How Smartphone Apps Are Reshaping Our Desires

David Freedman chats with readers about his cover story in the June Atlantic

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For those who have seen the Stanley Kubrick film A Clockwork Orange, the words "behavior modification" may conjure up images of the creepy protagonist with his eyelids propped open, forced to watch brutal films under the influence of nausea-inducing drugs. But as David H. Freedman explains in his June Atlantic cover story, the theories of psychologist B.F. Skinner have long been misunderstood. And they're now finding all new acceptance, thanks to smartphone apps that help people become perfected versions of themselves.

Freedman came online on Tuesday, May 29, at 3 p.m. to talk to readers about his story. The transcript appears below.
   
David H. Freedman:
Hi All, ready to begin in 2 minutes
   
doctorawed: 
Nowhere in Chomsky's critique of Skinner did I ever see a suggestion human beings were too smart to have any aspects of their behavior shaped by Skinnerean conditioning. Chomsky did argue that Skinner couldn't account for all aspects of language learning/acquisition, but that's quite a different claim.
   
Freedman:
Glad to be here, thanks for a good, tough first question!

Saying "we're too smart" is indeed a gross oversimplification--hey, space was tight. Chomsky made 2 big points re: Skinner. First, he said that humans have speech circuits in their brains that animals don't have, so Skinners' theories on how humans acquire speech can't be right.

Second, he noted that Skinner only did work on animals, so didn't really present any science on humans, and therefore his ideas about humans shouldn't be taken as serious scientific claims. I very roughly boil this down to, "It works on animals, maybe, but humans probably have too much special stuff going on in their big brains to succumb to training this way." The evidence shows overwhelmingly that Chomsky was dead wrong.
   
Rochelle: 
In working with adolescents who abuse marijuana, is behavior work best or education, and does the token economy work well with this age?
   
Freedman:
Behavior work can be seen as a form of education, it's not either or. If you mean just providing information, without any reinforcement, behavior analysts would say (and studies seem to show) that's not likely to be very effective. The token economy is a form of reinforcement-based behavioral modification that in some situations, for some people, works well to some extent. But there are many other ways to carry out effective reinforcement.
   
Joseph Jay Williams: 
I enjoyed the article a lot, it's very timely, and encouraging for people who struggle with health issues.
   
Freedman:
I'm glad you think so. The medical community for the most part is pretty much in agreement that health-related behavior change is the most important thing that needs to happen. People who do health-promoting things (eat healthy foods, exercise, don't smoke, etc.) are doing a lot more for themselves than anything modern medicine is likely to do for them.
   
Joseph Jay Williams: 
I do research on behavior change - I'm in cognitive science - and I'm curious whether you came across current researchers who you thought were advocating particularly effective principles, and whether there were particular apps or web-based programs you were impressed by. There's been discussion in the news about the potential (and concerns) about internet-based interventions. But I haven't seen articles that tried to synthesize some of the most important principles - it seems readers would be interested in that, but is that style of journalism just less appropriate for a magazine or newspaper?
   
Freedman:
I've been paying more attention to those researchers who are employing online and phone apps for reinforcement-oriented behavior change. There is also work that tries to directly address thought and feelings online, rather than behavior. Right now the studies are all over the place on whether these sorts of interventions are effective--and a lot of it depends on what's being measured. Self-reported changes in feelings? Self-reported changes in behavior? These are harder studies to get reliable, meaningful answers for--one big advantage to the strictly behavioral approach.
   
Freedman:
I've seen articles that try to synthesize some of the principles of online behavioral interventions (I quote a few in the article), but trying to say something smart about internet-based interventions in general would be tricky right now--the studies are still pouring in.
   
Luis De Avila: 
I'm a student of behavior change that's learned via the school of life. It seems to me that it may be too late for most people to change their health behavior... Are there any attempts to change the behavior of children that you find to be compelling or interesting in their approach?
   
Freedman:
I hope you're wrong about us adults not being able to change our behavior! I think I've seen quite a few do so. But I agree that we really ought to focus a lot of special attention on children. And yes, absolutely, there is a huge amount of work going on in that regard in behavior analysis. Although behavior analysis is best known for working with children with autism, it actually works in all facets of education with all children. Skinner himself was interested in general education, not special education.
   
Freedman:
I think just about any good teacher of students of any age (and parents!) intuitively use Skinnerian approaches of praising and otherwise rewarding students for doing some good, and ignoring (as much as possible) undesirable behavior.
   
Freedman:
Anyone here have experience with different sorts of diet approaches? I'm always curious to hear how people fare with different techniques.

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