Philip Pilkington: Falling for Behaviourism – The Neoclassicals Join a New Cult

By Philip Pilkington, a writer and journalist based in Dublin, Ireland. You can follow him on Twitter at @pilkingtonphil

The hedonistic conception of man is that of a lightning calculator of pleasures and pains who oscillates like a homogeneous globule of desire of happiness under the impulse of stimuli that shift him about the area, but leave him intact. He is an isolated definitive human datum, in stable equilibrium except for the buffets of the impinging forces that displace him in one direction or another.

– Thorstein Veblen

Recently someone directed my attention to a book by a British economist called Diane Coyle, entitled The Soulful Science. It is a defence of economic orthodoxy written for a mass audience.

At first I thought I would find engagement with the major critiques of mainstream economics that have emerged, well, since Keynes’ time. I thought that there would be discussion of the SMD theorem, the Cambridge Capital Controversies, the dubiousness of the neutrality of money argument and so on. No such luck! Instead this was a book defending economics from what the author sees as a ‘romantic reaction’ against it by the public at large.

Coyle thinks, rightly, that the public largely distrusts the rationalising tendencies of economists and their crude attempts to stuff human nature into a little box. But Coyle claims that this public perception is merely a caricature of economics. She argues that economics, in fact, now has a ‘soul’. She claims that it has shed its reductionist garb and embraced the wealth of human experience. And she claims that it has done so by integrating new research programs such as those based on behaviourism.

Coyle represents one of those awful cases of a person with common sense who has cast off the more ludicrous aspects of microeconomics, but in doing so has not been able to escape fully from the restrictive training (brainwashing?) that she received in university. It is this type of person who is ripe for harvesting by the behaviourists and their derivatives (who can be found throughout the economics department subfields under a variety of different names). Like a drug addict who, recognising the errors of their ways, joins a cult religion; out of the frying pan and into the fire.

The problem being, of course, that behaviourism is itself a stranger cult than neoclassical economics. It too represents a counterintuitive way of looking at the world that many would find silly and sometimes even offensive.

Behaviourism in its modern form emerged in the mind of an unusual man who possessed equally unusual ideas about his fellow men. It is to him that we now turn.

The Curious Case of B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner was a peculiar man. At one time he fancied himself an author, a poet even. He tried his hand at fiction writing, but was unsuccessful. Later he published his poetry. It was awful. So, he turned instead to psychology – or at least, what he called psychology.

Skinner had tried and failed to portray humans in a light that would convince his readers of his fictional narratives and it was largely for this reason, we can guess, that he took up academic psychology. From here Skinner channelled his desperate lack of ability at painting realistic psychological portraits of his fellow man into a pseudo-science which he thought would lead to a change in the nature of Man himself.

This was a fairly messianic undertaking to say the least. The world had rejected the crude psychologies Skinner had peddled in his prose and in his poetry; so, instead of taking another good look at his own psychology or opening himself up to real criticism, he set out to try to spread his ideas among the professional and academic psychologists. From here, as we shall see, it was, to Skinner’s mind, only one step away from changing the nature of Man himself to bring him more in line with what Skinner thought him to be.

Hey There, Pigeon-Brain!

What happened next is the stuff of legends. Skinner constructed boxes in which he put pigeons – later to be ominously named ‘Skinner boxes’. In these boxes he placed levers that the pigeons could activate in order to obtain food. From these simple experiments Skinner made a heroic leap by assuming that from his findings he could construct the outlines of a total psychology of Man.

If a parent found that their child, who had tried his or her hand at writing and had failed, was now holed up in the cellar playing with pigeons in cages in order to construct a psychological theory they would, quite rightly, be worried. But Skinner wore a lab coat and carried an academic qualification and no personal madness is too strange for the university department.

Many others in the social sciences, including philosophers and other psychologists, recognised that Skinner was peddling pseudo-scientific nonsense. The most eloquent and biting criticisms came from the linguist Noam Chomsky. In a piece entitled A Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior Chomsky noted the peculiar manner in which Skinner undertook his ‘research’:

What is so surprising is the particular limitations he has imposed on the way in which the observables of behavior are to be studied, and, above all, the particularly simple nature of the function which, [Skinner] claims, describes the causation of behavior.

Chomsky noted that, for Skinner, there was no ‘inside’ to a person’s psychology, only arbitrary external ‘behaviours’. This probably reflected Skinner’s own psychological incompetence, as it was in drawing real and convincing pictures of people and their inner-lives that his fiction writing had failed.

But while in the field of fiction Skinner’s ineptitude had produced only dross, in the field of psychology it produced a superficially convincing, but ultimately vapid pseudo-psychology that would soon rule over the American university departments. Where in fiction writing Skinner had been a joke, in academia he was a virus.

Through his engagement with the ‘work’ being done in the field, Chomsky was shocked at what he found.

Careful study of [Skinner’s] book (and of the research on which it draws) reveals that [it’s] astonishing claims are far from justified. It indicates, furthermore, that the insights that have been achieved in the laboratories of the [behaviorist], though quite genuine, can be applied to complex human behavior only in the most gross and superficial way.

In his review Chomsky saw clearly the dangers of Skinner’s approach to the field of psychology. Those that adopted it – and they were legion – would only approach the study of Man from the most narrow framework imaginable. Anything that did not fit into their pre-established pseudo-psychology would be ignored and papered over. Skinner’s behaviourism was not so much a research program as a cult doctrine.

From Reality to Dystopia

One can imagine that Skinner recognised the shortcomings of his method. He must have observed on a daily basis that humans were unpredictable creatures that did not conform to the strict confines by which his own theories perceived them. He must also have noted from his personal interactions that people do, in fact, have inner lives based on emotions, feelings, fantasies and memories and that these have a profound impact on their behaviours. One can further imagine that this was quite emotionally stressful for Skinner. On the one hand, he believed that his new science opened up the way for understanding the psychologies of Man. But on the other, Skinner must have noticed that in his day-to-day interactions with other people that his object of study proved remarkably slippery.

So, Skinner began his messianic crusade to make Man more rational – that is, he began to manifest an authoritarian desire to make those around him conform to how he wanted them to act. In 1948 he published a fictional work called Walden Two. In it he described what he considered a utopia, but what most people would consider a living hell. He describes a small, planned community in which people were managed by scientists that resembled Skinner and his followers. In many ways the book resembled such dystopian novels as Huxley’s Brave New World, but with the twist that the authoritarian society presented therein was portrayed as a sort of utopia.

In his follow up to his review entitled The Case Against B.F. Skinner Chomsky noted the strong authoritarian tendencies in the writings of the behaviourists. Chomsky observed that, unlike in the dystopian novels of, say, Orwell where people were coerced through brutality and violence, Skinner’s vision was a more integrated form of control based on incentives and pleasures (much like in Huxley’s work):

[In] the delightful culture [the behaviorists] have designed there should be no aversive consequences, immediate or deferred. Unwanted behavior would be eliminated from the start by the threat of the crematoria and the all-seeing spies. Thus all behavior would be automatically ‘good’, as required. There would be no punishment. Everyone would be reinforced – differentially, of course, in accordance with his ability to obey the rules.

But Chomsky noted that such a society, even if it could be brought into existence (which it obviously could not), would be significantly lacking in freedom. Indeed, even though people would, in theory, be living pleasurable lives, these would nevertheless be pleasurable lives lived under a tyranny of the worst kind imaginable.

Of course, for Skinner all that really mattered was that people act more in line with how he thought they should act. Who knows, if they did begin to act in such a manner in their day-to-day lives they might even buy his novels. That was why Skinner considered his horrific picture of a society wherein people were controlled by men in lab coats as a utopia; because in his own fantasies it gave him power over the imaginations of his fellow men – imaginations that had, in the past, rejected the perverse imaginational constructions that Skinner had produced.

Back to Economics

“A world of strictly controlled and determined pleasure and incentives,” the astute reader will observe. “Why that sounds similar to another pseudo-science we all know so well!”

Yes, Skinner’s framework was ripe for use by the neoclassical economists and their utility analysis. The neoclassicals largely subscribed to Skinner’s pigeon-brained view of Man as a creature that fell almost completely in line with incentives and had no real freedom to choose. They too saw Man as an animal with a series of fixed preferences which provided them with pleasure (utility) and that all our psychologist or economist had to do was understand these incentives to unlock the secrets of Man himself.

And so behaviourism was a perfect accompaniment to the neoclassical research program in which it was adopted under various subheadings. Their utility analyses had proved largely worthless under experimental conditions, so they took over the behaviourist pseudo-empiricist method and began their so-called research. This research – all based on silly behaviourist nonsense in one guise or another – was then adopted in a variety of different ways into the research program as a whole.

Armed with these tools – supplemented by a feigned nod or two toward vague findings in neuroscience – many economists today fool themselves into thinking that they are engaged in a revolution in economic thought. They are not, of course. They continue to fall behind the other social sciences by holding fast to the narrow, technocratic and at times laughable portrait of Man that has plagued neoclassical microeconomics since its earliest days. Indeed, if they were to truly throw this vision out they would find that the entire edifice of neoclassical economics crumbles.

But such a research program allows those that have experienced the discomfort evoked by the gross failures of the neoclassical program to remain content in the notion that they don’t really need to fundamentally re-evaluate their scientistic and deterministic worldview. No, all it needs is modification. It is behaviourism that provides these lost souls with the supplement needed to keep their research program intact – if only hanging together by a thread.

A real psychologist would be less interested in the theories of the neoclassicals and the behaviourists and more interested in what psychological gain these social groups derive from the theories themselves. A real psychologist, in short, would treat these pseudo-psychological constructions as reaction-formations to anxieties buried deep within the theories of the behaviourists and economists themselves; anxieties that drove Skinner to his pigeons and now drives neoclassicals to the behaviourist journals. Now that would be a fruitful field of study!

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    1. b.


      The dismal thing is, he is getting at interesting issues, and often has new (for me at least) points to offer. But the pompous I-am-Moses-skiing-down-Mount-Sinai act is getting overwhelming. Imagine a garden gnome replica of Chomsky with extra con-fidence and righteousness, skating down the icy slopes – err, does Sinai ever have snow?

      Now, I have more than my own share of intellectual arrogance, and maybe that’s why this is just too much to bear. It’s like looking at yourself in the world’s most warped funhouse mirror, and having to wonder whether there is actually a sizeable flat section somewhere. It’s worst when you actually agree that his “edict” is not off the mark.

      1. Philip Pilkington

        That’s the nicest thing anyone’s said so far.

        It’s called ‘parody’ by the way. Long tradition too. From Montaigne, through Swift coming right up to Veblen and Galbraith.

        1. Fiver

          You are called out for emitting yet another barrage of Olympian bombast and your defense is to place yourself in the same league as the likes of Veblen and Galbraith? Wow.

  1. Deus-DJ

    heheheh good way to end it Philip, i giggled and smirked. I hope the loser you’re talking about gets to come here and read it herself.

    1. vlade

      Yes he is.

      I thought the game theory post was bad, but this takes the cake by a long mile.

      It’s really sad to see stuff like this on a blog that is otherwise extremely well researched and argued.

        1. Mark P.

          ‘Are you confusing behaviorism and behavioral economics (Kahnenman et al)?’

          ‘Yes, he is.’

          Indeed. Cue: Pilkington to explain how there is no really no difference between these two things, and we are all dullards fooled by hegemonistic, pseudo-scientific models.

          Someone on the internet is wrong, I guess.

          Still, give him a break. If some of his stuff reads like a a college student’s self-infatuated wordage, pounded out full of conviction that it’s all genius, he’s still fairly young —

          1. Philip Pilkington

            You don’t think this sort of thing is a bit lowbrow, no?

            Engage with the material, dude, not the writer.

          2. Christophe


            Consider the lowbrow retorts you inevitably inspire with your writing a form of flattery. Clearly you are rattling the mental cages of some very defensive and self-satisfied intellectuals. Not that they are wrong in all their criticisms. You do have a defensive and self-satisfied writing style yourself, which some of your critics seem to abhor as much as looking in the mirror and not liking what they see reflected back. Who better to jolt us out of our ideological security than one who feels equally secure in opposing viewpoints?

            As for critics attacking you rather than your ideas, it is to be expected – and not merely because you are challenging the cherished beliefs of defensive intellectuals. Many of your most illuminating critiques of mainstream dogma have bolstered your arguments with exposes of the dogmas’ founders (I’m recalling Bentham’s utility theory, Nash’s game theory, and Skinner’s behaviorism.) Your ability to scour biography for clues to psychological temperament and to reinterpret the author’s theories in light of that temperament is a powerful debating technique. Most of your critics do not seem to possess that skill, so your “psychologizing” of your critique only inspires them to “personalize” theirs. It is a subtle distinction and they probably do not recognize the difference.

            Many of your more personalizing critics argue as though they were writing in an academic journal where sufficient agreement among mainstream proponents can silence any substantive dissent, alternate viewpoints, or wacky ideas. Which category your writing falls into I dare not venture to guess; that is for a subsequent generation to decide. Suffice it to say, I consider all three categories valuable, especially wacky ideas where truly creative change is born.

            None of that is to say that your theories are more “right” or “true” (whatever those terms are meant to reflect at this juncture in history) than the status quo. Rather, I hope to point out that your techniques are of more recent origin and therefore fresher, more insightful, and more persuasive. Personally, I would love to hear one of your critics contextualize your theories within your psychological temperament. Imagine — a comment as illuminating as your post. Alas, no one has yet risen to the occasion, though some seem lulled by the sound of their own bitter invective into believing they have.

        2. Nathanael

          It is very interesting to see Mr. Pilkington discredit himself by talking trash about subjects which he does not know anything about, but which I do know something about.

          He seems to be making a habit of it. It’s a bad habit.

        3. Philip Pilkington

          Guys, really. I know Behviorism and all that dominates US academia (Europeans never fell for it), but please, if you’re going to engage and say that behaviorism and behavioral economics are different then find the point in the piece where I draw the connection and criticise that. Here it is:

          “Yes, Skinner’s framework was ripe for use by the neoclassical economists and their utility analysis. The neoclassicals largely subscribed to Skinner’s pigeon-brained view of Man as a creature that fell almost completely in line with incentives and had no real freedom to choose. They too saw Man as an animal with a series of fixed preferences which provided them with pleasure (utility) and that all our psychologist or economist had to do was understand these incentives to unlock the secrets of Man himself.”

          This is true. Behavioral economics does focus on incentives. Yes, it widens the field slightly away from the very narrow confines of utility maximisation pure and simple, but it doesn’t go much further afield. It always ends up in social engineering fantasising. Take this paper as a case in point:

          “In this article I review empirical ndings on anomalous impacts of incentives and argue that, rather than being a disconnected string of idiosyncratic exceptions to the standard model, these fi ndings constitute convergent evidence about a coherent set of principles that can help improve the design of incentive structures in a variety of settings.”

          You see? Classic behaviorism. The author realises that incentives are a bit more complex than the standard neoclassical utility maximisation framework but continues to study the material in line with incentives. Rather than take a cultural/meaning-oriented approach — which would be the correct one (economic anthropology does this, which I regard much more highly than this present tosh) — the author continues to think in terms of ‘incentives’.

          This ultimately leads to social engineering just like it did with Skinner. (See above quote).

          If you’re going to engage with the piece, do so. The self-assertiveness in the above comments (“you don’t know what you’re talking about”) is crude.

          1. vlade

            I’d suggest you go and read Kahneman (yep, I know he got the econ “we-call-it-Nobel-but-it-isn’t” price. So what, even broken clock is right twice a day). Thinking, Fast and Slow would be a good start, and the 16 quid investment from Amazon is well worth it.

            One of K’s very substantial points is that what he terms “Econs” (fully-rational, perfect beings required by classical economy) ain’t real. In fact, he spends about a quater of the abovementioned book on that, with one experiment after another.

            He even talks how most standard ecomonists knowingly decide to ignore it, because it doesn’t fit with their framework (and has some amusing anecdotes around that). How about that?

          2. Philip Pilkington

            I read it. We were going to do an interview but Daniel wanted to do a phone interview because he was busy and I wanted to do the email interview that we usually do. That would have been a fantastic interview because I disagreed with most of the book. Pity it never came about.

            But yeah, I read the book. It wasn’t bad. Although I though some was arbitrary (like using temporal measures as a standard of thinking). Problem is that it doesn’t ‘apply’ so well when used experimentally. What you end up getting is, as I keep pointing out, incentive based research programs that will eschew context.

            Think of it this way: Kahenman’s work is like a microscope. He hones in on particular cognitive failings in human beings which, in and of themselves, are quite interesting. But when this type of work is applied in economic reality it falls short. Why? Because the way people act in the economy is not determined by the fact that they think the letter ‘K’ might appear more times in a sentence than the letter ‘Q’ or whatever. This is far too narrow. Their actions really rely on cultural and social context, not on narrow cognitive procedures.

            Kahneman’s work is mildly interesting in some regards (although the epistemological foundations are shaky), but it is not applicable to economic decision-making. At least not in any way that doesn’t fall back on the old incentive-based reasoning.

  2. Peter Dorman

    Um, aren’t you conflating behavioral economics and behaviorism? What do, say, Kahneman and Tversky have to do with B. F. Skinner?

  3. James

    I agree with the above comments. It’s nice to see someone who has taken so much from Adam Curtis but his technique is refined and you have yet to fully grasp it. I am not an economist but the lines seem to have been blurred even to me, it is a shame as it is not fitting for such a high quality blog. If you are trying to find an interesting philosophical story I suggest you research Alexander Shulgin. Far more interesting than an idiot with pigeons. — I thoroughly enjoy your work the majority of the time.

    1. René

      Alexander Shulgin might have developed the tools to get us out of our brainwashed and indoctrinated states of being.

  4. polistra

    Skinner’s utopian goal was insane, but one of his basic rules would actually improve things if we applied it properly.

    Skinner defines Punishment as “anything you do that actually decreases the unwanted behavior.” He defines Reward as “anything you do that actually increases the wanted behavior.”

    If we truly applied these notions to parenting, policing, prisons, and education, we’d remove lots of craziness.

    Instead, we apply a set of definitions that are partly unexamined myth and partly shaped by the satanic Anti-Civilization Lawyers Union. We assume, for instance, that more time in prison is the only possible way to increase punishment. Nope. Dead wrong and often backwards. If we actually observe the behavior of serious criminals (who are innately different from non-criminals) we see that prison is just a vacation for them.

    On the other side, we assume that more money in the paycheck is the only possible reward. Again dead wrong and often backwards. It seems to work for the bankster type, but observation of non-criminals indicates a wide variety of rewards, from security to autonomy to respect.

  5. jake chase

    Interesting that this piece begins with Veblen, who remains the only economist worth reading. I suggest those having any serious interest in “behaviorism” ignore all this nonsense and turn to his Theory of the Leisure Class, which explains just about everything although most people think Veblen must have been kidding when he wrote it. Those who view economic behavior with due regard to the predatory and accumulative animus in the semi-peaceable stage of the human culture understand perfectly the behavior of corporate executives and bankers and politicians, whose behavior is the only thing which really matters.

    1. Jonathan Larson

      I read this whole piece because it begins with one of Veblen’s more interesting insights—that there is much more to human behavior than pure hedonism. He has hundreds more almost as interesting which has lead me to the conclusion that Veblen is easily the most misunderstood and underrated thinker in American history. Going from Veblen to Skinner truly is a journey from the sublime to the ridiculous.

  6. Nathanael

    Philip, try learning the principles of what we call “experimental science”. You clearly don’t know them.

    Skinner was a bit of a fanatic, but he did actual scientific work. In fact, he set pscyhology on the path towards actually being a science, while the dominant schools at the time were *strictly* cults (Freudianism? Jungianism?!?). Frankly, you have to start somewhere with experimental research, and he chose to do so, rather than starting nowhere and making shit up, which was the choice of most other so-called psychologists.

    The only forms of therapy which actually have been shown to work are “behavioral” and “cognitive”. You dismiss behaviorism at your peril.

    Chomsky, in contrast, just makes stuff up — his entire fame in linguistics is based on ungrounded theories which are probably false. He’s wrecked linguistics with the cult who follows his evidence-free line, which has driven out actual historical linguists.

    As for philosophers — hoo boy. THERE’s a fertile land of cults.

    It’s a pity you can’t tell science from pseudo-science. I’m going to have to suggest that Yves stop featuring you, because *you’re a crank*. I haven’t even finished reading the article, but the failure to understand the history of psychology just made me not want to read the rest of it.

    Learn some science. How Skinner wanted humans to behave… has little to do with his actual work, which demonstrated, for better or worse, how the animals he studied *actually* behave. The people following in his footsteps have actually learned something about psychology, while people in pretty much every other tradition have gone precisely nowhere. Freud’s last discovery was “displacement”, and his followers have discovered precisely nothing since then.

    Chomsky: “It indicates, furthermore, that the insights that have been achieved in the laboratories of the [behaviorist], though quite genuine, can be applied to complex human behavior only in the most gross and superficial way.”
    Well, duh. That’s how you start a scientific field. It’s getting less and less superficial as research continues.

    Anyway, you have provided precisely no evidence that “behaviorist economists” behave like Chomsky’s followers or early Skinner (make up theories based on minimal evidence and than attempt to overgeneralize them while ignoring all contrary evidence) rather than like modern behavioral researchers (who, you know, do science, involving looking at contrary evidence seriously).

    Perhaps “behavioral economists” really *are* this bad, and really *are* practicing cargo cult science. But you haven’t presented any evidence that they are! I know from personal study of behavioral *psychology* that they are *not* like this.

    1. Philip Pilkington

      I don’t believe that psychology is a scientific enterprise. Philosophers have realised this at least since Kant. The material is too intersubjective. There’s too much contamination by the observer on the material observed.

      Behaviorism in its various forms is just, as Chomsky summarised in his critiques, a series of rather arbitrary sentences strung together to form a System of thought. Behaviorists use a scientific-looking terminology, but it just hides rather dull findings collected within an all too narrow experimental framework (which is usually only the construction by the experminentor who invests his or her own psychological preferences into the experiment itself).

        1. Philip Pilkington

          Come on. Get real. Argue properly. Kant’s arguments about psychology still hold. His arguments about chemistry (which I’m not even aware of) don’t. I could have given a more recent example, but I chose to take the historical line to try to show that these critiques have been around for a long time.

          More recent examples: Heidegger, Dreyfus, Merleau-Ponty… whatever.

          1. SteveA

            I’d like to see you attempt to summarize Kant’s argument about psychology lacking an a priori foundation. But then you’d actually have to have read Kant, and you’d also know his argument about chemistry.

            But keep playing the “get real” game.

          2. SteveA

            Oh, and by the way, Merleau Ponty lectured on developmental psychology at the College de France and also attended some of Lacan’s seminars. You know nothing about Merleau Ponty, either.

          3. Philip Pilkington

            Give up the “you know nothing” posturing. It’s childish.

            Merleua-Ponty’s position on psychology was that it was an intersubjective enterprise and could not be based on objective or scientific principles. Kant’s was somewhat similar. Dreyfus’ is identical.

            Lacan went further. He pointed to the critiques of the Marxist philosopher George Politzer and claimed that psychology itself was impossible.

            But then… I know nothing about any of this, right? Do you want citations, Mr. Steve?

        2. Philip Pilkington

          Just looked this up. You’re being deceptive:

          “In the Preface to the Metaphysical Foundations Kant claims that chemistry, at least as he understood it in 1786, was not science “proper”, but such a claim leaves open the possibility that chemistry could be fully scientific in some other sense or that, with time, it could develop into science proper.”

          I agree. Chemistry in 1786 was not a science proper.

          His criticisms of psychology were very different. They were based on epistemological principles, not on the state of psychology at the time.

          1. john c. halasz

            I hate to back you up on this, Phil, but when Kant read Lavoisier, he changed his mind.

      1. Pwelder

        Phil is right to point out it’s possible to do bad economics in a way that has some similarities to things we’ve all heard about lumpen-behaviorism.

        But it’s a long leap from there to a critique of Skinner’s science, or current developments in psychology or behavioral economics. As is amply clear from the above, Phil won’t be ready to undertake any of these projects without a lot more work on the context.

        Rather than using a caricature of Skinner to embody what he’s objecting to, he might do better to learn more about John B. Watson’s academic and business careers. Watson went from Chair of the Psychology Department at Johns Hopkins to pop-culture guru and ended up as an advertising man. (A pretty good one, by all accounts.) The transition, which was involuntary, occurred under circumstances offering ample fodder for ironic and ad hominem flourishes if a writer is so inclined.

        1. Philip Pilkington

          The key overlap is, as I pointed out in the piece and in the comments that followed, the central place of ‘incentives’ in the study of human decision-making.

          As for Watson, he didn’t contribute much to advertising. He just followed what others were doing. And these days the advertising of the 1940s and 1950s is generally viewed as primitive precisely because it manifested behaviorist and pseudo-Freudian aspirations. Thomas Frank has documented this at length in his book ‘The Conquest of Cool’.

          These days advertisers don’t use academic psychology at all and many that I talk to are very ‘postmodern’ in the way they view people. It sells more stuff.

      2. Otto

        Philip, that’s like saying biology is just bugs crawling around. You are obviously unfamiliar with the scientific enterprise of psychology but just because you don’t know it does not mean it does not exist. Your arrogance and ignorance are breathtaking.

    2. Philip Pilkington

      By the way, although it’s nothing to do with the article, the ‘cure rates’ for CBT etc. are very misleading. Again, its in the way they’re measured.

      I’ll give you an example that I discussed at length with a clinical psychologist. (With personal details changed, in keeping with the standards of confidentiality for such cases).

      A 45 year old woman undertook CBT to cure her of a phobia of flying. After a few sessions she boarded a plane and went on holidays. She still presented anxiety, but in contrast to her literally running off the plane beforehand, she was now able to fly.

      In the literature this would have been chalked up as a ‘cure’. But the picture was far more complex.

      Immediately after she started flying she started getting major attacks of vertigo which she hadn’t experienced since she was in her early 20s (which is when she developed her phobia of flying). It would appear that, in keeping with the descriptions of dynamic psychology, the flying phobia was actually serving a useful function in her psychology. When it was removed her vertigo came back with a vengeance, and that was far worse in her day-to-day functioning than the flying phobia ever was.

      Clinical pictures are very complex. CBT and its off-shoots are VERY narrow in the way they measure success. They often miss an awful lot. The above anecdote is particularly clear, but it is one of many.

      Anyway, this doesn’t really have much to do with the above piece.

    3. Susan the other

      Chomsky doesn’t make up linguistic axioms. He just looks at language and gets mindboggled. And he says so. And Chomsky is as scientific as the next linguistics professor. I would never call Chomsky “scientistic” but I agree with Philip that economists are indeed scientistic. Chomsky went from studying the development of cognition in children, where Piaget had laid down some benchmarks indicating human intelligence is innate to the species and other stuff long since forgotten (anyone remember Nim Chimpsky?) but Chomsky couldn’t make any projections from syntax to semantics. Chomsky remained frustrated about the origin of meaning. It would do us all good to remain so open minded about what we ourselves claim.

      1. Philip Pilkington

        Precisely. Chomsky was and is a model of what a psychologist should be. And yes, I also believe that he came up against the limits of his own approach and said so openly. The behaviorists, on the other hand, close off their approach and give an illusion of completeness. That’s why Chomsky is a genius and the behaviorists are charlatans. Unfortunately, charlatanism is winning out today — at least in the US.

        1. charles sereno

          “I don’t believe that psychology is a scientific enterprise.”
          “Chomsky was and is a model of what a psychologist should be.”
          Mr. Pilkington, I am taking both of your above quotes out of context, but the extremism of such statements is what generates so much antagonism. Is Chomsky then a model of a non-scientific enterprise? I do compliment you on some very interesting ideas about present day economics.

          1. Philip Pilkington

            As Susan said, Chomsky ultimately remained frustrated that he could not locate the origin of meaning. I think this was an honest approach. That’s not even to mention the fact that Chomsky is very open-ended about what ’causes’ human behavior. Skinner et al thought they had all the answers.

            “Oh, its all just reinforcement”. Etc.

            The difference, again as Susan, said is that Chomsky is ultimately not scientistic in the way the behaviorists and neoclassicals are.


  7. brazza

    Perhaps because of my lack of formal preparation, unlike many of those who comment, I continue to find your line of thought penetrating and stimulating. The common thread in your writing points to the human tendency toward reducing complex systems in order to arrive at simplistic conclusions that might define nature. I concur that it would be worthwhile to study those psychological and material rewards that reward scientific process if it reaches a conclusion. The answer to life the universe and everything? 33 … according to Monty Python.

    Once accepted by the halls of accademia, such conclusions seem to benefit of a life of their own. With ever more intellectual capital having been vested in a conclusion, its momentum seems to carry the aberration into contiguous disciplines – a viral development, as you underline.

    I see similar markers as those you identify in conventional economic wisdom (a combo of hubris, avarice, and a fundamental fear of the complexity of natural processes) in Monsanto’s explanation (or lack thereof) of Roundup’s failure.

  8. Common Sense

    What a bad article. So you are reducing behavioural economics to behaviourism, have you read the literature at all?

    There is discussion in the discipline just as there was discussion about behaviourism in psychology and the discipline eventually moved on. This is how science works.

    But if you try to dismiss a theory you do in scientific terms, not falling into ad hominem and ad consequentiam arguments. In the end you just want to present that human behaviour is impossible to know so any theory that tries to reach that knowledge should be dismissed, that actions don’t have knowledgeable reactions and that we live in a total chaotic world.

    But at the same time your preferred macro and monetary theory works on fixed causal assumptions (like for example, increasing the quantity of money people has will result in increasing demand). So what’s the difference, other than one framework fits your ideology and the other not?

    Skinner behaviourism was simplistic and was dismissed, and a lot of the economic literature will fit the same shoe, but there still is some studies built on empirical data which have good back up in the discipline. One of the few attempts to make economics more scientific and we should just throw it to the abyss because it does not fit our ideology, good stuff.

    1. Philip Pilkington

      The difference is in the material being dealt with. Saying that increasing the amount of purchasing power in the economy (not the amount of money) will lead to increased demand is pretty straightforward and in keeping with historical evidence. Undertaking such an action is not particularly context dependent. It rests on the underlying presumption that people will spend more if they have more in their pockets.

      Behavioral economics, which is similar to behaviorism in every important respect (see above comment), deals with far more nuanced behaviors which, I would argue, are VERY context dependent.

      It’s the complexity that is different. The macro assumption mentioned above rests on a rather simple case or more income leading to more spending. The actions that the behaviorists study are FAR more complex. And because of this, I think the framework — as Chomsky said — is largely arbitrary when looked at in any detail.

      P.S. The above article is not REALLY ad hominem. I’m trying to show why Skinner employed such a reductionist framework. I strongly believe that psychological theories rely on the psychology of the author of the theory. If we can understand something of this psychology, I think we can often understand the theories and their limitations.

      1. Common Sense

        Every theory, in every discipline (including physics), depends on the ‘psychology’ of the author. Object and subject can’t be separated as we perceive reality, do not know reality directly.

        This is hardly a find, the difference is that you have instruments to ‘approach’ and ‘measure’ reality and compare it to what your theory says it would be happening. This is how you dismiss failed theories, showing the theory is wrong in cases. If so then your model is just an approximation (no one denies that I think anyway) with serious limitations, and building society around it may have fatal consequences.

        And complexity again is a subjective matter, what you think is simplistic (by what mean? compared to what?) it may not be simplistic and these assumptions may be simplistic just so you can force reality into the model. So the same can be said about what you believe is true. Well, no blame, everyone does that, because we don’t have other way to go around it only that claiming that we don’t know shit about anything! (Which in the end, is true.)

        1. Philip Pilkington

          The difference is that in psychology, the psychology of the author can affect the object of study. In physics the object of study is inert (largely). In psychology it is affected by the psychological manifestations of the psychologist himself.

          Big difference. If you cannot see it… then, sorry, I can’t do any more for you.

      2. alex

        Pilkington: The above article is not REALLY ad hominem.

        You’re kidding, right? The only thing that’s lacking is a comment that Skinner had bad breath. From the article:

        “B.F. Skinner was a peculiar man. At one time he fancied himself an author, a poet even. … Skinner had tried and failed to portray humans in a light that would convince his readers of his fictional narratives and it was largely for this reason, we can guess, that he took up academic psychology. From here Skinner channelled his desperate lack of ability at painting realistic psychological portraits of his fellow man …”

        So rather than criticize Skinner’s scientific work in any substantive way, you play amateur psychoanalyst and imply that his scientific theories should be dismissed as the product of a slightly deranged mind because he was a frustrated failed writer. If that’s not ad hominem, then there ain’t no such thing.

        What next, critcizing Newton’s work because the guy was a nut job?

        1. Philip Pilkington

          I think you missed the key point: Skinner was a failed author. This was because he could not convince other people that the characters portrayed were realistic. One can conclude that he was thus not a convincing psychologist — i.e. he could not write convincing portraits of people.

          He then moved on to a psychological theory that portrayed people as largely robots. He couldn’t capture people in a convincing way, so he started to construct a theory that portrayed people in… well… an intuitively unconvincing way. It appealed to others who probably had a poor grasp of psychology and so became an academic phenomenon.

          That’s the central point. The fact that Skinner was, quite clearly a kook, is merely a side issue.

          1. alex

            “One can conclude that he was thus not a convincing psychologist.”

            One could make such an inference, or one could cite empirical/experimental evidence that his scientific theories were a poor approximation of reality. The former is guesswork, and the latter is scientific.

          2. Philip Pilkington

            You’ve misunderstood my point completely. The entire framework of Skinner’s analysis is flawed. If you want an academic critique read the two Chomsky pieces which are cited numerous times in the above.

            I’m taking a different angle on this. Trying to look at the psychology of the psychologist. Remember, the above is not an academic critique. There are plenty of them, two of which are cited above.

          3. alex

            “I’m taking a different angle on this. Trying to look at the psychology of the psychologist.”

            And that’s the crux of my criticism. Such an approach may make for interesting biography, but it’s not a valid way to critize a scientific theory.

            “the above is not an academic critique”

            One needn’t be academic to be scientific or objective.

          4. Philip Pilkington

            You’re missing the point again. I think psychologies are generally just subjective constructions undertaken for personal reasons. If you adhere to this, then the biography or psychology of the author is as important as anything else. Especially when it comes to intention. Because I reckon the intention behind Skinner was blatantly authoritarian.

            Again, I’ll say: if you want an objective criticism there are two cited in the piece by Chomsky. Engage with them. One of them even goes into the authoritarian tendencies a bit.

  9. Peripheral Visionary

    One comment: Huxley’s dystopia and Skinner’s utopia effectively came from the same source, the utopian aspirations of the progressives of the early 20th century. What Huxley did was simply imagine what the progressive utopia would really look like, and what its emotional effect on individuals would be. That he (and nearly all of his readers) recognized it to be a living hell while Skinner and other political activists would have regarded it to be a heaven reveals the very different views they held.

    Indeed, even though people would, in theory, be living pleasurable lives, these would nevertheless be pleasurable lives lived under a tyranny of the worst kind imaginable.

    That is a critical insight largely missing in our society today. The running assumption in virtually all of our social dialogues is that less pain plus greater pleasure equals greater happiness, and that personal liberty does not figure into the equation. That is simply false, as witnessed by the countless people who leave a life that is comfortable but restrictive, for a life of freedom and suffering (e.g., teenagers who run away from a comfortable home to live on the streets).

  10. Peripheral Visionary

    One other quick comment: it’s interesting to see just how far the “all positive reinforcement, no punishment” approach toward behavior has spread in today’s society. It is, if not standard, at the least very widespread in parenting. I know of many parents who never punish their children and attempt to use only positive reinforcement; and leanings in that direction can be seen in current thought on attempts to control bad behaviors in society (e.g., the anti-prison movement). I suspect that, once the fad has passed, it will be seen to be roughly as effective as the “no positive reinforcement, only punishment” approach.

  11. F. Beard

    I trained a rat in college with a Skinner Box (I only used electric shock a couple of times; it creeped me out). Anyway, behaviorism is a sick approach to life. I pity those who are ensnared by it.

    Reading the Bible, otoh, is liberating.

  12. Birch

    It’s a pretty long stretch to call Walden Two a ‘living hell’ coming from the world we live in today. Two of the big points of the thought experiment were resonable limits to inequality, and an egalitarian sharing of duties _and_ benefits. Things we would do well to learn from.

    And the take home lessons of operant conditioning are, to my understanding, essentially the same as the teachings of Jesus. That the corporate powers have taken those lessons to heart and gained overwhelming success from it certainly does not disprove the theory. Far from it.

    To my understanding, Skinner suggested that our behaviour is determined by what we experience; by what’s around us and what happens to us. It is futile to think we can significantly alter our own behaviour through simple willpower, rather we need to alter the conditions that lead to that behaviour. For example: if you hate your job, you can try to convince youself that you like your job, or can go about making your job a better place for you, or you can quit your job and move on. Convincing yourself you like your job will not work in the long term.

    So it’s about making life better by making the conditions we live in better for life.

    Also, suggesting that Skinner wanted his research to be usurped by corporate economists is similar to suggesting that Adam Smith wanted to create the capitalism of the 19th century.

    I’d be happy to see Philip removed from the NC roster, or at least be vetted much more carefully. His interviews generally come off good – probably because they’re someone else’s ideas; but my oh my, when he’s off he’s so far off! Definitely not NC calibre.

    1. F. Beard

      I’d be happy to see Philip removed from the NC roster, Birch

      Not me. Let’s him be. I’ve come to respect his thinking though I admit that plowing through liberal-speak is often beyond my patience (and non-drug enhanced mental capability).

    2. Birch

      I’m not trying to defend ‘behaviorists’ here. Someone I know well did a lot of research back in the day based on Skinner’s work, and it had nothing to do with anything Philip talks about in the article, or anything to do with what might be called behaviorism. It certainly never suggested that pigeons and people have exactly the same behaviour patterns or that people are necessarily predictable. That’s ludicrous. I’d be very surprised if those ideas were Skinner’s, and would like to note that Philip didn’t actually say they were.

      If you want to criticize Skinner, you could condemn him for training pigeons to sit in missile warheads and guide the missiles to their targets by pecking buttons. Pretty inhumane, but again, that he did that does not disprove his theories. If his reseasrch was adopted by propagandist pheudo-scientists, it’s hardly his fault.

      I’d almost like to see a fan of Philip’s become a despot dictator, then we can blame it all on Philip.

      1. Sophie

        Birch: “I’d almost like to see a fan of Philip’s become a despot dictator, then we can blame it all on Philip.”

        Yes, but by then our arms will be tied to the ceiling, and we’ll be standing waist-deep in water for six hours a day.

  13. diptherio

    Philip, don’t take all the negativity too badly. I’m sure Tom Szasz would probably get a similar treatment from the above commenters, i.e. people who “know something” about psychology or behavioral economics.

    Obviously, you also “know something” about these subjects. I also happen to “know something” about them, though probably not as much as you or all the negative nancies out there. The problem is that when you’re sure you “know something” you become blinded to other things that don’t seem to jibe with what you “know,” or rather your understanding of what you “know”. This leads to much unnecessary strife and casting of aspersions in our society.

    It is true that both behavioral psychology and behavioral economics have led to valid insights about human beings. It is also true that they provide only an incomplete picture of human reality and to claim otherwise is indefensible. It is also true that, to the extent that their findings have created useful (i.e. effective) techniques for influencing human behavior, those techniques can be used for good or ill.

    The fact that CBT can have positive effects for people who use it to rid themselves of an addiction is in no way contradicted by the fact that such interventions can have unintended consequences, or that CBT techniques can be used in unethical ways, say in advertising. That a science may produce valid insights and yet be deeply flawed is in no way a contradiction. Phil argues for the latter point, while the commenters defend the former, both thinking that acceptance of the other’s side requires an abandoning of their own. This is not the case.

    Philip’s critique of the underlying mentality that sees all human action as conditioned response to stimuli, however broadly defined, is a cogent one, to my mind. To the extent that psychology and economics operate under this assumption they are deceived and deceiving. This critique, however, does not imply that human action cannot be affected by conditioning and stimulus. Obviously it can. One can hold both that human action is not overdetermined by incentives and that incentives matter in determining human action. There is no necessary disagreement here, that I can see, not knowing much about psychology or economics (or philosophy or anything else).

    1. Birch

      Very well said. I don’t know how that defends Philips attack, though. He seems to take one side and ridicule the other as a cult doctrine.

      I don’t know much about psychology or economics either, but if the above article had the same tone of tolerance and realism that your comment does, it would have been much easier to take seriously.

  14. Hugh

    I think if behavioral economicists think they can mathematically model human behavior or that behavioral models will lead to economic equilibria, then I think it is a fair criticism to say that behavioral economics is just a doomed attempt to salvage neoclassical economics.

    As for the link between Skinnerian behaviorism and neoclassical economics, both have roots in related Enlightenment ideas. Behaviorism in the clockwork model of the universe, only applied to man. And neoclassical economics in the Rousseauian notion of the rational actor.

    What I find ironic is using Chomsky to criticize Skinner. Chomsky’s linguistic theories with their universals are highly deterministic. They have had cult status in most linguistic departments for decades. And his adherents are notorious for selecting and/or torturing the data from the world’s languages until they fit into his grammaticalist paradigm.

    1. Philip Pilkington

      You’re right. Chomsky’s generative grammar approach is problematic. And his followers can be just as cultish as the behaviorists. But his critique of Skinner is damn solid.

      1. Jeff W

        One only has to read Kenneth MacCorquodale’s “On Chomsky’s Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior” here [PDF]and Palmer’s “On Chomsky’s Appraisal of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior: A Half Century of Misunderstanding” here [PDF] to see that Chomsky’s critique of Skinner was anything but “damn solid.”

        Quoting from Palmer’s article [p. 264]:

        Although Chomsky’s willingness to discuss his review of Verbal Behavior with behavior analysts is a sign of openness and confidence, the Virue´s-Ortega (2006) interview did not flatter him. His refusal to acknowledge errors of fact, or shrillness of tone, was narrow and defensive. Moreover, he confirmed that he does not understand the distinction between experimental analysis and interpretation, that the extrapolation of laboratory principles to domains in which experimental analysis is not yet possible is standard practice and contributes greatly to our understanding of the world. Finally, Chomsky revealed a naive understanding of the rationale for the behavioral approach, its goals, and its relation to empirical work. His imagined opponent was an extreme environmentalist cleaving to stimulus– response dogma, immune to evidence. Painting an absurd caricature of one’s opponent is an effective debating move, but the strategy pays a penalty when it is discovered.

  15. Matt

    I’m not sure how anyone could call behaviorism a cult. It has produced real scientific insights into why people do what they do, and CBT is used every day to help people improve their lives. As far as I can tell, the only critique here is that because Skinner failed as a writer, everything he did subsequently must be seen through the prism of anger over that initial failure. If I were a pseudo-scientist, I might speculate that this article reveals much more about the gravity that the author assigns to failing as a writer than did Skinner.

    The neoclassical mistake is assuming that everyone sees rewards and punishments in the same way, which leads to the conclusion that people should act “rationally”. Different people seek different rewards. Hence, what seems rational to one person seems irrational to another person.

    It is worth noting that the housing bubble, finance industry fraud, and continued malfeasance of financial actors can easily be explained by behaviorism as individuals taking actions to maximize their reward. And any proposal to reform the finance industry through regulation, taxation, and criminal prosecution is essentially behaviorist, depending on changes to the system of rewards and punishments to induce changes in human behavior…

    1. F. Beard

      It is worth noting that the housing bubble, finance industry fraud, and continued malfeasance of financial actors can easily be explained by behaviorism as individuals taking actions to maximize their reward. And any proposal to reform the finance industry through regulation, taxation, and criminal prosecution is essentially behaviorist, depending on changes to the system of rewards and punishments to induce changes in human behavior… Matt

      Good point! And I’d add that the system allows banks to counterfeit and then some complain that the banks counterfeit too much or for the wrong reasons!

      Power corrupts. Why the heck do we give banks a monopoly on private money creation and even a large part in government money creation?

  16. Common Sense

    Hardly a discovery again, behaviourism originated and/or can be tracked to that believe too. This is a well known problem in the discipline that’s why Skinner tried to construct a theory ‘aseptic’ to the inner workings of the human mind (he never denied that there were inner working).

    Now, if you are trying to psychoanalyze the author and try to second guess his ulterior motives it’s fine, but don’t make it pass as a valid ‘attack’ on either behaviourism (which I reject btw, but not because of ad hominems, and I recognize it has valid insights even if are incomplete) or behavioural economics.

    P.S: You say above or below that behavioural economics have some interesting insights but that are not applicable in a broad context because humans don’t usually conduct theirshelves when taking economic decisions by the way portrayed by behavioural economics. Well, sometimes they do sometimes not, and that’s in the literature (along some criticism).

    You don’t need to dismiss something completely because it can be abused when policy making. The objective of science is not, believe it or not, policy making. If one takes a piece of incomplete human knowledge and elevates it to doctrine for the sole reason of policy making is not the fault of the scientist, but the fault of stupid policy makers.

    1. Philip Pilkington

      “Hardly a discovery again, behaviourism originated and/or can be tracked to that believe too. This is a well known problem in the discipline that’s why Skinner tried to construct a theory ‘aseptic’ to the inner workings of the human mind (he never denied that there were inner working).”

      No. Not at all. Even if Skinner had rejected that the human mind contained ‘stuff’ he never truly reflected on the idea that he might be influencing his experiments.

      Even if everyone around me is just a collection of behaviors, I still must concede that my behavior when I study their behavior might be influencing their behavior which might be influencing my behavior… and so on ad infinitum.

      Skinner never dealt with this. Neither do their followers — any of them.

      P.S. I said that Kahneman’s work on certain cognitive failings was interesting. His work on motivations is not. It is incomplete because it avoids (a) the criticisms mentioned above and (b) broader context. (The two being intimately related). So, it’s the cognitive side of his work that has some interest. The behaviorist side is inapplicable.

      1. Common Sense

        Experiment design is a big part of trying to avoid these issues, sometimes better than others, and in psychology for example there is a whole story of criticizing experiment designs for this. heck, you could say the whole discipline is about that precisely. To avoid second guesses, expectations or the observer influence over the experiment.
        That’s why you use control groups for example.

        Social sciences will never be as exact as hard sciences and that’s what should be attacked, trying to social engineer something based on incomplete models. I agree with your efforts on that part, but attacking the actual ‘science’ part based on the supposed motives of the authors is bullshit.

        1. Philip Pilkington

          There is no such thing as an experiment that is ‘neutral’. The more ‘neutral’ the psychologists try to make it, the less neutral it becomes.

          The motivations of Skinner are important precisely for this reason. What he wanted — quite explicitly — was a society where everyone would be controlled by the scientists (by him). His Skinner box, and all of behaviorism was just this vision in micrological form. It wasn’t a valid way of looking at people, but in truth it wasn’t intended to be. It was a model with an express purpose: a means to control people.

          All behaviorism is. Read any of the works and they’re all about social engineering in line with intentions or whatever. It’s not science, it’s authority. It’s about getting people to do what you want them to do without them noticing. That’s what behaviorism is. And, like eugenics or any other pseudo-science, it hides out in the university department pretending to be ‘neutral’. Now that is bullshit.

  17. John Zelnicker

    Phil — In 1972-73 I worked as a laboratory assistant for a psychology professor at the University of Pennsylvania. His experiments with pigeons were expressly designed to contradict Skinner. And they did contradict his findings from the very beginning. Those experiments showed that some pigeons will completely ignore the incentives (food) until they are starving. The set-up was to deny the pigeon food if it pecked the key. Some of them would peck literally dozens of times a minute and never get any rewards. I don’t really know why, but apparently the motivation to peck was stronger than the motivation for food. And, yes, they knew there was food to be had.

  18. craazyman

    did you read the book to carefully maximize your utility function Phil?

    or was it an irrational spasm of your mind.

    I can never tell when I do things just why I do them, until sometimes years afterward. But this I am sure of, if somebody like Ms. Coyle is reasonably hot and can pound beers in the pub, she’s OK with me, as long as we don’t get stuck debating economics. She can believe any nonsense she wants. I don’t care. :)

  19. Roger Bigod

    This doesn’t contribute to our understanding of the GFC. Skinner’s ideas were a New Thing back in the 1950’s, so it’s hard to see why it took 50 years for them to blow up the financial system. And the social control stuff goes back to Bentham. The synopticon was creepy enough, but the 3 pigeons in the nose cone are so creepy it’s cool.

    I have the impression that the people who gloat over Skinner’s abandoning fiction writing have never read a line of his fiction. If it was as sensitive as Marcel Proust,
    how would it change the assessment of his academic work?

    The behavioral economists just catalog patterns of irrational behavior, or mental models that produce faulty decisions. Nobody quoted Kahneman in the sales talk for bogus derivatives.

    The only reservation I had about Yves’ book is that there’s no list of the fallacies and how they made their way into the markets. The main one seems to be the assumption of gaussian distributions and the applications that justified mispricing by the rating agencies. More generally, the trust in linear extrapolations.

    But perhaps the intellectual failures are an irrelevance, and the main problems were institutional — the passing of shaky mortgages through multiple hands was incentive for all parties to downplay risk, and some theory would have been produced to justify it. Also, the incestuous relationship between academic economists and the Fed and regulators was (and is) corrupt, whatever the jargon in speeches at Jackson Hole. But some economies had old-fashioned property bubbles without derivatives.

  20. Jim

    I would hypothesize that a key problem with Philip”s perspective is his psychological belief that he has touched economic reality through the theoretical edifice of MMT.

    He does not want to contend with the possibility that arbitrariness is part of our collective epistemological fate and that it my operate within the theoretical edifice of MMT as well as Neo-classical economics.

    Nor does he want to contend with the possibility that there is no purely descriptive reading of any situation or event and that in both MMT and Neo-classical economics there is an inescapable normative dimension in every supposed “descriptive” formulation.

    Philip is grasping for total redemption. He is intoxicated with the “certainty” of MMT.

    I identify with such grasping myself but have reluctantly concluded that such passionate knowing tends to lead to political and personal disaster.

  21. Jesper

    How was the title of this piece selected?

    When I read the title I got the impression that the piece would be about behaviourism but judging by the comments I get the impression that one of the subheadings i.e. “The Curious Case of B.F. Skinner” would be more appropriate.

    1. Susan the other

      again a day late and just my opinion: The context is pain. Or rather the avoidance of pain. This is what we do every second of our lives whether we realize it or not. We avoid pain. And so “economics” was/is highly susceptible to “behaviorism.”

  22. normansdog

    All economics is bunkum in the sense that it requires for its correct functioning the understanding of the inner worlings of real people’s brains, lts of them, including complex feedback loops.Behavioral economics at least admits that this is the case, even if in a really narrow way, but of course it can never hope to come to any conclusions as the problem is completely intractable. I do a lot of work in heat transfer and I can’t create a tractable model of the flow of energy from a hot body to a colder environment for any but the simplest of geomertires and systems, so anyone trying to model “the economy” is on to a hiding to nothing.
    Having said that I do think that Kahneman’s work on Heuristics and bias was rather useful as a reality check for managers as it demonstrated the illusion of their “gut feeling” based decision making processes.

  23. kris

    Hm, quite interesting but boring simultaneously.
    Human beings are wired to be religious = something that is dogma, that doesn’t change= that provides all answers=that needs no other proof.
    Christians believe in Christ (me included), other people believe in science, more others believe in economics.
    In communism our “christ” was the communist leader or the party, for a lot of people the “christ” is science, for others it’s global warming, but the fastest growing religion is economics.

    1. kris

      His Beatitude Benjamin Bernanke has all the aura necessary to be an archbishop, pope or…..a mullah.

  24. Otto

    Let us introduce just a little reality here. Skinner’s operant psychology is the foundation of modern psychology, accepted and confirmed much as evolution. Skinner’s operant psychology was revolutionary exactly because it introduced a rigorous scientific method; it introduced operationalization in experiments, and it represents a core conceptualization in the intersect between behavior and the functioning of neurons.

    Now, there are arguments about human behavior and if they can really be adequately modeled by such a reductionist approach. But these arguments never (do you hear me? Never!) question the scientific soundness and usefulness of the concepts of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, schedules of reinforcement, and the powerful role of consequences in determining the frequency of behavior. Skinner was an engineer, and his approach brought science to the wild and wacky world of introspectionist and structuralist psychology that was really completely unscientific and in a death spiral.

    This article is not just polemical and uninformed, it reaches the level of being offensive in its deliberate and gaping ignorance. The author quite obviously knows nothing about operant psychology and behaviorism (or any of its sub-theories and close ties to neurology)

  25. Compound F

    Skinner’s problem was not bad poetry and fiction.

    Skinner’s problem was not primarily Chomsky.

    Skinner’s “problem” was that his theory does not hold up experimentally. His problem was not the Behavior of Organisms, but rather the Misbehavior of Organisms (Breland); pre-organized interim behaviors, rather than “superstitious” behavior (Staddon & Simmelhag; Timberlake); autoshaping, negative auto-maintenance (Williams & Williams); species-specific defensive reactions (Bolles) resulting in “the earning of pain;” contra-freeloading (Osborne), resulting in working for free food. The list goes on and on.

    Throw in a massive ex post facto error in the Law of Effect and that pretty much destroys Skinner.

    However, I do think the thrust of this article remains correct. Econ is the same kind of over-simplified “law of effect” magical thinking despite serious evidence to the contrary.

    1. Compound F

      also, there is nothing wrong with “behaviorism,” per se. Behavior is a major motor outflow, like autonomic and endocrine outflows. Highly observable and reliable. Manipulable. Very scientific stuff. Skinner was just “wrong,” but his impact was not entirely bad; he paradoxically advanced many alternative arguments; and the skinner box has been an invaluable tool, though few understand it as a tool as well as Timberlake and Lucas.

  26. Makryu

    The article misses the mark, as many of the commentators aptly pointed out. You can’t criticize any product of the human mind for being a consequence of one’s life, personality and context, because they all are, in the end. You must criticize the theory itself. And in that, the article is quite lacking.

    While I do agree with criticism against Behaviorism in general, it is undeniable that it had an important role paving the road for the currently more meaningful psychological theories, Cognitive Psychology and Evolutionary Psychology. Both have made contributions that can’t be simply dismissed, no matter if, in the end of times we decide that Psychology (and all social sciences with it)aren’t “really” science (which is also more of a social construct that changes over time than Phil might believe).

    Finally, bringing up the issue of power does not help dismissing Behaviorism. The fact that people CAN be manipulated using behavioral conditioning to some extent, no matter how morally despicable it is, attests that, at least to some degree, the theory works, which is the same as saying it has some truth in it in empirical terms.

    Of course it’s far from explaining human behavior in general, but only a fool believes that ANY scientific field works with imperative truths, so it’s always a work in progress (still at an early stage as far as Psychology goes).

    I hope for Phil to take the unusual level of criticism to the heart, show some humility and try to understand a bit more about the subject. Too many certainties almost always means a bit of ignorance.

    PS: this does not mean I disagree with the criticism about the abuse of behavioral concepts and the ridiculous idea of a “rational man”.

  27. Skippy

    Psst… Philip…. don’t tell the mob observing…. their in…. their own skinner box…

    Skippy… now why did he not utilize some man eating animal? Great post BTW.

    Ps. pidgins…. lol.

  28. Adrian

    People have different professions, different points of view. They are like observers looking at the world through the narrow windows of an otherwise closed structure. Occasionally they assemble at the center and discuss what they have seen; then one observer will talk about a beautiful landscape with red trees, a red sky, and a red lake in the middle; the next one about an infinite blue plane without articulation; and the third about an impressive, five-floor-high building; they will quarrel.

    The observer on top of the structure (me) can only laugh at their quarrels – but for them the quarrels will be real and he (the observer on top) will be an unworldly dreamer. Real life… is exactly like that. Every person has his own well-defined opinions, which color the section of the world he perceives. And when people come together, when they try to discover the nature of the whole to which they belong, they are bound to talk past each other; they will understand neither themselves nor their companions.

    Paul Feyerabend

  29. Paul Niemi

    Pilkington gets it. Especially in America, behaviorist assumptions permeate civil life. From tax incentives to zero tolerance policies, that operant behavior must be conditioned is taken for granted, and the conditioning is embedded in public policy. In this mindset, humanism has become the dirty word, and society has indeed become more hierarchical and authoritarian. Good for Pilkington to bring this all up, because he is right on.

  30. SH

    Until we know who has made what decisions based on behaviorism and how they have effected my life, these arguments are pointless. Not only that, I learned absolutely nothing in this article except that there was an obsessed man that liked putting Pigeons in boxes to try and get them to touch buttons. I feel stupider after reading this.

    I get more from Ritholtz’s rants about the CFMA

    or endless articles from Yves about the foreclosure process.

    The relevant question is who did what?

    1. odd lots

      Here’s a suggestion:

      A) Psychology: a vain attempt to view the person standing up in a crowded stadium to see better as a worthy subject for scientific study.

      B) Political science: a vain attempt to justify the above by suggesting that only some can or should stand up.

      C) Political Economy / Classical Liberalism:: a quaint historical academic field that seemed to recognize that not everyone can get up and get a better view in aggregate.

      D) Neo-liberalism: at times an intellectually desperate effort to use A) above to justify B) above in order to forestall anyone re-considering the merits of C) above.

      D) Neo-liberalism: a twisted doctrine whereby

  31. Barrington Bunny

    Neo liberalism a twisted doctrine whereby it is confirmed that science is just another religion,that all psychologists are capitalist whores and that the author of a book about economics called “The Soulful Science”is probably suffering from murky lymph brought about by retardation and reduction of the pituitary with subsequent infarction effects on the radiant morphogenetic body already affected by nunnery imprints from a past reincarnation and that Chairman Mao was correct in sending all academics into the country to plant rice.

    1. Compound F

      that part about Mao was funny, but my Barrington’s nucleus was on high alert about the rest.

  32. Fiver

    Your characterization of Skinner does injustice both to him and past/current reality. His pursuit of a theory and mechanism for the shaping of rewards and punishments, or “carrots and sticks” that quite evidently operated in the social system all around him as surely as they do around us (amongst other things), can be critiqued as simplistic, and in terms of a complete theory for learning obviously problematic. That can be said for much else from the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s from our presumed Mt. Peak Thought perspective here in 2012.

    But consider what else was in the pool, ranging from dangerous lines of thinking both in the US and in Europe, eg. eugenics and/or the belief in genetically determined heirarchies that determined one’s “worth” (note Keynes was an adherent), as well as an effort to focus on the study of objective, observable behaviours as opposed to the then-popular psychologies featuring a collection of invisible “drives” and “motives” and myriad adventures of an elusive individual Psyche, its boundless geological “depth” matched only by the number, combinations and balancing (jeez, there’s that dumb “balance” idea again) of theoretical forces and/or characters lurking within. With tales of fortunes and failures too numerous to mention, the forest is obliterated by the tree. Not a very useful theory if shaping society is the stated, core objective. I mean, really. How could anyone be so just plain stupid as to even propose a very influential mid-20th century theory?

    And what was the mad Tyrant after?:

    “What is the Good Life?” In Walden Two, the answer is a life of friendship, health, art, a healthy balance between work and leisure, a minimum of unpleasantness, and a feeling that one has made worthwhile contributions to one’s society. This was to be achieved through behavioral technology, which could offer alternatives to coercion,[2] as good science applied correctly would help society,[3] and allow all people to cooperate with each other peacefully.”

    What a totally insane thing to want after a World War and Depression sandwich! The man wants to reinforce good behaviour!! And he wants to discourage bad behaviour!!! Is he out of his fucking mind?!! Where’s our war??? Where’s our hate? Where’s the crime? All the lies? The betrayals? The infidelities? The failures. What about all those cherished failures? And the pain, don’t forget the pain. The bastard wanted to help society through better schools and better teaching methods. Can you believe it?

  33. Geoff

    I remember tearing apart Walden Two in one of the better essays I wrote in college. What disturbed me about Skinner’s proposed plan for an ideal society based on behavioral principles was that he crafted a social model that was localized fascism. Initially I thought that behaviorism offered in insight into how social engineers could build a more positive and productive soceity – though focusing on how desirable behaviors can be positively reinforced rather than focusing on how negative behaviors can be extinguished by punishment. But Skinner used his own principles to design a community that was anti-democratic, predisposed to economic hostile takeover of neighboring regions, culturally imperialist, and completely lacking in privacy or healthy family bonds (think of kids raised communally on a Kibbutz except they are naked all the time). Inherent in his ideology was some sort of manifest destiny – the kind demonstrated by cult organizations like the Church of Scientology.

    At least Skinner is dead, and his ideas have been adapted by more decent practitioners towards the purposes of genuinely helping others.

  34. Skippy

    Had Skinner run his test long enough, the pidgins may have evolved and recognized what he was doing. Upon such revelations they probably would have used a metaphysical construct allowing them to feast upon his corpse.

    Skippy… Personally, for myself, I’ll linger in someones little experiment for a bit and learn, till it offers no more. Sometimes quietly sometimes not, depends on the tests perimeters and their application down the road.

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