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The June issue of The Atlantic is using the authority of UCSD social psychology professor Christopher Bryan to prop up the long tarnished reputation of B. F. Skinner, author of the novel Walden Two, first published in 1948, and Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which appeared in 1971. To overcome common human problems, Skinner’s work advocated the use of “operant conditioning,” now more commonly called “behavior modification.”

In the lead article entitled “The Perfected Self,” David H. Freedman quotes Bryan as saying, “There was a notion that there’s something icky about psychological techniques intended to manipulate people.” On its front cover, the magazine appears to rename “icky” while transporting its basic meaning into the come-on to readers, “The End of Temptation: How the creepy science of behavior modification is reshaping our desires.”

Much of the article concerns how new smart phone apps are becoming available for losing weight and other self help efforts. Freedman eventually confronts, if only briefly, the Big Brother question: “An individual choosing to alter his environment to affect his behavior is one thing; a corporation or a government altering an individual’s environment to affect his behavior is another.”

For his part, UCSD’s Bryan is high on large-scale manipulations of people by do-gooder projects. In research, he writes on his university web page, “I have looked at how framing manipulations that invoke the self can get people to vote in elections [among other things].”

But how about helping me improve my abilities to deflect mass political manipulations that are already out there? So armed, I might not only be more inclined to go to the polls but be better able to vote my own mind when I get there. Bryan did not answer my voicemail and email messages asking to talk about such topics.

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BradleyFikes June 18, 2012 @ 7:54 p.m.

"But how about helping me improve my abilities to deflect mass political manipulations that are already out there?"

That's one of the roles of a free and independent press. As long as the public can choose among publications representing diverse viewpoints, such manipulations can be exposed for what they are.

"Framing" is notoriously amenable to deception; it's done in politics all the time. Here's Steven Pinker giving a nice dissection of the dishonest use of framing: by George Lakoff. http://scienceblogs.com/gnxp/2006/10/07/pinker-vs-lakoff/

One can just imagine the howls of ridicule if a politician took Lakoff’s Orwellian advice tried to rebrand “taxes” as “membership fees.” . . . Also, “taxes” and “membership fees” are not just two ways of framing the same thing. If you choose not to pay a membership fee, the organization will stop providing you with its services. But if you choose not to pay taxes, men with guns will put you in jail.


ImJustABill June 18, 2012 @ 8:14 p.m.

Good points. BTW "taxes" have already been rebranded as "revenue". Gov't spending has been rebranded as "investment".


thistle June 20, 2012 @ 8:53 p.m.

I took the course in operant conditioning given by B.F. Skinner at Harvard in 1961. It featured a new wrinkle, called the "teaching machine." The "machine" had you write answers on a long paper tape, rather like an adding machine roll (who remembers them?); the questions were on another roll, and you got from one question to the next by using a ratcheted lever. The key to learning appeared to be slicing the lesson into thousands of tiny pieces, fed to you one by one by the machine. "Operant conditioning is also called _ _ _ modification," for example, wanted you to fill in the word "behavior." The next question would be "Operant _ _ _ _ is also called behavior _ _ _ _ ," and you had to write "conditioning" and then "modification" on the tape. Thus, agonizing step by tedious step, you ended up learning the whole sentence.

Except for me. I couldn't focus. One of the readings in the course was Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World." I kept writing "The Nile is the longest river in Africa" on my tape, no matter what the question. Another phrase I repeated came from another of the readings, by Joseph Wood Krutch, an opponent of Skinner's, who came in for a lot of ridicule in the lectures.

My failure to modify my behavior adequately got me a C- in the course. But I've dined out on it often in the fifty years that followed, so I think my parents and the National Merit Scholarship Foundation got their money's worth. I became a much more dialectical thinker, but I am grateful to Skinner for showing me how what looks like a nice, liberal vision of a free society is just a hair's breadth away from a despicable vision of a boring and highly unfree monoculture.


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