Hey There, Pigeon Brain!

"And I will tell you, O my brothers - they tried, but they were unable to control your humble narrator"

The brilliant BBC filmmaker Adam Curtis wrote what I consider to be a very important article over at his blog recently. I would strongly encourage people to read/view it in full here.

Curtis points out that Behaviorism is back – and this in a rather big way. David Cameron has employed a team at Downing Street called the ‘Behavioral Insights Unit‘. This team use what were thought to be the outmoded psychological theories of Behaviorism to attempt to control citizens. They dress this up in the garb of social responsibility – but, at base, it is what it is: an attempt to manipulate people psychologically.

The aims of the Behavioral Insights Unit cannot be thought of as promoting social responsibility – as their theories evade the notion of the responsible individuals. Behaviorism sees people not as moral agents, but as machines that can be programmed through the manipulation of their environment.

The theory has its beginnings in a lab. Skinner used to put pigeons in a box – a box ominously named the ‘Skinner box’. Skinner would then train the pigeon to act in a certain way by feeding it when it undertook certain actions and withholding food when it performed others. By doing this Skinner found that he was able to exert some control over the animal.

From this Skinner then took an enormous theoretical leap and assumed that humans act in an identical way.

This, of course, is nonsense. Humans sometimes do respond to incentive – but then, sometimes they do not. Humans are far more complex creatures than pigeons – and their environments are far more complex than Skinner Boxes. Take a simple example:

Let’s say that I can derive immense financial and material satisfactions by acting in an unscrupulous manner – this is not simply a thought experiment, many people do this on a daily basis. According to Skinner’s theories there should be nothing stopping me from doing so. In reality, of course, there is: my conscience. Because I am a relatively free moral agent I will be directed strongly by my conscience in these circumstances.

This is only one of many examples of why Skinner’s Behaviorist theories simply don’t weigh up. As the linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky once wrote:

“[Skinner’s] speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behaviour. Furthermore, Skinner imposes certain arbitrary limitations on scientific research which virtually guarantee continued failure.”

Curtis asserts that this new resurgence of Behaviorism marks a turning point in how people will be controlled by the government and the market. Curtis claims that this new turn to Behaviorism will be the death of the old individualism – which he traces back to Freudianism. Here, Curtis is wrong on a number of counts.

First of all, individualism – a constant theme running through Curtis’ work – is not traceable to Freud, but to an intellectual movement known as Romanticism that emerged in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

The excellent British philosopher and historian of ideas Isaiah Berlin (who appeared in one of Curtis’ programs – and whose work I would encourage Curtis to become more familiar with) traced this history in his excellent lecture series now printed under the title ‘The Roots of Romanticism‘. This long history, I would argue, makes notions such as individualism and liberty far more impervious to being overturned than Curtis seems to suppose. This can even be seen  in the way the Behaviorists don’t claim to want to control individuals – which would be heresy – but to ‘nudge’ them to take… what else… but moral action.

Secondly, Curtis doesn’t seem to have any conception that a theory can simply be wrong. Behaviorism rests on demonstrably false premises and due to this we can be confident that any attempts to enforce it will fail – and fail rather spectacularly at that. The Behaviorists offer Cameron a means of control – but this is illusory and history will prove this… mark my words.

A final point. While I believe that Behaviorism stands little chance of gaining traction in the management of public affairs, it is certainly becoming more prevalent among psychologists and psychotherapists under the name Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. But I don’t believe that this marks an intellectual victory. Behaviorism is popular among psychologists because it is cost effective. It produces effects quickly – even though these results are unlikely to last very long. For this reason people with low and medium incomes will come to Behaviorists rather than other forms of psychotherapists. But the well-off generally wouldn’t be seen dead around a Behaviorist – they have no desire to be treated like pigeons. These people are far more likely to avail of a more expensive, more effective and more theoretically sound form of psychotherapy.

Curtis is a fine filmmaker and I would encourage everyone to check out his films – but I believe that his conclusions are often wrong. And this, I believe, is because Curtis doesn’t appreciate certain aspects of man that can adequately be termed his ‘Nature’. Ideas may change, but the people who produce them don’t – at least, not very significantly.

And on that note I’ll leave you with a real horrorshow version of the theme from A Clockwork Orange, my little droogies. Give your old glazzies a rest from viddying this online gazetta and slooshy this dobby music.

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About pilkingtonphil

Philip Pilkington is a London-based economist and member of the Political Economy Research Group (PERG) at Kingston University. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil.
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5 Responses to Hey There, Pigeon Brain!

  1. mrtaurus says:

    Great interesting post :)

  2. Pingback: Happy Christmas « Fixing the Economists

  3. Ben says:

    This is in reference to the third-to-last paragraph, starting “A final point”.

    The author makes no attempt to explain Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) or how it differs from pure Behaviourism (Behavioural Therapy) – perhaps they should read this book ( http://tinyurl.com/68fxj4s ) for an overview of CBT and this book ( http://tinyurl.com/5rs9lmw ) for an understanding of how Behaviour Therapy/Behavioural Experiments are used within a Cognitive Therapy (CT) framework (Chapter 1 of the latter book free here (PDF): http://tinyurl.com/6kmzmf9 ).

    The author goes on to claim that Behaviourism is popular because it is cost effective, producing results quickly, but asserts that “these results are unlikely to last very long” – however, they offer no evidence to support the ‘unlikeliness’ of this statement. Nor do they make an effort to quantify “very long”, and in the absence of this, or a comparison to other forms of therapy, the statement is meaningless.

    It would be interesting to know what these more expensive, more effective, theoretically sounder forms of psychotherapy are that the author mentions, and what evidence they would like to cite that they are a) more effective than CBT and b) theoretically sounder. I suggest the author reads these two papers on how Cognitive Behavioural treatments are developed/improved:

    Developing new treatments: on the interplay between theories, experimental science and clinical innovation ( http://tinyurl.com/6yr7h6g )

    Empirically grounded clinical interventions: Cognitive-behavioural therapy progresses through a multi-dimensional approach to clinical science ( http://tinyurl.com/6e8yjvy )

    • Wasn’t really that type of post, brother. I will say this, though: be careful when reading any ‘empirical’ evidence of behavioral therapies. I know of one case where a person went to have a flying phobia removed. The phobia had developed when this person was in their early twenties. They had it ‘cured’ when they were in their early fifties. Soon after this person began having crippling anxiety attacks – which they had not had since the flying phobia developed. Now they’re stuck with the panic attacks rather than a fairly benign phobia of flying. I wonder if that would have shown up in the ‘empirical’ papers on CBT…

  4. John says:

    Skinner was an intellectual pygmy. His view of human beings is therefore that of an intellectual pygmy, which is to say it doesn’t cover a lot of the territory.

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