Persuasion and Operant Conditioning: The Influence of B. F. Skinner in Big Tech and Ed-tech

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.

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

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.”

Source: B. F. Skinner: The Most Important Theorist of the 21st Century

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.

Those darling little ClassDojo monsters are a lot less cute when you see them as part of a new regime of educational data science, experimentation, and “psycho-informatics.”

Source: Education Technology and the New Behaviorism

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.

Source: I’m Autistic. Here’s what I’d like you to know.

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.

Source: THINKING PERSON’S GUIDE TO AUTISM: On Hans Asperger, the Nazis, and Autism: A Conversation Across Neurologies

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.

Source: It’s Not About Behavior – Alfie Kohn

Related:

Person-first Language and Sarcastic Teachers and Behaviorists

I hear administrators, and behavioral professionals mandate person first language but freely mock students in front of peers and teachers.

I am sick of it. Words matter.

This is how a lot of teachers in both general education and special education classrooms “communicate” with their students. Snide remarks abound. Direct answers are not provided to direct questions. Sarcasm from teachers is rampant, but the same behavior is not tolerated from students.

Sarcasm is never okay. When we are sarcastic with students it fits both the CDC definitions for relational and verbal bullying.

We are harming the child in front of their peers and we are intentionally denigrating them.

What is sad is that even the when teachers said no to using sarcasm, they managed to miss the point entirely. They avoid it because they may get in trouble or because famous education researchers like Robert Marzano are emphatic in his appeal to why sarcasm is never appropriate. It strikes me as puzzling that so many people defend using sarcasm in their day to day life as a form of humor, but then immediately turn and say it is never appropriate for a students to be sarcastic back to the teacher. It is a behavior that is a non-negotiable from students.

Source: Students Do Not Deserve Your Sarcasm – Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

Person-first language is problematic:

“People-first” language is meant to divide, it is meant to demean, it is meant to dehumanize, it is meant to pathologize, and yet, it is meant, as I said before, to make its users feel good. In that way it is ultimately destructive because it covers up the crimes.

Only when people get to choose their own labels will we get anywhere toward building an equitable culture.

If we convert horrid prejudices into pleasant sounding phrases, we diffuse those prejudices as an issue.

Source: Using “Correct Language” And “People First” by Ira David Socol – Bowllan’s Blog

I’m autistic, not a person with autism. Autistic is my identity.

I’m a disabled person, not a person with disabilities. Disabled is my identity.

Identity first language is common among social model self-advocates. When hanging out in social model, neurodiversity, and self-advocacy communities, identity first is a better default than person first. Every autistic and disabled person I know uses identity first language. The words autistic and disabled connect us with an identity and a community. They help us advocate for ourselves.

Disability’s no longer just a diagnosis; it’s a community.

There’s a language gap between self-advocates and the institutions that claim to represent us. There’s a gap between parents and their #ActuallyAutistic and disabledkids. There’s a generational gap in the disability movement. This is confusing for those trying to be allies. The articles below offer perspective and advice on identity first and person first language from self-advocates. At the end, I collect tweets from autistic and disabled self-advocates in a Twitter moment. Witness and respect these perspectives.

Source: Identity First – Ryan Boren

This is autistic life in the person-first cultures of education:

We navigate systems stacked against us to get access to what amounts to dog training-that dog trainers know better than to use-and a segregated “special” track through our systems that pathologically pathologizes difference and fails to connect with the communities it helps marginalize.

The specialists that serve this “special” track aren’t so much specialized in the lives and needs of neurodivergent and disabled people (managing sensory overwhelm, avoiding meltdown and burnout, dealing with ableism, connecting with online communities, developing agency and voice through self-advocacy) as they are specialized in deficit and medical models that pathologize difference and identity.

So heartbreakingly many can’t even bring themselves to use our language or educate parents about our existence. After autistic students age out of our care, we erase them again as adults.

Source: Neurodiversity in the Classroom – Ryan Boren

We hear the “abuse them now to prepare them for later abuse” line regularly at school. It is used to justify bad practices not at all in touch with the “real world”.

More than a few teachers have notified me that by being sarcastic – particularly with autistic students – they are preparing the students for sarcastic people in the “real world” and these teachers ardently refuse to “coddle” these autistic kids because they demonstrate difficulty with recognizing or learning social cues.

Source: Students Do Not Deserve Your Sarcasm – Why Haven’t They Done That Yet?

“Coddle” suggests a lot about the people saying it. It suggests they don’t have a structural understanding of our society. It suggests their framing is deficit ideology and meritocracy myths. It suggests they’re out of touch with the workplace and the future of work.

They’re not interested in designing for real life. They’re not allies.

Compassion is not coddling, and sarcasm from teachers and therapists isn’t comedy.

There’s been a lot of talk, of late, about laughter. Laughter as power. Laughter as luxury. Laughter as empathy. Laughter as beauty. Laughter as philosophy. Laughter as complicity. Laughter as division. The current political moment has been in one way a lesson in how easily jokes can be weaponized: Jokes can win elections. Jokes can insist that, despite so much evidence to the contrary, lol nothing matters. Jokes can contribute to the post-truth logic of things. They can lighten and enlighten and complicate and delight; they can also mock and hate and lie and make the world objectively worse for the people living in it-and then, when questioned, respond with the only thing a joke knows how to say, in the end: “I was only kidding.”

Source: Trump Mocks Christine Blasey Ford; The Rally Loves It – The Atlantic

“We can hear the spectacle of cruel laughter throughout the Trump era.”

Source: The Cruelty Is the Point – The Atlantic

Suddenly, even the most powerful people in society are forced to be fluent in the concerns of those with little power, if they want to hold on to the cultural relevance that thrust them into power in the first place. Being a comedian means having to say things that an audience finds funny; if an audience doesn’t find old, hackneyed, abusive jokes funny anymore, then that comedian has to do more work. And what we find is, the comedians with the most privilege resent having to keep working for a living. Wasn’t it good enough that they wrote that joke that some people found somewhat funny, some years ago? Why should they have to learn about current culture just to get paid to do comedy?

Source: The price of relevance is fluency

Structural Ideology and Contemporary Progressive Education

Structural ideology is common ground for neurodiversity, the social model of disability, intersectionality, and equity literate education.

For me, to be progressive is to get structural. Contemporary progressive education—such as Timeless Learning (selected quotes)—is distinguished by structural ideology and systems thinking. Personalized learning, to be something more than just a new behaviorism for monetizing kids, requires structural ideology and equity literacy.

With this in mind, my purpose is to argue that when it comes to issues surrounding poverty and economic justice the preparation of teachers must be first and foremost an ideological endeavour, focused on adjusting fundamental understandings not only about educational outcome disparities but also about poverty itself. I will argue that it is only through the cultivation of what I call a structural ideology of poverty and economic justice that teachers become equity literate (Gorski 2013), capable of imagining the sorts of solutions that pose a genuine threat to the existence of class inequity in their classrooms and schools.

Source: Poverty and the ideological imperative: a call to unhook from deficit and grit ideology and to strive for structural ideology in teacher education

The Direct Confrontation Principle: There is no path to equity that does not involve a direct confrontation with inequity. There is no path to racial equity that does not involve a direct confrontation with interpersonal, institutional, and structural racism. “Equity” approaches that fail to directly confront inequity play a significant role in sustaining inequity.

The “Poverty of Culture” Principle: Inequities are primarily power and privilege problems, not primarily cultural problems. Equity requires power and privilege solutions, not just cultural solutions. Frameworks that attend to diversity purely in vague cultural terms, like the “culture of poverty,” are no threat to inequity.

The Prioritization Principle: Each policy and practice decision should be examined through the question, “How will this impact the most marginalized members of our community?” Equity is about prioritizing their interests.

The “Fix Injustice, Not Kids” Principle: Educational outcome disparities are not the result of deficiencies in marginalized communities’ cultures, mindsets, or grittiness, but rather of inequities. Equity initiatives focus, not on fixing marginalized people, but on fixing the conditions that marginalize people.

Source: Basic Principles for Equity Literacy

In the U.S., we have become so accepting of the fact that poverty is not a symptom of a grossly unequal economy, or the result of numerous systemic failures, or the product of years of trickle-down economics, but instead, that the only thing standing between a poor person and the life of their dreams is their own decisions, their own choices, and their own failures.

Source: If You’ve Never Lived In Poverty, Stop Telling Poor People What To Do