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  • Writer's pictureFred Guerin

The Dehumanizing Cult of Behaviourism

If you really want to talk 'cult' then you need go no further than the pseudo-science of behaviourism. The latter theory has had a pernicious, one might even say, pestilential effect, on the human community--insinuating itself into every institutional arrangement and every corner of human activity from sociological research to surveillance, to utilitarian moral theory, to policing and social media.

The political philosopher Hannah Arendt once said: "The trouble with modern theories of behaviourism is not that they are wrong but that they could become true, that they actually are the best possible conceptualization of certain obvious trends in modern society." Her point was simply that a Brave New World of people who succumb to the thesis that they are merely products of 'conditioning' has already lost agency--the capacity to act in the world and begin something new.

If Arendt were alive today she would most assuredly see the behaviourist engineering foundations of social media giants like Google and Facebook. The latter entities watch you, read your emails, record what you say and where you go--their algorithms are designed to document your behaviour as you search for things and express likes and dislikes. The behaviourist presumption here is that the more they know about your behaviour the more predictable you become. Think about that for a moment. By becoming addicted to social media, internet and Google we facilitate the demise of our own agency--of our distinctive capacity to think and act in new and creative ways, beyond the predictable.

Instead, we become proverbial pigeons in a Skinnerian box continuously clicking on choices that we did not deliberate about, but that were given to us by the mathematicians and statistical analysts of silicon valley in order to sell products. In the original experiment psychologist, B.F. Skinner constructed boxes to house pigeons – he built them in such a way that the pigeons would push levers in order to obtain food.

Noam Chomsky immediately recognized the bad science involved in behaviourism as well as the disturbing authoritarian tendencies in the writings of the behaviourist academics. Here is what he said:

"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 [behaviourist], though quite genuine, can be applied to complex human behaviour only in the most gross and superficial way."

But applied they were--into every institutional arrangement and research program around the world. Why would such a discredited theory gain this sort of popularity? I think the answer is almost too obvious to repeat. Behaviourism is about control, manipulation and exploitation. If the industrial revolution exploited nature for profit, modern capitalist technology grounded on behaviourism does the same with human beings. And let us just be perfectly clear here: in our modern neoliberal capitalist world founded on surveillance, control, immediate reward and pleasure incentives, behaviourism finds its perfect research fodder while neoliberalism discovers its perfect servant and academic support.

Under a behavioural model of power and control, we are not only disempowered as individuals, but rendered myopic because so much of what appears on social media is presented to us in a seemingly benign and even friendly way. It dupes us into thinking we are the masters--the ones who are in control. We are not. In fact, the internet and social media, grounded on the behaviourist model, is not only a perfect medium for exploitive neoliberal capitalism, but a perfect handmaid and friend to growing authoritarian surveillance states.

As we practice social distancing over the coming months, and become more dependent on the internet and social media, it is imperative that we remember just how vulnerable we are to propaganda, disinformation and behavioural engineering.

If ever there was a time for critical thinking and re-thinking about who we are, about the limits of technology and about human freedom, agency and creativity it is right now in this moment of unprecedented vulnerability.

“It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question.” Eugene Ionesco

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