On B. F. Skinner and a Technology of Behavior

I have read the first 3 pages of Beyond Freedom and Dignity to my students for 17 years. It is an amazing passage that justifies the need for a technology of behavior. I read this passage 10 days after Sept 11th. It was relevant and moving. Dr. Skinner was then and continues to be right on the money!  (Williams, TBA listserv 12/30/2011)

Wendy Williams is right to draw attention to the first few pages of Beyond Freedom and Dignity, but not entirely for the reasons she implies.  Skinner’s advocacy of a technology of behavior is a brilliant piece of rhetoric.  But it relies on two assumptions, neither entirely correct.  First, that we know much more than our predecessors about how to change people’s behavior.  And, second, that we are pretty much certain about our ultimate aims. 

Let’s look at objectives first.  Skinner’s aims are conventional, even prescient – many have gained prominence over the years.   He echoes English botanist Darlington’s complaint that the advance of modern technological civilization has at every step damaged the planet and made life more difficult for future generations.  Skinner affirms that “sanitation and medicine have made the problems of population more acute;” war is potentially much worse because of atomic weapons; affluence makes pollution. 

All this will ring true to modern ears.  Well, yes, modern health practices have undoubtedly exacerbated population growth and poverty in some places, some parts of Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, particularly.  But in others, Europe and to some degree the US, they have had the opposite effect.  Population growth in Europe is mostly negative.  The problem there is the “graying” of the population not its excess.  What are the crucial differences between the South Sudan, where population presses constantly against food supply, and, say, Germany, where affluence has steadily increased as population growth stalls?  We’re not sure, but the inquiry goes well beyond Skinner’s ‘technology of behavior.’

Has war become more dangerous?  Probably not.  Steve Pinker in his new book Better Angels of Our Nature in fact argues precisely the opposite, that violent death has declined during the past century, even if the horrific Soviet, Nazi, Maoist and other genocides are included.  More locally, the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have taken a much smaller death toll than the Korean and Vietnam wars that preceded them.  So far, the existence of nuclear-armed states has tended to inhibit all-out war rather than induce it.  No doubt, if nuclear war does occur, it will be just as awful as Skinner assumed.  But is total elimination of nukes the answer?  Is it even possible (N. Korea, Iran, q.v.)?  Or will the attempt just increase the incentive for rogue states to beat the ban?  Stay tuned on this one. 

How about the environment?  Well here also the case for monotonic decline is hard to make.  I grew up in London at a time when most houses were heated by open coal fires.  “Pea-soup” fogs, in which you really could not see the hand at the end of your arm, were common.  (As kids, we quite enjoyed a good fog, because of all the noisy, albeit slow-speed, car crashes we could hear if not entirely see.)   Coal fires are now banned and these yellow fogs are a thing of the past.  Is our physical environment now really much worse than it was say one hundred years ago?  No; the opposite is nearer the truth in the developed world.  For the developing world, the case is less clear.  But even there decline is far from universal and forces to reverse it are growing in strength.  So what makes the difference between, say England, where the environment has gotten better over the years, and China, India or much of Africa, where it has not?

Skinner’s rhetoric simply evades these complexities.  But they are not incidental.  Until we understand not just the psychological but the political and economic forces that drive social change, we cannot know even what our aims should be much less just how to attain them. 

What about Skinner’s first point: do we really know that much more about how to change behavior than we did a hundred or more years ago?   I have always believed that Skinner’s main contribution to science is his laboratory research.  It is surely one of the most important contributions to 20th-century psychobiology.  Studying behavior in single organisms in real time was a huge advance.  The rich lode of orderly data on reinforcement schedules that derives from his work is to psychology comparable to the new world that Hooke’s microscope revealed to biology. 

But Skinner’s laboratory work has added relatively little to what human beings already knew about changing human behavior.  As a Christmas recreation I recently read a biography of James Buchanan “Buck” Duke, founder of my longtime academic home, Duke University.  The account of how he built a modest plug-tobacco business into a huge nationwide monopoly involves behavior change on an extraordinary scale.  Promotional lotteries, cigarette cards (little pictures of sports stars and stage lovelies included in each cigarette pack), ingenious bonus schemes for carefully selected super-salesmen, crafty concealment of his growing monopoly and ruthless bankrupting of competitors.  None of Buck’s clever schemes owed anything to a ‘technology of behavior.’  All preceded Skinner by 50 years or more.  Many others who came after Skinner have also changed human behavior without recourse to behavioral psychology.  When asked what he thought about research, and the use Apple makes of it to build new products, the late great Steve Jobs said “none…it isn’t the consumers’ job to know what they want.”   Obviously, if you don’t know what they want you can’t set up a schedule to reinforce it.  When you do know, the schedule is easy.  The problem is discovering what the consumer might want, a problem for which behavioral science has no ready solution.

 But the core problem with Skinner’s polemic is its philosophical naïveté.  Technology is a tool not an aim.  A knife can be used to carve a pumpkin or kill an enemy.  By itself it tells us nothing about what should be achieved with its aid.  David Hume pointed out a couple of hundred years ago that facts (including scientific theories) by themselves are not a guide to action.   Skinner (like his Harvard colleague E. O. Wilson) either did not understand this point, or thought that the proper aims for a technology of behavior are so obvious that the point needs no discussion – “To confuse and delay the improvement of cultural practices by quibbling about the word improve is itself not a useful practice”  Really?  

John Staddon (January 10, 2012)