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!