Behaviourism – why I hate it

I believe that Behaviourism, as a scientific creed, contains within it the seeds of the intellectual justification for totalitarianism. So I am particularly fond of the statement of Mark Rothko that accompanied his 1945 Exhibition in New York – “I would sooner confer anthropomorphic attributes upon a stone than dehumanise the slightest possibility of consciousness.” In that year potent reminders of how easy it is to train oneself in indifference to the suffering of others were coming out of post war Europe.

B.F.Skinner is a bogeyman for me. It is grotesque to think that he was a Professor of Psychology at Harvard, about half a century after William James, the subtleties of whose phenomenological descriptions of mental states compare well to those of his novelist brother, Henry. It is a strange fact that Skinner, as a young man attempted to write a stream of consciousness novel and abandoned it. I do not know enough about Skinner to know whether his denial of consciousness as a legitimate subject of study for Science was a question of sour grapes or unresolved inner conflict, but the fact in itself is surprising.

Where will the respective reputations of James and Skinner be in another century? It is perhaps not fanciful to suggest that will depend on the relative vigour of democracy and totalitarianism. Totalitarianism in its drive for efficiency and the subordination of the individual to the goals of the State, will look to techniques of conditioning and re-education, as well as control of all public sources of information. Why would a behaviourist be concerned about any of this? Free will is an illusion, consciousness an epiphenomenon and in so far as it is pleasurable, almost an indulgence. Harmonious co-existence would be a goal but very much as a concomitant of State goals. Of course for the very poor, freedom of expression, much less thought, is a luxury, but when a whole society lives under the requirement of conformity, the spirit of the people is crushed. We have the history of Stalin’s USSR to contemplate, including Nadhezhda Mandelstam’s account of her husband’s persecution and eventual liquidation (Hope against Hope & Hope Abandoned), and the insight of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. More recently I have found Dave Egger’s novel The Circle, a powerful account of a fictional silicon valley company, which becomes, in effect, a cult by suppressing dissent.

I shall conclude by telling you an anecdote about Skinner, almost certainly apocryphal but nonetheless amusing and illustrative of the ridiculousness of the Behaviourist agenda which seeks to remove the psyche from Psychology. Skinner when he lectured wandered to and fro across the whole breadth of the lecture theatre. A bright year of freshers decided to practise his conditioning techniques on him. To the left the students looked interested, made notes and asked questions. On the right they looked bored and sleepy. Over the course of the year, they had Skinner pinned down on one side of the lecture theatre.

it is amusing to think of Skinner hoist with his own petard, and I suppose the pay off is that had Skinner once become aware of his being manipulated, he could have broken the spell. I only hope the human race can break the spell of the attractions of conditioning, how much more human to respond to kindness and encouragement than conditioning and reinforcement.

NOTE – On breaking the spell – In my twenties I sometimes wasted a few pounds on fruit machines in pubs. Someone told me they were designed using Skinner’s principle of intermittent reinforcement to modify the behaviour of pigeons. After I had digested this information, I stopped wasting my money.

Published by davidcookpoet

I am a husband, father and grandfather. I retired from a busy working life as an adult psychiatrist in 2014. My interests are in literature, philosophy, modern jazz and horse racing. I might represent those four fields by Shakespeare, Kant, Charlie Parker and Lester Piggott. Like nearly all of us, I can identify a number of formative experiences, one of which was a psychotic episode in my first year as a psychiatrist. This reinforced an already established interest in mystical experience, and a sense of how little human beings know. My intellectual bugbear is reductive materialism, and I am surprised at the lack of moral imagination of those who promulgate such views. It seems to me they need to consider ,perhaps by exposure, just why totalitarianism is so horrific.

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