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

Operant conditioning and the manipulation of response to stimuli are at the heart of theories that support instructional design. But more, they form the foundation of almost all educational technology-from the VLE or LMS to algorithms for adaptive learning. Building upon behaviorism, Silicon Valley-often in collaboration with venture capitalists with a stake in the education market-have begun to realize Skinner’s teaching machines in today’s schools and universities.

And there’s the rub. When we went online to teach, we went online almost entirely without any other theories to support us besides instructional design. We went online first assuming that learning could be a calculated, brokered, duplicatable experience. For some reason, we took one look at the early internet and forgot about all the nuance of teaching, all the strange chaos of learning, and surrendered to a philosophy of see, do, hit submit.

The problem we face is not just coded into the VLE, either. It’s not just coded into Facebook and Twitter and the way we send an e-mail or the machines we use to send text messages. It’s coded into us. We believe that online learning happens this way. We believe that discussions should be posted once and replied to twice. We believe that efficiency is a virtue, that automated proctors and plagiarism detection services are necessary-and more than necessary, helpful.

But these are not things that are true, they are things that are sold.

Source: A Call for Critical Instructional Design


Free, life-changing, and available to everyone. Provide freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them.

Public education and open source. Let’s help people get free, for free.

“Free, life-changing, and available to everyone” and “provide freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them” are ideas I steer by.

“Free, life-changing, and available to everyone” is what I and my peers in WordPress and open source work for. It’s what teachers work for in public education. NeuroTribes invokes this rallying cry for the commons in its introduction.

He told me that he wanted the code to be like Jesus in its own humble way: “Free, life-changing, and available to everyone.”

Source: Silberman, Steve. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (p. 2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The code mentioned above is Perl, an open source programming language I have a long relationship with, and the he is Larry Wall, creator of Perl and a big influence on me. I first read NeuroTribes when it came out in 2015. I was an undiagnosed autistic father with a newly diagnosed autistic son, and there on page 2 of the introduction of a book that changed my life and worldview are “free, life-changing, and available to everyone” and “there is more than one way to do it”, two ideas that, thanks to Larry Wall, have influenced my entire career.

On a bright May morning in 2000, I was standing on the deck of a ship churning toward Alaska’s Inside Passage with more than a hundred computer programmers. The glittering towers of Vancouver receded behind us as we slipped under the Lions Gate Bridge heading out to the Salish Sea. The occasion was the first “Geek Cruise”- an entrepreneur’s bid to replace technology conferences in lifeless convention centers with oceangoing trips to exotic destinations. I booked passage on the ship, a Holland America liner called the Volendam, to cover the maiden voyage for Wired magazine.

Of the many legendary coders on board, the uncontested geek star was Larry Wall, creator of Perl, one of the first and most widely used open-source programming languages in the world. Thousands of websites we rely on daily- including Amazon, Craigslist, and the Internet Movie Database- would never have gotten off the ground without Perl, the beloved “Swiss Army chainsaw” of harried systems administrators everywhere.

To an unusual and colorful extent, the language is an expression of the mind of its author, a boyishly handsome former linguist with a Yosemite Sam mustache. Sections of the code open with epigrams from Larry’s favorite literary trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, such as “a fair jaw-cracker dwarf-language must be.” All sorts of goofy backronyms have been invented to explain the name (including “Pathologically Eclectic Rubbish Lister”), but Larry says that he derived it from the parable of the “pearl of great price” in the Gospel of Matthew. He told me that he wanted the code to be like Jesus in its own humble way: “Free, life-changing, and available to everyone.” One often-used command is called bless. But the secret of Perl’s versatility is that it’s also an expression of the minds of Larry’s far-flung network of collaborators: the global community of Perl “hackers.” The code is designed to encourage programmers to develop their own style and everyone is invited to help improve it; the official motto of this community is “There is more than one way to do it.”

In this way, the culture of Perl has become a thriving digital meritocracy in which ideas are judged on their usefulness and originality rather than on personal charisma or clout. These values of flexibility, democracy, and openness have enabled the code to become ubiquitous- the “duct tape that holds the Internet together,” as Perl hackers say.

Source: Silberman, Steve. NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity (pp. 1-2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

“Provide freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them” is a recently acquired phrase. I picked it up from this HeroPress piece by Topher DeRosia, “Accessibility Where It Matters – HeroPress”.

One of the things that I’ve always loved about WordPress is how it provides things to people. It provides a living to those who have none, it provides community to those without one, and it can provide tools to those who need them.

Amanda Rush is blind, and navigates a world that is often hostile to blind people. WordPress developers work very very hard to make the WordPress software usable by people with no sight.

A wonderful by-product of that is that Amanda and people like her can build a career for themselves, without depending on a physically friendly workplace and a physically friendly transit.

WordPress provides Freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them.

Source: Accessibility Where It Matters – HeroPress

Through WordPress (and by extension open source software), I’ve improved my circumstances, become more self-sufficient, and I’ve been able to assert some control over my life in general. It’s improved my employment prospects drastically, which means I no longer have to work whatever low-paying odd jobs I can find to keep the bills paid. I believe that it can help other blind people as well. We have an eighty percent unemployment rate in this community.

We’re still fighting discrimination in the workplace, and we’re still fighting for equal access when it comes to the technology we use to do our jobs. But the beauty of WordPress and its community is that we can create opportunities for ourselves.

With WordPress, we can make decisions for ourselves, and have all kinds of help along the way from the community. I urge my fellow blind community members to join me inside this wonderful thing called WordPress. Because it will change your lives if you let it.

Source: Finding Freedom in WordPress – HeroPress

“Provide freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them.” That is a clarion call for both open source and public education. I hear the social model, intersectionality, structural ideology, equity literacy, designing for pluralism, and designing for real life in these words.

Public education and open source. Let’s help people get free, for free. Let’s get structural, get social, get equity literate, and build an indie ed-tech that confronts injustice instead of amplifying it.

Free, life-changing, and available to everyone. Provide freedom to those who deal with a world that’s built to be hostile toward them.

See also,