I would argue, in total seriousness, that one of the places that Skinnerism thrives today is in computing technologies, particularly in “social” technologies. This, despite the field’s insistence that its development is a result, in part, of the cognitive turn that supposedly displaced behaviorism.
Audrey Watters notes the Skinner influence in the behaviorism of big tech and ed-tech in two great pieces: “B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century” and “Education Technology and the New Behaviorism”.
B. J. Fogg and his Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford is often touted by those in Silicon Valley as one of the “innovators” in this “new” practice of building “hooks” and “nudges” into technology. These folks like to point to what’s been dubbed colloquially “The Facebook Class” – a class Fogg taught in which students like Kevin Systrom and Mike Krieger, the founders of Instagram, and Nir Eyal, the author of Hooked, “studied and developed the techniques to make our apps and gadgets addictive,” as Wired put it in a recent article talking about how some tech executives now suddenly realize that this might be problematic.
(It’s worth teasing out a little – but probably not in this talk, since I’ve rambled on so long already – the difference, if any, between “persuasion” and “operant conditioning” and how they imagine to leave space for freedom and dignity. Rhetorically and practically.)
I’m on the record elsewhere arguing this framing – “technology as addictive” – has its problems. Nevertheless it is fair to say that the kinds of compulsive behavior that we display with our apps and gadgets is being encouraged by design. All that pecking. All that clicking.
These are “technologies of behavior” that we can trace back to Skinner – perhaps not directly, but certainly indirectly due to Skinner’s continual engagement with the popular press. His fame and his notoriety. Behavioral management – and specifically through operant conditioning – remains a staple of child rearing and pet training. It is at the core of one of the most popular ed-tech apps currently on the market, ClassDojo. Behaviorism also underscores the idea that how we behave and data about how we behave when we click can give programmers insight into how to alter their software and into what we’re thinking.
If we look more broadly – and Skinner surely did – these sorts of technologies of behavior don’t simply work to train and condition individuals; many technologies of behavior are part of a broader attempt to reshape society. “For your own good,” the engineers try to reassure us. “For the good of the world.”
In that Baffler article, I make the argument that behavior management apps like ClassDojo’s are the latest manifestation of behaviorism, a psychological theory that has underpinned much of the development of education technology. Behaviorism is, of course, most closely associated with B. F. Skinner, who developed the idea of his “teaching machine” when he visited his daughter’s fourth grade class in 1953. Skinner believed that a machine could provide a superior form of reinforcement to the human teacher, who relied too much on negative reinforcement, punishing students for bad behavior than on positive reinforcement, the kind that better trains the pigeons.
But I think there’s been a resurgence in behaviorism. It’s epicenter isn’t Harvard, where Skinner taught. It’s Stanford. It’s Silicon Valley. And this new behaviorism is fundamental to how many new digital technologies are being built.
It’s called “behavior design” today (because at Stanford, you put the word “design” in everything to make it sound beautiful not totally rotten). Stanford psychologist B. J. Fogg and his Persuasive Technology Lab teach engineers and entrepreneurs how to build products – some of the most popular apps can trace their origins to the lab – that manipulate and influence users, encouraging certain actions or behaviors and discouraging others and cultivating a kind of “addiction” or conditioned response. “Contingencies of reinforcement,” as Skinner would call them. “Technique,” Jacques Ellul would say. “Nudges,” per behavioral economist Richard Thaler, recipient of this year’s Nobel Prize for economics.
New technologies are purposefully engineered to demand our attention, to “hijack our minds.” They’re designed to elicit certain responses and to shape and alter our behaviors. Ostensibly all these nudges are supposed to make us better people – that’s the shiniest version of the story promoted in books like Nudge and Thinking about Thinking. But much of this is really about getting us to click on ads, to respond to notifications, to open apps, to stay on Web pages, to scroll, to share – actions and “metrics” that Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors value.
There’s a darker side still to this as I argued in the first article in this very, very long series: this kind of behavior management has become embedded in our new information architecture. It’s “fake news,” sure. But it’s also disinformation plus big data plus psychological profiling and behavior modification. The Silicon Valley “nudge” is a corporatenudge. But as these technologies are increasingly part of media, scholarship, and schooling, it’s a civics nudge too.
Autistic people keep warning us about behaviorism. Behaviorism brings the mindset and legacy of the awful men who developed it (Skinner, Lovaas, et al) into our schools. Behaviorism has history in autistic and gay conversion therapy. It hasn’t grown far enough from that history. It’s a bad lens for seeing and understanding humans. It is primitive moral development.
Autistic self-advocates are very concerned about behaviorism and deficit ideology, particularly ABA. “My experience with special education and ABA demonstrates how the dichotomy of interventions that are designed to optimize the quality of life for individuals on the spectrum can also adversely impact their mental health, and also their self-acceptance of an autistic identity. This is why so many autistic self-advocates are concerned about behavioral modification programs: because of the long-term effects they can have on autistic people’s mental health. This is why we need to preach autism acceptance, and center self-advocates in developing appropriate supports for autistic people. That means we need to take autistic people’s insights, feelings, and desires into account, instead of dismissing them.” With behaviorism, “the literal meaning of the words is irrelevant when you’re being abused. When I was a little girl, I was autistic. And when you’re autistic, it’s not abuse. It’s therapy.” “The abuse of autistic children is so expected, so normalised, so glorified that many symptoms of trauma and ptsd are starting to be seen as autistic traits.“
One of my favorite anecdotes from Asperger’s thesis is when he asks an autistic boy in his clinic if he believes in God. “I don’t like to say I’m not religious,” the boy replies, “I just don’t have any proof of God.” That anecdote shows an appreciation of autistic non-compliance, which Asperger and his colleagues felt was as much a part of their patients’ autism as the challenges they faced. Asperger even anticipated in the 1970s that autistic adults who “valued their freedom” would object to behaviorist training, and that has turned out to be true.
“It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory.” Reject it from our companies and schools.
Plenty of policies and programs limit our ability to do right by children. But perhaps the most restrictive virtual straitjacket that educators face is behaviorism – a psychological theory that would have us focus exclusively on what can be seen and measured, that ignores or dismisses inner experience and reduces wholes to parts. It also suggests that everything people do can be explained as a quest for reinforcement – and, by implication, that we can control others by rewarding them selectively.
Allow me, then, to propose this rule of thumb: The value of any book, article, or presentation intended for teachers (or parents) is inversely related to the number of times the word “behavior” appears in it. The more our attention is fixed on the surface, the more we slight students’ underlying motives, values, and needs.
It’s been decades since academic psychology took seriously the orthodox behaviorism of John B. Watson and B.F. Skinner, which by now has shrunk to a cult-like clan of “behavior analysts.” But, alas, its reductionist influence lives on – in classroom (and schoolwide) management programs like PBIS and Class Dojo, in scripted curricula and the reduction of children’s learning to “data,” in grades and rubrics, in “competency”- and “proficiency”-based approaches to instruction, in standardized assessments, in reading incentives and merit pay for teachers.>
It’s time we outgrew this limited and limiting psychological theory. That means attending less to students’ behaviors and more to the students themselves.
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