Behavior Modification and an Authoritarian Society

What a fascinating thing! Total control of a living organism! —psychologist B.F. Skinner

The corporatization of society requires a population that accepts control by authorities, and so when psychologists and psychiatrists began providing techniques that could control people, the corporatocracy embraced mental health professionals.

In psychologist B.F. Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behavior modification, which he claimed could create a better-organized and happier society.

During the height of Skinner’s fame in the 1970s, it was obvious to anti-authoritarians such as Noam Chomsky (“The Case Against B.F. Skinner”) and Lewis Mumord that Skinner’s worldview—a society ruled by benevolent control freaks—was antithetical to democracy. In Skinner’s novel Walden Two (1948), his behaviorist hero states, “We do not take history seriously”; to which Mumford retorted, “And no wonder: if man knew no history, the Skinners would govern the world, as Skinner himself has modestly proposed in his behaviorist utopia.”

As a psychology student during that era, I remember being embarrassed by the silence of most psychologists about the political ramifications of Skinner and behavior modification.

In the mid-1970s, as an intern on a locked ward in a state psychiatric hospital, I first experienced one of behavior modification’s staple techniques, the “token economy.” And that’s where I also discovered that anti-authoritarians try their best to resist behavior modification. George was a severely depressed anti-authoritarian who refused to talk to staff but, for some reason, chose me to shoot pool with. My boss, a clinical psychologist, spotted my interaction with George, and told me that I should give him a token—a cigarette—to reward his “prosocial behavior.” I fought it, trying to explain that I was 20 and George was 50, and this would be humiliating. But my boss subtly threatened to kick me off the ward. So, I asked George what I should do.

George, fighting the zombifying effects of his heavy medication, grinned and said, “We’ll win. Let me have the cigarette.” In full view of staff, George took the cigarette and then placed it into the shirt pocket of another patient, and then looked at the staff shaking his head in contempt.

Unlike Skinner, George was not “beyond freedom and dignity.” Anti-authoritarians such as George—who don’t take seriously the rewards and punishments of control-freak authorities—deprive authoritarian ideologies such as behavior modification from total domination.

Behavior Modification Techniques Excite Authoritarians

If you have taken introductory psychology, you probably have heard of Ivan Pavlov’s “classical conditioning” and B.F. Skinner’s “operant conditioning.”

An example of Pavlov’s classical conditioning? A dog hears a bell at the same time he receives food; then the bell is sounded without the food and still elicits a salivating dog. Pair a scantily-clad attractive woman with some crappy beer, and condition men to sexually salivate to the sight of the crappy beer and buy it. The advertising industry has been utilizing classical conditioning for quite some time.

Skinner’s operant conditioning? Rewards, like money, are “positive reinforcements”; the removal of rewards are “negative reinforcements”; and punishments, such as electric shocks, are labeled in fact as “punishments.” Operant conditioning pervades the classroom, the workplace, and mental health treatment.

Skinner was heavily influenced by the book Behaviorism (1924) by John B. Watson. Watson achieved some fame in the early 1900s by advocating a mechanical, rigid, affectionless manner in child rearing. He confidently asserted that he could take any healthy infant and, given complete control of the infant’s world, train him for any profession. When Watson was in his early forties, he quit university life and began a new career in advertising at J. Walter Thompson.

Behaviorism and consumerism, two ideologies which achieved tremendous power in the twentieth century, are cut from the same cloth. The shopper, the student, the worker, and the voter are all seen by consumerism and behaviorism the same way: passive, conditionable objects.

Who are Easiest to Manipulate?

The corporatocracy is an authoritarian system requiring unquestioning obedience to authority. Those who rise to power in the corporatocracy are control freaks, addicted to the buzz of power over other human beings, and so it is natural for such authorities to have become excited by behavior modification.

Alfie Kohn, in Punished by Rewards (1993), documents with copious research how behavior modification works best on dependent, powerless, infantilized, bored, and institutionalized people. And so for authorities who get a buzz from controlling others, this creates a terrifying incentive to construct a society that creates dependent, powerless, infantilized, bored, and institutionalized people.

Many of the most successful applications of behavior modification have involved laboratory animals, children, or institutionalized adults. According to management theorists Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham in Work Redesign (1980), “Individuals in each of these groups are necessarily dependent on powerful others for many of the things they most want and need, and their behavior usually can be shaped with relative ease.”

Similarly, researcher Paul Thorne reports in the journal International Management (“Fitting Rewards,” 1990) that in order to get people to behave in a particular way, they must be “needy enough so that rewards reinforce the desired behavior.”

It is also easiest to condition people who dislike what they are doing. Rewards work best for those who are alienated from their work, according to researcher Morton Deutsch (Distributive Justice, 1985). This helps explain why attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)-labeled kids perform as well as so-called “normals” on boring schoolwork when paid for it (see Thomas Armstrong’s The Myth of the A.D.D. Child, 1995). Correlatively, Kohn offers research showing that rewards are least effective when people are doing something that isn’t boring.

In a review of the literature on the harmful effects of rewards, researcher Kenneth McGraw concluded that rewards will have a detrimental effect on performance under two conditions: “first, when the task is interesting enough for the subjects that the offer of incentives is a superfluous source of motivation; second, when the solution to the task is open-ended enough that the steps leading to a solution are not immediately obvious.”

Kohn also reports that at least ten studies show rewards work best on simplistic and predictable tasks. How about more demanding ones? In research on preschoolers (working for toys), older children (working for grades) and adults (working for money), all avoided challenging tasks. The bigger the reward, the easier the task that is chosen; while without rewards, human beings are more likely to accept a challenge.

So, there is an insidious incentive for control-freaks in society—be they psychologists, teachers, advertisers, managers, or other authorities who use behavior modification. Specifically, for controllers to experience the most control and gain a “power buzz,” their subjects need to be infantilized, dependent, alienated, and bored.

The Anti-Democratic Nature of Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is fundamentally a means of controlling people and thus for Kohn, “by its nature inimical to democracy, critical questioning, and the free exchange of ideas among equal participants.”

For Skinner, all behavior is externally controlled, and we don’t truly have freedom and choice. Behaviorists see freedom, choice, and intrinsic motivations as illusory, or what Skinner called “phantoms.” Back in the 1970s, Noam Chomsky exposed Skinner’s unscientific view of science, specifically Skinner’s view that science should be prohibited from examining internal states and intrinsic forces.

In democracy, citizens are free to think for themselves and explore, and are motivated by very real—not phantom—intrinsic forces, including curiosity and a desire for justice, community, and solidarity.

What is also scary about behaviorists is that their external controls can destroy intrinsic forces of our humanity that are necessary for a democratic society.

Researcher Mark Lepper was able to diminish young children’s intrinsic joy of drawing with Magic Markers by awarding them personalized certificates for coloring with a Magic Marker. Even a single, one-time reward for doing something enjoyable can kill interest in it for weeks.

Behavior modification can also destroy our intrinsic desire for compassion, which is necessary for a democratic society. Kohn offers several studies showing “children whose parents believe in using rewards to motivate them are less cooperative and generous [children] than their peers.” Children of mothers who relied on tangible rewards were less likely than other children to care and share at home.

How, in a democratic society, do children become ethical and caring adults? They need a history of being cared about, taken seriously, and respected, which they can model and reciprocate.

Today, the mental health profession has gone beyond behavioral technologies of control. It now diagnoses noncompliant toddlers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and pediatric bipolar disorder and attempts to control them with heavily sedating drugs. While Big Pharma directly profits from drug prescribing, the entire corporatocracy benefits from the mental health profession’s legitimization of conditioning and controlling.

11 Responses

  1. Paul Archibald
    Paul Archibald October 15, 2012 at 8:20 am |

    I really enjoyed your article, but my wife was less enthusiastic. She pointed out that it is difficult these days to have much trust in published studies when so many are just shill-pieces. That suspicion extended to the studies you mentioned.

    I realize footnotes are kind of geeky for articles meant for mass consumption, but the studies you quote sound very interesting, and it would be useful to know their sources.

    ps. I had more faith in your assertions since I have read your books and articles before, and found them highly insightful. So, I started off from a more sympathetic place.

  2. stephen lawton
    stephen lawton October 16, 2012 at 8:37 am |

    I work as a probation officer in a UK prison and I see every day what you write about and the power psychologist have is huge. How can we fight them?

  3. Monica
    Monica October 25, 2012 at 8:44 pm |

    Its nice to see a psychologist writing about the corporatocracy, and the overall impact on work systems, people socially, and personally. (tho we’re really only consumers any more aren’t we?)

    Having for many years worked in outpatient clinic settings, I was appreciative when an anti-authoritarian (ie apparently o.d.d.) colleague muttered to me that we were working in the “compassion factory” ~ and I’ve never forgotten this apropos remark. Over the years as I’ve watched the national political context evolve, and sadly witnessed the setting I’ve worked become more and more limiting, mentioning things like the collaboration of psychologists in ‘torture’/rendition, and even things far less significant, just brings a scowl and silence or a nervous look and giggle – along with a shuffling of papers and a change of topic. Its hard to have a meaningful conversation about our social predicaments and best to stay with casual conversation about children or good local restaurants. And I’ve been in a supposedly progressive enclave.

    Kenneth McGraw’s research which I was unaware of is absolutely surprising, hopeful and … subversive sounding. How lovely that research would show that …”rewards will have a detrimental effect on performance under two conditions: “first, when the task is interesting enough for the subjects that the offer of incentives is a superfluous source of motivation; second, when the solution to the task is open-ended enough that the steps leading to a solution are not immediately obvious.”

    I’m not sure exactly what that means… and will have to look at it more but its intriguing. I’ve always thought it quite fair and important that the garbage collector should be paid more than I, since I loved my work, and I assumed that this would likely be an unavailable motivation for the collector – apart from the sometimes appreciated aspect of the job of getting to work outside. Is the negative impact due to an aversion to having something with prior intrinsic value be reduced?

    We do seem to be in a pickle. I came of age a few years after you I suspect. Reagan was in office and the community organizing aspect of social work was being de-emphasized and dismantled in favor of the clinical adjusting of persons to the environment/situation ~ in social work, as it sadly began to move more into the proper sphere of psychology, rather than advocacy. While I got the implications, I felt the slide and possibility of being marginalized myself while in graduate school whenever I mentioned them. And here we are now, so much change is needed and folks are so entrenched in… fear? a clinging to a fantasy of normal that is represented by at least buying the accoutrements of the hallmark life?

    How do we walk back from this place where so many of us are still lulled into the sleep of thinking we have significant party differences, with a progressive choice (change we can believe in) that has brought us the NDAA, more entrenchment of surveillance as a normal state of affairs, the evolution of the primacy of drone warfare and acceptance of assassination and collateral damage as necessities of life…? Amazing example of how far we’ve come via Joe Klein with Joe Scarborough ( Good lord!

    It will have to be surprising. Tho I’ve always drawn comfort from Annie Dillard in Teaching a Stone to Talk, which sounds about as challenging as the task before us – where she writes hopefully however ~ “Look at the planet everywhere freedom twines its way around necessity, inventing new strings of occasions, lassoing time and putting it through its varied and spirited places. Everywhere live things lash at the rocks.” and “softness is vulnerable, but it has a will” ~ Heavens if ‘lichen’ can chew the granite mountains, and forests ‘trammel the hills’ ~ perhaps we people can come up with some respectable and worthy but gentle, creative, mutiny yet, who knows?

    thanks for your good efforts ~ tis good to shine a lite even from the margins.


  4. Mike
    Mike November 29, 2012 at 3:41 am |

    A common line of rhetoric from authoritarians these days is to denigrate social welfare programs for creating mass dependency. This strikes me as a sort of reverse-psychology to convince people that increasing the material needs of ever larger segments of the population leads to freedom, contrary to Franklin Roosevelt’s “clear realization of the fact that true individual freedom cannot exist without economic security and independence. ‘Necessitous men are not free men.’ People who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made.” Can you comment on this? Thank you.

  5. Barbara
    Barbara June 19, 2013 at 10:15 am |

    As a retireed Montessori teacher 38 years, I have seen on a daily basis the dedication to, and pride in accomplishing, a challenging task in 3-6 year olds, and how trivialized they feel when someone “appreciates” their accomplishment with a sticker. A sticker for self-building? Are you kidding? One of the things that first drew Maria Montessori into creating her educational method was when she observed a young child giving away a “reward” necklace she had been given to another child who looked sad.

    Montessori went even further, writing that the patronizing “Here, let me do that for you,” saps the child’s desire to rise to a challenge, and creates the belief in one’s own incapabilty. (Great article!)

  6. donna
    donna January 13, 2014 at 10:37 am |

    Hi. I was happy to come across your article because it put into words exactly what I was thinking after I read the book: “Emotional Intelligence” by Daniel Coleman. Although experiments on human behavior can give us explanation, I am against the institution of behavior modification tools in schools in order to hope for a society of less violent people. Who creates the standard? This is my greatest concern. I agree that with liberty there are consequences…bad behavior. However, it is much more important to live in a free society where there is also the freedom to choose wrongly, than to be controlled and live in a society where there is no bad behavior.

  7. Chris Free
    Chris Free November 5, 2014 at 9:08 am |

    a (token) reward and the addition of a
    reinforcing stimulus are not necessarily
    the same.

    such rewards can be shown to be a negative
    reenforcement with an unfavorable outcome.

    most any research can be misused, misapplied, or misrepresented.

    just because newtonian mechanics cannot easily
    deal with the question of how heat produces light
    does not mean that their findings are wrong in all
    other circumstances.

  8. Control the Individual – Control the Freedom | Head Space

    […] from Behavior Modification and an Authoritarian Society, Bruce Levine, […]

  9. anominus
    anominus March 8, 2015 at 6:26 pm |

    Every kind of manipulation needs a kind of trust, entitlement, a desire to cooperate and a wish for peace (on the subordinate’s part). These are the traits of a domesticated animal. So, in contrast, if we don’t want to ‘serve’, we should be distrustful, opportunistic, egoistic and risk-taking (these are traits of dominant/independent behavior). Of course this would lead to anarchy and the collapse of modern civilization (which pollutes environment, eradicates biodiversity and contraselects humankind into animal-of-burden).

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