible or the argument appeals to you on an emotional basis, you might just believe me.

    Also, I'd be careful who you accuse of being hysterical. Someday a real psychologist might be tempted to uncover the underlying motivations why people adhere to Skinners theories...

  • Comment number 29.

    @ Phillip

    Directing you to Wikipedia was an attempt to point out that with even the most basic understanding of a radical behaviourist philosophy you would not be making such errors. At the risk of repeating myself:

    1. The term behaviourism is meaningless, unless you define which school of behaviourism you are referring to.
    2. Stimulus –Response psychology is not operant conditioning.
    3. The incentives (tangible rewards) of which you write, you are equating to the behavioural principle of reinforcement. Again, this is incorrect.

    These are all points that I made up there ^

  • Comment number 30.

    But of course - how could I, a humble outsider, understand your doctrine? How could I dare to approach the question of the 'Schools'? How could I - like so many other fools - equate Operant Conditioning for Pavlovian stimulus response? And incentives for reinforcement - what a philistine I am...

    But then, I'll never understand those secrets - locked in the ivory tower of behaviorism. Just as I'll never understand those Truths inherent in dialectical materialism... Because I'm just... well... not too stupid... just... well... just sort of... let's just say I don't get it...

    But you do my friend. And if you can be sure of nothing else, you can be sure of that.

    What a joke...

  • Comment number 31.

    Oh, and I don't know what you were saying about Applied Behaviorism Activity with Certain Determinate Results - or whatever crap you were talking about... because I know well that it's nonsense. It's a belief system for the weak willed. This is why it appeals to people.

    Just as Christians can explain human action through recourse to Divine intervention, the Behaviorists can invoke to the metaphysical mysteries of Operant Conditioning and Reinforcement. It's sad, really... deeply sad. But then, not many take it seriously, so it doesn't really matter...

    What the Behaviorists have actually done is to create a language. In this they are similar to other pseudo-sciences - like phrenology. They are then able to communicate in this language and apply it to how (they perceive) others to act. This gives them an immense feeling of power over other people - even though they exert none in reality. That's the appeal, really.

    If people want to buy into this stuff, I suppose I don't really have a problem with it. But skeptical minds should see it for what it is - as its up there with the UFO cults...

  • Comment number 32.

    Actually, no - I was tempted to just dismiss this, but let's see your arguments.

    We'll go one at a time - because I'm well aware of how pseudo-scientists twist themselves into knots when they try to explain their theories (everyone else begin watching for this now...).

    So, let's begin: please differentiate 'reinforcement' from 'stimulus-response'. (Also, please try to write in plain English, as best you can - although I doubt you'll be able to... just try, as hard as you can, to limit the jargon. I can understand it perfectly well - although there's not much to understand - but others might not).

  • Comment number 33.

    First off, I direct this at no one in particular. I don't care who's right. But I think the quibbling is spurious.

    Look at the title of this post: From Pigeon to Superman and Back Again

    Look at this Youtube clip of Skinner explicitly saying that people's actions are as uncaused and unfree as those of a pigeon or a machine:


    Now think about how that mentality is obviously behind an approach to government where instead of dignifying humans with an enlightening conversation that helps them to intelligently choose wise actions, you direct them like the pigeons to perform actions that you have chosen for them. Think about how paradoxically arrogant that is. I would avoid anyone who treated me like this, even though it is obvious that incentives and causes do figure in everyone's thinking. No one needed Skinner to tell them that incentives and causes affect behaviour, but Skinner needed someone to tell him that they're not the whole story.

    Now think about the meaning of the term 'superman'. People really were reaching in this philsophical direction in relatively recent history. Politics really did aim at dignifying and freeing people. And we still have these sort of ideas floating about in everyday life, values, parlance and practice. The argument has not been resolved so our culture is a rag-bag of incoherent, contradictory memes.

    We really do, like the title of the post suggests, see-saw between two sides of an unresolved question.

    Having established this, what is there to quibble about? Adam has made his point; do the details being fought over here really matter?

  • Comment number 34.

    "Look at this Youtube clip of Skinner explicitly saying that people's actions are as CAUSED and unfree as those of a pigeon or a machine:"

    GAH - TYPO!!!

    'Scuse me, I have to give myself an electric shock now - [bzzzt!]

  • Comment number 35.

    @ G

    I almost agree with you - almost. But I don't think this is simply a question of some creepy nerd trying to 'condition' me or my fellow citizens. As I already stated: this will fail, because the theories are spurious, incoherent and have no bearing on reality.

    This isn't what annoys me. What annoys me is that this stuff makes it into universities. It's not scientific, it's not philosophical - it's a cult... like those UFO cults. You have to understand this.

    If a scientologist or a moonie came on here people would call them on their BS - but Behaviorism, for some reason that I truly cannot fathom, is semi-legitimate.

    In the 50s, 60s and 70s Chomsky - Chomsky the linguist/cognitive scientist, not Chomsky the ideologue - tried tirelessly to show this in a series of papers. I seriously advise people to read some of these. Here's the best of them:


    The behaviorists will say that Chomsky misunderstood Skinner - trust me, he did not. And if you want another apt deconstruction of the behaviorist posture check out Richard Rorty's 'Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature' (this was to soft on behaviorism, in my opinion).

    Look, I don't care if some people seeking some meaning in life take Skinner's impoverished doctrines as a means of salvation. People have done this throughout history - from mathesis to the Laplacean dream. But people with a little more sense should see behaviorism for exactly what it is - and that's why it should be exposed.

    A quick tip for any person that thinks with their reason rather than their emotions: never believe any science that offers a vision of Utopia - never.

  • Comment number 36.

    The "A beyond all question" is Peter Duffell. His directorial output is listed here:


    One interesting fact is that he was uncredited for being the 2nd Unit/Assistant Director on the film, "Superman." Given Mr Curtis' title of this post, Spooky!

    @Avishalom. Great challenge to Mr Curtis. Although, since Mr Curtis never debates on these threads, I'm kind of left......dangling.

  • Comment number 37.

    @Phiiip Pilkington

    Well what's your disagreement exactly? Do you think it is Adam's calling right here on this blog to forever disprove Behaviourism and its scientific and ideological offspring? That's your thing, and if it proves to be correct it doesn't harm Adam's case in this post. Other people will pick out and prioritise their own pet causes from this. Anyway, Adam did not say that Behaviourism though dangerous is scientifically valid, did he? What he said was:

    "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."

    So might you be... just quibbling?

  • Comment number 38.

    @Phiip P.

    I think that Neveratyellwsnow is correct in explaining why wikipedia was references. But let's presume that this was somehow irrelevant to your self-professed disgust to what you imagine behaviorism represents, and the value Skinner holds.

    "See? It's a tautology. One statement is no truer than the other - as both are simply assertions."


    No I do not see.

    "One statement is no truer than the other - as both are simply assertions"


    And you took logic in which grade? Sorry, just asking.

    Your statement is no mere assertion - it is the obverse of Skinner's.

    But if you really must - perhaps you can better explain the gist of your own assertions about "assertions"?

    For I see something rather startling. Here's Skinner (statement A):
    "He is autonomous in the sense that his behavior is uncaused. "
    Here's your's (statement B):
    ""He is lacking autonomy in the sense that his behavior is caused. "

    now the reason B is obverse of A, is because you just said the same thing by negating both subject and object. A mere assertion would make that rather difficult, wouldn't you say?

    A "mere" assertion would imply "Pigeon's eat rats" see its true, because I said it.

    So if anyone's merely asserting - would you care to accept the characterization and raise your hand?

    But let's not get hung up on words...I would hope you'd get the point, and I am surprised that in writing your own obversion, you didn't figure what Skinner was driving at and stop yourself and say "oh, I see".

    Your obverse simply reinforced the logical soundness of what Skinner stated, since he was relying on a simple notion of autonomy and causality. Since you treat his statement and yours as mere assertions, you cannot be bothered with the discussion, can you?

    You are giving way too much credit to your impressions of behaviorism and what you know of Skinner. I would second others here that its a mere appeal to ignorance, and a somewhat obnoxiously one since you are not making any arguments.

    What exactly is your point? Adam supplied you with a one sided notion of the project, and you're hooked line and sinker?

    I am sure you can do better.

    Unless of course you are also of the opinion that hysteria is somehow crucial to sound logic? Since I would point out, your professed disgust is merely hysterical. It's wonderful that you can march in step, wonderful.

  • Comment number 39.

    I want to revise my initial comment above.

    Hysteria is a creative force here, and perhaps I shouldn't judge it. It sounds absurd, once I think back, to assume that thought can be executed without some emotional filter. Nor does this prejudice the results, without first testing the evidence. So don't write off hysteria as a criticism. I think it's in this piece, and I suspect that's good. It explains why Adam succeeds precisely where others, fail. Myself included.

    But I'll also elaborate that I don't think any of us fails to understand that we do not want to be pigeons, nor that Skinner was anyone we'd consult for social policy. But to connect this to Cameron's government appears unsound for the time being.

    Unsound because Adam doesn't cite a single source for his information about what seems to be an imagined unit of Behavioral Modificaiton in the Cameron government

    Because Adam mischaracterizes behaviorism, making it synonymous with Skinner, who was rejected by most behaviorists during his life time precisely on grounds of his social statements,

    And because Adam is basically saying "this guy thought of us as pigeons, and beware, so will the Cameron government" without for a second wondering if we are indeed like pigeons, and asking whether or not this requires some remedial action for our own good.

    Other than that, I find that my initial comment stands.

  • Comment number 40.

    avishalom, that unit has been reported on - look it up.

    His general point that they are using 'nudge' techniques to control people stands, regardless of differences between Skinner and other Behaviourists. Quibbling! You know fine well what he's getting at: there's a different way of governing - treating people like adults you can have a real conversation with. Or let them use their own intelligence and just facilitate that, instead of regarding people as tools.

    We are not totally unlike pigeons but far from identical. And I am not convinced that we even understand pigeons.

    What 'remedial action' are you talking about? I am not being snarky; I'm really asking.

  • Comment number 41.


    Yeah, you're probably right. Behaviorism does vex me though. And I'm not the first. I will defend my quibbling on one point though. I pointed out in the article that I wrote that Curtis was probably wrong in his conclusions because he doesn't seem to think that a theory can be right or wrong. In this he is sort of Foucauldian - insofar as he just sees a proliferation of theories.

    I disagree. I think behaviorism is demonstrably wrong. And I think this will have consequences when the Tories try to implement it. I think everyone - including Curtis - should understand that.

    @ that pigeon bloke

    "But if you really must - perhaps you can better explain the gist of your own assertions about "assertions"?"

    Good Lord, save me. I'm not having this argument... But perhaps you could tell me perhaps about your perhaps... Or explain why you explained your explanation...

    A piece of advise, buddy. Don't try those crude anti-foundationalist arguments if you ever meet a psychaitrist - you'll quickly find yourself on the other side of a padded-wall...

  • Comment number 42.

    Actually, regarding extreme anti-foundationalism - which behaviorist argument often finds itself very close to - and since we mentioned Isaiah Berlin earlier, I'll throw an interesting anecdote out there... one to remember if you ever stand staring over the precipice of certain forms of 'argument'.

    In his 'Roots of Romanticism', Berlin gives an account of the Romantic philosopher Max Stirner - whose theories Marx's and Engel's were a direct response to (just an interesting aside). I'll quote the passage in full, because I think it's tremendously interesting - and might even be relevant to certain 'discussions' that are sure to arise here if we push the conversation too far.

    "Some romantics like Stirner certainly went too far... Stirner argued that any theory theories should be blown up... But if this is true of doctrines, it will equally be true of all general propositions; and if this is true of all general propositions then - and this is the last step of all - it is true of all words, because all words are general, they all classify. If I use the word 'yellow' I want to mean by it what I meant yesterday and what I will mean tomorrow. But this is a terrible yoke, this is a fearful despotism. Why should the word 'yellow' mean the same thing now and tomorrow? Why cannot I alter it? Why should twice 2 make 4? Why should words be uniform? Why cannot I make up my own universe each time I begin? But if I do that, if there is no systematic symbolism, then I cannot think. If I cannot think, I go mad."

    Behaviorism is not far removed from this. It too thinks that words don't inherently mean anything. And that various 'schedules of reinforcement' change the meanings of words. Thus the behaviorist can change the meanings of words by 'reinforcing' certain behaviors in his human pigeon.

    Barring the fact that, if this were actually possible (which it is not) it would be terrifying. As Chomsky points out, Skinner's theories imply that if, under torture (a schedule of reinforcement) I say that black is white, ala 1984, then this essentially means that the meaning of black and white has changed for me. This is nonsense, of course, I lie so that I stop being tortured - I don't BELIEVE that black is white.

    The behaviorist genuinely thinks that through his 'schedules of reinforcement' he can, as Berlin says, "make up the universe every time he begins". This is where Skinners theories, like Stirners, veer into madness. And so we conclude our story.

    "To do him justice, Stirner did duly go mad. He ended his life very honourably and very consistenly in a lunatic asylum as a perfectly peaceful lunatic, in 1856".

  • Comment number 43.

    @ G:
    you said :
    "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 crusade to spread his own concept of 'negative liberty' - which was again lost on his own followers."

    I like the points you make but I think you may have oversimplified in coming to the conclusions about what constitute the 'essentials' of Skinner's ideas. It seems that Darwin's ideas were also dangerous if looked at only by what many of his contemporaries took away from it, leading to Social Darwinism and Manifest Destiny.

    @the art teacher - you said:
    "I'm not religious myself, and of course we don't know about free will, and I would say this - the argument against such things, as far as I can see, is necessarily deterministic, and if one is arguing based on this type of empiricist, natural science, low level physical determinism then they've gotta explain quantum mechanics definitively."

    I'm not saying one can prove determinism by logical deduction, but the gulf between free will and the entropy/randomness of matter at the quantum level hardly demonstrates free action, either. I think you could infer determinism by way of quantum probabilities, but I'm not sure you can infer free will without recourse to the mind/body split, a 'soul'.

    When I learned about Skinner in my undergrad studies, he had a very bad rap, and reading yellowsnow and avishalom's comments it does seem people may have been confused about what he meant, considering his ideas synonymous with logical positivism, 'behaviorism', etc. I intend to read 'Beyond Freedom and Human Dignity' and decide for myself.

    @pilkington, your earlier comments border on verbal abuse, I wish you would disagree in a way that doesn't bring the tenor down of what is otherwise an excellent exchange of ideas.

  • Comment number 44.

    Theories and models are never strictly 'true'. They work at a human scale to serve human purposes. Some don't work even a little bit. The ones that work quite well represent some insight into the way reality is. The ant negotiates the garden; it doesn't 'know' the garden. I didn't need to read Foucault or anyone else to figure this out.

  • Comment number 45.

    I don't disagree. I don't see why that point is more relevant to Skinner's ideas of human or animal behavior than someone else's though.

  • Comment number 46.

    As to whether it's legitimate to use 'nudge' techniques, I don't see why not, as long as it doesn't exclude treating people like adults as well, by letting them in on what you are doing. You can do both at once, and in fact it's done all the time whether it's explicit or not. Practically all of politics in our media age is done through 'nudges' to manipulate behavior, based on market research and use of the latest research in psychology. I'm not saying that's a great thing, it just is the fact. Probably more so in America than in the UK, but it's interesting to look at what's happening in the US right now. Obama's one of the most articulate politicians ever, and it's not just rhetoric, he's appealing to people's common sense and intelligence. And look at what good its done for him. I don't love that we need to live in a world where you have to put pictures of diseased lungs on cigarette packs to discourage smoking. But why should governmental bodies not have recourse to the same techniques as corporations? And it's not as if we are being duped -- we know quite well why they are putting those pictures on the cigarette packs.

  • Comment number 47.

    Though I must admit you could find yourself on a slippery slope if you over-rely on any technique, and those in power will always abuse it without proper opposition -- based on actual reasoned argument. But good legislators must find a balance when enacting policy.

  • Comment number 48.

    Modern marketing analytics has actually already grasped the power of behaviourism. Take the Tesco Loyalty card for instance. This is already a giant lab populated with millions of homo pigeonus:

    Large volumes of longitudinal data facilitates the use of sophisticated analytics to monitor the impact of promotional activity. This approach is far more sophisticated than traditional methods for testing sales promotion effectiveness. The data is powerful enough that it can provide reliable measurements of product level demand functions and price elasticity.

    Tesco can analyse customer behaviour data at lower levels of granularity than it was previously considered possible. The information garnered is not just being used for traditional management reporting, but instead to facilitate mini-experiments and expeditionary marketing. The program is actually a vehicle for sophisticated direct and database marketing techniques (such as test cells, continuous learning and feedback loops). A true pinnacle of marketing science.

    Where next, you ask:


    If the Gvt gets into bed with these arch behaviourists, then it's welcome everyone to the United Kingdom of Tesco. Points make prisons - I mean prizes!

  • Comment number 49.

    That was an interesting video Hawkeye. This is all very disturbing. But I note that the speaker at the end made the same point that Skinner did in one of the clips -- if you don't do it, someone else will. Lets assume the government never does it. Even if its all up to corporations to provide these incentives, this scenario is already imminent. When I think about America, most people here would never let the government enact 'nanny state' policies. They don't even want public health care. But corporations, that's another matter. Well at least the individual can still opt out. I don't have a TV now and I don't intend to, bonus points or no. But every time I do catch some television playing somewhere, I'm shocked. If you watch television all the time, you probably don't notice the little things happening every day.

    This is all bringing back 'Brave New World'. But we might wonder if humanity can survive if left to its own devices. In that novel, the hyper-controlled society based on genetic and psychological engineering was brought about a result of war and environmental collapse. That may prove prophetic if the alternative is that we have to rely on human nature to learn how to share what meager resources are left to us after such a scenario.

  • Comment number 50.

    Really interesting! I haven't read all the above posts but wondered if "Big Society" is in anyway tied into Professor Richard Layards research into happiness. His research shows basically that more money doesn't necessarily mean more happiness, in fact the reverse seems to be true. Maybe the idea behind "Big Society" is for people to become happier by earning less through working for nothing more of the time. :)

  • Comment number 51.

    Pigeons of course, do not possess the gloriously human attribute of bloody-mindedness. If I choose not to be manipulated and refuse the food, do you just watch me die?

    Ian Duncan Smith said of his 'a treat if you do what you're told' approach that it wouldn't lead to children in care and people penniless on the streets because 'it just wouldn't come to that'. Wanna bet?

  • Comment number 52.

    All that matters is whether Skinner's method is based in reality or not. To treat an animal (humans are indeed animals) as having behaviour divorced from cognitive functions and emotions, is completely mad.

    Skinner's ideas are simply not scientific. We know minds exist, we know about our own mental states and our own perception. Science is based on empiricism, and that means minds or consciousness are necessary in order to do science.

    If behaviourism is unscientific, then cognitive science is definitely scientific. It's a better way to explore human behaviour and then to bring about an applied science.

    I would say that Skinner was mad, and should be recognised as such. Science is ultimately about objective knowledge and understanding developed as a method that cuts out personal bias. No single man does 'science' but it's a collective effort that ultimately is judged on whether it fits reality.

  • Comment number 53.

    I guess looking back at most of Adam's work...it really is about psychology, and not politics, as I had wrongly assumed. Even the eerie repetition of Skinner having had gone Mad, in the concluding comments above, reveals what can only be termed a "natural" reaction to the subject matter.

    It's almost pointless to extract political meaning from some of this then? The hysteria simply complements the psychoanalytic perspective. At the root of Adam's work then lies Freud? And the more we're familiar with Freud, the more obvious Adam's motivations and perspective becomes. Even his evasiveness and aloofness become perfectly reasonable.

    Good to see you can stick with what you say and the arguments and assertions you make. Both your presence (overbearing) and your brashness - seem to read well with Frank's recent statements about George Bush's personality (of the Veterans for Sanity days). I.e. you are obviously oblivious to error or to any contemplative doubt. A Sadististic personality of a sorts, and highly insecure. Whatever...nothing special. But let's just say that you got cornered on Skinner, and had nothing more to add other than a personal attack. Your insisting on your vilification of the fellow, and that's all keeping in form with a general trend towards passive malevolence and vilification. Also implies argument is impossible with you, since you have a highly instrumental definition of things.

    Please advise me where the unit has received coverage. I failed to find anything. Be more than happy to learn.

    A question though - what is the perceived comfort from the thought that Skinner had somehow gone mad towards the end days?

  • Comment number 54.

    @ Phiiip Pilkington,

    I'm pretty sure you've brought this exact quote from Berlin about Stirner before, exactly what is the point? Berlin simply misinterpretes Stirner for whatever reason, Stirner's philosophy is complicated and dated, but he is a friend to individual liberty more than any other philosopher in history. Stirner's philosophy has nothing to do with Behaviourism, and the idea that Stirner died in a Asylum is new to me (knowledge about Stirner's life is extremely vague) and entirely irrelevent to whether his philosophy is true or not.

  • Comment number 55.


    Mr Curtis is a genius storyteller (i.e., documentary maker) and there are common themes in his works (Nixon, Science, Advertising, Business, Politics) but no underlying philosophy that I can make out other than a kind of deconstructionism of the twentieth century and a respect for critical thinking and liberty.

    I personally think that Century of the Self is his best work, but all his documentaries are of the highest quality, and I continue to gain from watching them.

  • Comment number 56.

    OK here goes.

    PP - 'The difference between Skinner and, well just about every other political theorist, is that everyone else sees systems of governance and economic transaction as systems of exchange - be that exchange one of information or of goods, or both.'

    OK, prima facie, this isn't true. I don't know if Skinner is a political theorist (althought I'm not for one second saying his ideas don't have political implications as this post makes clear), but I can't accept that all political theorists really believe what you mention are systems of exchange. Did the people behind Reagan's economic policies, for example, believe this do you think? I'm not at all sure. I think in many cases, and there's an argument around how conscious individuals are of this, that these 'systems' are better described as structures created to perpetuate existing attributions of power, and that this can be characterised as 'master and slave' to the extent that one party is tipping the power balance in their favour, they are dominant and augmenting their position.

    Avishalom - 'But in keeping with my role, I will criticize what's up here. I personally believe incentives, rather than punitive action, is precisely what government needs to provide as a service. And I find your hysterical hermeneutics ghastly.

    Why should government provide incentives? You mention pensions. I have a pension thing. I don't know much about it, they take some money out of my wages, fine. I have this partly because I was offered it. However, I could've opted out. The reason I didn't is that thought it would be a good idea to put some money away, something for the future. I am able to do that, which is partly why I do it, my income allows it. I also realise I probably won't miss the money, and would quite likely just spend it if it was available, quite probably on something not worthwhile.

    The government wants me to save for my pension, and I understand that. I don't need a reward. I'd like them to make it easier for others to get pensions when they want them in however that might be achieveable. That might be an incentive of sorts, y'know, getting people better education, and jobs, that kind of makes it possible rather than more alluring though I'd say. How far is my decision incentivised beyond the fact I'm thinking about my future a bit? It's kind of a sensible decision I think, it makes a kind of sense. One thing i'd say is that it's not implicity the right decision. It wouldn't necessarily have been irrational to turn it down. I think it's a personal decision, and the reasoning of the individual is their own. Instrumentally it's rational for government to want us to pay for it. If the state provision of pensions is in jeopardy, and older people are therefore in danger or will suffer, I don't think the government should be trying to 'incentivise' it as such, not in any material or psychological sense. It's a collective problem, and they'll have to appeal to why it's fair to ask people to pay for their pensions, or why they might need to ask for more tax to bolser pension provision. That's a difficult argument to win in an atomised and narcissistic culture, where our natural empathy seems to have dulled, which I think is where we are. But it's the right approach, because it doesn't play under the surface, it's not an 'engineering of consent', albeit it's based on a certain set of values, but it appeals to certain moral imperatives that might be reasonably be argued for. We got brought to this place somehow, where it's difficult to undermine your own and others cynicism, but I believe we can get out of it, or at least try. Is this incredibly naive?

    @PP - Is it more important to prove, absolutely, that Skinner's Behaviourism is wrong, or to show the implication of it's uptake as a principle or an idea? I honestly don't know, I'm curious to what you and others think. I don't think it's necessarily true that you have to do the former to achieve the latter.

    @dawghead - 'I'm not saying one can prove determinism by logical deduction, but the gulf between free will and the entropy/randomness of matter at the quantum level hardly demonstrates free action, either. I think you could infer determinism by way of quantum probabilities, but I'm not sure you can infer free will without recourse to the mind/body split, a 'soul'. '

    I see your point, and I know it doesn't prove it, all I think I'm saying is it doesn't disprove it. I agree you could 'infer determinism by way of quantum probabilities', but it's still an inference, it's not an exacting empirical explanation....what I think I'm saying is if we can't categorically explain the physical relations of everything then....you know what i'm saying.

    NB/ The argument on here seems to almost have broken down at points. Someone is talking about 'ivory towers' hinting at pro-Behaviourist cabals, then you've got someone accusing someone of following Adam's interpretation 'hook, line and sinker' when patently they haven't, attempted psychological hatchet jobs.....it's all ad hominem stuff even if you guys are smart enough that it sounds pretty. This ain't a requests page, I just wish we could stick to the good stuff.

    I'm off to watch cricket.

  • Comment number 57.

    @the art teacher

    Look at the work of Hal Ersner-Hershfield, to see what kind of incentives I think not only good, but necessary in the field of retirement.

    I personally see little connection between what Skinner opines about society, and Hal's work. But I am referencing him, his personal website if you take a look at the research, in direct response to your question.

    My take, and one that strikes me as a rational one, is that better the government encourage such incentive towards retirement savings, than FORCE us into any Pension scheme. On a scale of forced withholding vs. incentive, I want to hear someone make a convincing argument that the latter is worst than the former. Prima Facia I find the former far more abhorrent, from any political vantage point, center, left or right.

    Now the debate, whether or not we are to be aware of incentives. Aren't you guys kidding yourself, and being excessively ...well, not naive, that's a bad term, but a mythopoetic on what exactly we do ourselves on a daily basis?

    Here's what I mean. Do you really assume for one second that what passes for education, and is accepted as "education" is anything more than "nudging" and behavioralism?

    And would you not agree that even something as ostensibly innocent as a Montesori method, is indeed indistinguishable from "nudging".

    So maybe I fail to give Skinner credit, in the sense that "somebody's going to do it"?

    I.e. either they are raised by the jungle, by brutes equal to them, or by a household, where there is some superiority, which can be conveyed?

    I'm just asking, actually.

  • Comment number 58.

    Hmmm. To be honest, having followed this thread quietly for some time now, I can safely say that I have appreciated the level of interesting, varied, and often learned discussion it's raised, but it does seem to have expanded well away from whatever Adam Curtis’s original thesis was intended to be.

    Although I can’t strictly speak on Adam’s behalf (obviously), and there have been some salutary suggestions to the effect that he has made some pretty generalised (and possibly inaccurate) statements in his initial analysis, what I can say is that, viewed simply in terms of what Adam’s known concerns are, I think the essence of *his* argument is relatively transparent.

    If we consider some of the earlier documentaries made by Adam, such as ‘The Trap’ or even ‘The Mayfair Set’, it is clear that one of the primary concerns he wished to address in the context of the late 90’s/early 2000’s (or, as we might say, in the post Thatcher and Blairite periods) was the idea that one of the primary totems of these years had been a form of Isaiah Berlin’s ‘negative liberty’, whereby the UK government strove to create a world within which the individual would be held to be free from state coercion, and the values of the open market would be held to constitute their freedom. That Blair was so keen on these values (and such an espouser of ‘public choice’) and that the notion of enlightened self interest dominating the marketplace, and the right for the individual to hold the public sector accountable, was so much an inheritance from Thatcherism is not surprising in light of Blair’s New Labour pursuance of a ‘Third Way Socialism’ that inherited many Thatcherite values. Adam’s response to this (inasmuch as he responded unequivocally at all) was to hint that, perhaps, too much reliance on ‘negative liberty’ had, itself, become a trap, forcing individuals to become ever more alienated, self-promoting and ruthlessly self-serving – at the expense of the aim of ‘positive liberty’ – of trying to better the world on behalf of all. It is also to be noted that the vast majority of Adam’s recent analyses have also revolved around very similar themes – so, his interest in the impacts of ‘shock therapy’ in Russia in the early 90’s, of the US drive towards ‘forcing the world to be safe for the democracy of choice’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, and even of tracing a shift, in the late 60’s/early 70’s, from communally inflected mass politics towards a growing sense of self-preservation (the ‘Me Decade’?) by the end of the 70’s, have reflected this notion of the imposition of ‘negative liberty’ at the expense of socially engineered solutions to the structuring of society. In a sense, it is perhaps, at its widest, the essential story of the way in which the Cold War was won by the (seeming) triumph of the free market of the US, as opposed to the controlled economy of the USSR, and how the demons of seventy years of prior history appeared to be laid to rest by this ‘triumph’ – arguably, a set of concerns that Adam set himself to address as far back as 1992, with ‘Pandora’s Box’.

    So, what then, is Adam’s latest post about? Perhaps he has begun to sense that the game plan appears to be seriously shifting (for the first time in 20 years?) now that economic meltdown seems to have brought the promotion of the open market to its knees; that, for the first time since the 1970’s, a recourse to more communally conceived solutions is likely to return to prominence; that ideas once thought dead and buried are on the verge of resurrection? It’s hard to say, but one sense I get from the latest emphasis on Skinner is that, however tendentious the actual use of the material may be, what surprised Adam was his discovery that it appeared Cameron was starting to lean on Behaviourist advisors. Without debating the merits or otherwise of the approach, I think its fair to recognise that Adam must surely consider this to mark a sea change – from what I can see, a Behaviourist approach towards governance would, whatever else it might be, be essentially paternalistic, even technocratic (as Skinner himself appears to have implied he would have chosen it to be) and paternalism (of some description) moves ever closer towards an enshrining of ‘positive liberty’ within a state. Of course, Berlin did not wish to imply all ‘positive liberty’ was, by nature, paternalistic (indeed, he expressly repudiated the idea, finding it repugnant) – but the contrast between ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ concepts of liberty remains important. In the ‘positive’ conception, collective involvement is paramount, with the payoff being that, in return for greater interference with day-to-day life, the individual is granted the freedom to participate and attain self-realisation within the wider society (do we hear the echo of the ‘Big Society’?). Yet, because ‘positive liberty’ has a tendency to make demands upon the individual to contribute and, because a government can convince itself that it must first create the optimum conditions for self-realisation before any self-realisation can become a reality, the sense of moral censure that can be brought to bear on an individual as an adjunct to their winning ‘positive liberty’ is strong. Those who prefer to hold their freedoms ‘negatively’ (i.e. to live free from external constraint) will often find living under ‘positive’ conceptions of freedom onerous, and vice versa. If this is the shift in sensibility that Adam senses he is tracking (and what is Skinnerian Behaviourism when applied to society if not a form of conditioning society to work better as a collective?), then I would assume detecting it marks a big departure for him: a sense that whatever we have all been accepting as ‘normal’ for the past 20 years or so may soon be turned upside down by new societal demands.

    Ironically, we’ve earlier had a comparison of Max Stirner to Skinner, but I would have thought that Stirner was the consummate proponent of a ‘negative liberty’ taken to its furthest extreme (this is almost certainly why Berlin felt the need to censure him). Skinner, as an idealist paternalist at heart, seems, on the contrary, a significant role model for those supporting the cause of ‘positive liberty’ – is his vision of technocratic ‘bettering’ of society really any different from the Enlightenment projects of the Physiocrats or, come to think of it, much different from Plato’s conception that the ideal state should be governed by philosopher kings?

  • Comment number 59.

    Stirner argues in a dialectic fashion, and so he's arguing at the most radical end of personal liberty. But he does also include a sort of selfish humanism within his work, such as he calls fellow-feeling:

    "I love men too,—not merely individuals, but everyone. But I love them with the consciousness of egoism; I love them because love makes me happy, I love
    because loving is natural to me, because it pleases me. I know no " commandment of love." I have a fellow-feeling with every feeling being, and their torments their refreshment refreshes me too; I can kill them, not torture them. Per contra, the high-souled, virtuous Philistine prince Rudolph in " The Mysteries of Paris," because the wicked provoke his " indignation," plans their torture. That fellow-feeling proves only that the feeling of those who feel is mine too, my property; in opposition to which the pitiless dealing of the " righteous " man (e. g. against notary Ferrand) is like the unfeelingness of that robber who cut off or stretched his prisoners' legs to the measure of his bedstead: Rudolph's bedstead, which he cuts men to fit, is the concept of the " good." The feeling for right, virtue, etc., makes people hard-hearted and intolerant.
    Rudolph does not feel like the notary, but the reverse ; he feels that " it serves the rascal right "; that is no fellow-feeling."

    And so Stirner's selfish humanism is not idealistic but natural. We are naturally empathetic and loving, it's part of our human nature, as well as being selfish.

    But Stirner also argues for both negative and positive liberty. Stirner's conception of positive liberty is also a natural and rational one. He views positive liberty in terms of property and ownership. He does state clearly the importance of self-ownership, which leads to a kind of stoic self-controlling mastery of all. He would most likely be in favour of a libertarian approach to a free market, but he underestimated the potential of a corrupt cabal of sociopathic capitalists to create an unfree society.

    Stirner's philosophy is deeply thought out, and pre-emptively Darwinian and Nietzschean. Almost everything Stirner wrote is little different to a Nietzschean way of life, only Nietzsche did not create a systematic approach, while Stirner did.

    But if egoism leads to an unfree or unjust society, as it must do so, then ultimately Stirner's philosophy must fail. And perhaps it fails because Stirner did not emphasize enough about the uniqueness of the ego, that it was not an ideal, but could only be taken as an ideal by others. Stirner wrote for Stirner, but his fellow-feeling made him share his philosophy; we could not be egoists in his sense if we were to follow his philosophy, only owned by him. And so his philosophy while a useful treasure trove of ideas can not be followed.

  • Comment number 60.

    well, I still want some independent confirmation of the existance of this behavioral unit in the Cameron government. None seem to exist.

    So is this a farce?

    seems like we all have our pet peeves. For PP it was debunking behaviorism and Skinner. For the Artist, it appears to be Max Stirner. Reading the Artist I am unwittingly reminded of John Stuart Mill, with his great discourses on Liberty, and wonder why it is Berlin we seeing ahistorically projected onto Stirner, rather than Mill, with whom Stirner would have been familiar, or Hegel or Schelling for that matter. Both of whom have a great deal to say about freedom...not to mention the whole Romantic notion of individualism that underlies Stirner's thought...all rather unoriginal in the end?

    Leeravitz points out the logic and ideas that permeate Curtis work...but I find myself clinting to Freud, and psychoanalysis.

    You see- Curtis is a story teller...and most of the Century of the Self is based on a text not written by Curtis - the book is famous. What Curtis pursues in the century of the self, is Freud, and his development, and then the development of psychoanalyis in America. The Trap includes this no less than the Century.

    Curtis is actually rather thin on any political theories, sociology, or any such approach. There is a deep involvement with psychology, and the world where it is influential, and by which it is influenced.

    Curtis own way of posing questions, reveals his interest in projection, in externalisation, and possibly with representations...although I can't pretend to know more, or be able to pin down any kind of interest in guilt, in repression..there is a biographical approach. He seems to be interested in the way we see ourselves, more than the logic of this or that proposition.

    Hence he partakes in a psychoanalytical game himself, and I merely say this as a sentiment on my own part, not wishing to push it as an argument on others. I'm just trying to see it for what it is.

  • Comment number 61.



    Article Dated 9th September 2010

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

  • 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?

  • 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 psychological...so 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.

  • 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)

  • 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.

  • Comment number 66.

  • 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!

  • 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:

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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."

  • 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....

  • 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?

  • Comment number 74.

    Excellent article. Thanks

  • Comment number 75.


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

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Comment number 81.

    @ Ben SJ Wilson - that's very interesting, I've only come across this lady recently when she took some science-fundamentalist apart on the radio. I'll check that book out.

  • Comment number 82.

    Oh dear, lots of errors throughout RC's essay. 'Nevereatyellowsnow' has provided good responses to a lot of them, so I'll limit mine to one statement - "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." This is simply incorrect. It may be an often repeated statement made in the poorer introductory psychology texts, but it isn’t borne out by the facts. Skinner did not believe we should ignore thoughts, feelings and inner experiences and the ‘black box’ metaphor was never used. This may be a fair criticism of methodological behaviourism, but not Skinner’s Radical Behaviourism. In fact he would have been critical of the above statement and the ‘black box’ metaphor, as he was in his essay ‘Cognitive Science and Behaviorism’.

    Skinner’s argument was altogether more subtle and interesting. He certainly argued science couldn't study things that can't be observed, but thoughts and feelings can be observed and as such are the legitimate focus of scientific study. The interesting thing about thoughts and feelings is they can only be observed by the person having them. How the verbal community enables people to talk accurately about the world within their skin (i.e., inner experiences) is a major challenge, but it doesn’t mean they can’t be studied scientifically.

    And that’s just what the ever growing behaviour analytic community has been doing (yes numbers and journals are increasing year on year). RB is not an historical footnote, it is very much alive and central to psychological science. For example, in the last few years it has developed a thoroughgoing theory of human language - Relational Frame Theory – that is opening up all sorts of new ways to understand human cognitive processes. It has also led to an exciting new, mindfulness based psychotherapy - Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT). Anyone who believes this is all some dehumanising conspiracy to control us all should check out www.contextualpsychology.org. Nothing could be further from the truth. But then some people don’t want the facts to get in the way of a good story. It was ever thus and always will be, the positive thing is that most people are fair minded so there is always cause for optimism.


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