the foundations of oppression can't be plucked up without the anger of a multitude

The Failures of Behavioural Psychology

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I have written a bit about behaviourism and its influence. More than once I have made reference to Arthur Koestler’s critique of behaviourism from his 1960’s book, The Ghost in the Machine. He begins it by arguing that behaviourism ‘has permeated our attitudes to philosophy, social science , education, psychiatry.’ The more I have thought about it since I first read that immensely useful book, the more I have thought he is right.ghost in machine

Another thing I have written about before is the Behavioural Insights Team, the ‘nudge unit’ of the UK government. With the rise of Dominic Cummings, more people have become aware of the existence of this team, set up in 2010 by David Cameron, who hoped that, ‘with all the advances in behavioural economics, I think we can achieve a real increase in well-being, in happiness, in a stronger society without necessarily having to spend a whole lot more money.’[1]

Clearly, ‘behavioural economics’ and ‘behavioural insights’ are etymologically related to the science of Behaviourism, established by John Broadus Watson just before the First World War. Watson, Koestler informs me, proclaimed in 1913, ‘the time has come when psychology must discard all reference to consciousness … Its sole task is the prediction and control of behaviour; and introspection can form no part of its method’. It begs the question, ‘if mental events are to be excluded from the study of psychology – what is there left for the psychologist to study?’ The ‘short answer’, writes Koestler, ‘is: rats’. In a memorable phrase, he argues that Behaviourism ‘has substituted for the erstwhile anthropomorphic view of the rat, a ratomorphic view of man.’

Skinner and his rat

Skinner and his rat

Behaviourism, modelled on 19th century mechanistic physics, claimed to have discovered the ‘atoms of behaviour’ which made up a chain of stimuli, responses and reinforcements. It disavowed any theory of the mind, even to explain the creative process. The painter, the poet or the dressmaker create original work, Watson declared, by manipulating material ‘until a new pattern is hit upon’. They know they have found the right pattern when they receive the reinforcement of ‘admiration and commendation’, equivalent, said Watson ‘to a rat’s finding food’. Although all other science did away with the idea of the ‘atom’ [literally, ‘indivisible’] as the smallest unit of all matter, Behaviourism, given new life by B. F. Skinner in the late 1950s, continued to believe that all human behaviour could be reduced to a ‘sequence of responses’. For Koestler:

‘the attempt to reduce the complex activities of man to the hypothetical “atoms of behaviour” found in lower mammals produced next to nothing that is relevant – just as the chemical analysis of bricks and mortar will tell you next to nothing about the architecture of a building.’

Although, in many of the fields in which behaviourism was applied, its assertions had been disproved, Koestler argued that its influence was far greater than some people realised.

Behaviourists renamed psychology the ‘science of behaviour’ (removing any reference to the ‘psyche’) and thought education would be better known as ‘behavioural engineering’. Watson’s foundational aim was ‘to predict and to control human activity as physical scientists control and manipulate other natural phenomena’. Koestler’s opinion was that this aim ‘sounds as nasty as it is naïve.’

The Behavioural Insights Team with its 'broad range of backgrounds'

The Adults at the Behavioural Insights Team planning how to control the children

Behavioural psychology has always felt nasty to me. What has worried me for a long time, however, is that it may not be naïve. Perhaps, really we can be nudged and manipulated into predictable, measurable responses. After Cummings’ team’s response to coronavirus, I am more confident to say that it is indeed naïve. An article today in the Observer by Sonia Sodha points out that it was the Chief Executive of BIT, David Halpern, who ‘first publically mentioned the idea of “herd immunity”’. He is also ‘reportedly’ on the ‘Sage committee’, and his ideas are responsible for the original government focus on messaging about washing hands, rather than enforcing a lockdown. According to a Bloomberg article from 11th March in which Halpern is repeatedly quoted, ‘Johnson’s team say their approach, while more relaxed than other efforts around the world, is based on sophisticated modelling that could ultimately cut the virus mortality rate among high-risk groups in the U.K. by as much as a third’.[2] The grandiose predictions of British exceptionalism, don’t look so good now. Before he nearly became one of the 20,000+ British casualties of this terrible pandemic, Johnson claimed ‘measures adopted by other countries are not necessarily relevant to the U.K’.

Halpern nudging us along

Halpern nudging us along

Concerned with What we Think It Is

In the face of the pandemic, Halpern said government’s job was to create “behavioural scaffolding to form a new habit”. We are undoubtedly washing our hands more. Perhaps this is a conditioned response to the repeated stimulus of government advice on hand washing. Perhaps we all just realised (a verb that implies some idea of a mind, and thus one that would be rejected by behaviourists) that it was a good idea. It is possible that we heard the advice and decided that regularly washing our hands would indeed make a difference to our chances of picking up or passing on pathogenic microbes. Is it too presumptuous to believe that I was the scaffolder of my own habits?

Another reason for not bringing in lockdown earlier was the idea that we would begin to suffer from ‘behavioural fatigue’ if it went on too long. Now, Halpern’s unit think that if they extend the lockdown, it might ‘increase non-compliance’. This, Sodha explains, is extrapolated from ‘a study about extending deployment in the armed forces’. Naturally, a soldier who has been told he will be away for 6 months, finds it psychologically hard to continue for another 3 and begins to become surly and disobedient. People, however, have chosen to comply with lockdown because it makes sense to do so. Humans are surprisingly adaptable and are underrated as rational agents.

We hear that government is troubled that asking people to wear masks might be a bad idea because it will frighten us into thinking we are living in a pandemic. Behavioural insights seem to be afflicted with a postmodern concern about how we will think something is rather than concentrating on what it is.

The problem of common sense

On a radio discussion I heard the other night, host and guest argued back and forth about the enforcement of the lockdown. The host cited examples of police being heavy-handed with people doing reasonable things and argued that there should be clearer guidelines about what is and isn’t allowed. The guest, who had been something in the cabinet office once, argued that it was hard to predict all eventualities and that, naturally, the legislation would have to adapt as time went along to incorporate these unforeseeable exceptions to the new rule. Both had a point. It is impossible to legislate in a way that defines what is ‘essential’ for each one of us. And it is impossible to comply with such vague legislation because, what is ‘essential’ for some is different to others.

Nevertheless, the lockdown has been quite successful. Success has been achieved by us

keepint our distance

Keeeping our distance…

all committing to limit leaving our houses. This is a consensus that we have found together with our own ideas of what excursions are essential. It could not work otherwise, for the simple reason that there are not enough police in the country to enforce it without our compliance. With the vast majority limiting their social contact and keeping distance from each other as much as possible, only a few outlier, crazy people are left doing obviously risky things, which is a level of problem the police can handle. It is not the ‘conditioning’ reinforcement of punishment that stops us going out, but a rational fear of spreading or catching an infectious disease.

The problem which comes with this ‘naïve and nasty’ philosophy is that some of its assumptions have wormed their way inside us. Often, we still think in carrot-and-stick ‘common sense’, especially when we think about dealing with Other People.

I saw a piece of graffiti in Liverpool in 2008. On one side of a sign someone had stenciled the question: ‘Do you think you are above average intelligence?’ On the other side, it read ‘65% of people think they are above average intelligence’. We may think that it’s all right for us following rules without any enforcement – you, me, and our intelligent friends  – but what about all those other below-average intelligence people? Behavioural scaffolding is for other people, not us. People are rational and intelligent. However, keeping us uninformed and treating us like we are stupid, because Cummings and Halpern know what is in our best interests, has the unfortunate effect of making us less informed and therefore liable to behave more stupidly. It is a reasonable distrust of governments that leads people to have unreasonable ideas about the effects of 5G.

.The State needs to drop its God-complex, stop thinking it can control our behaviour and start opening up about what’s happening. Even young children want to know the reasons why they are not allowed to do something. What people want now in this dangerous time, is to know the science, know who is on the Sage committee and know what they are saying. Publish the scientific advice (even if there are contradictory views) and let’s have a grown up conversation about what the best thing to do is. We are united in the common cause of eliminating the virus. We will do so quicker if we are all informed and able to use what I will stubbornly call, in defiance of Watson and Skinner, our minds.




Written by angrysampoetry

April 26, 2020 at 9:04 pm

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