“What Man Can Make of Man”

By James Bennet

B.F. Skinner and his wife observe their daughter in a “baby tender,” a crib with a controlled environment, which Skinner invented to keep babies safe. (Associated Press)

The psychologist B. F. Skinner was shouted down in an era whose mix of fears was different from our own. His theory of “operant conditioning”—known as behavior modification—seemed, in the 1950s and ’60s, manufactured for the same fascist tool kit as Huxley’s soma or Orwell’s thoughtcrime. By 1971, as David H. Freedman writes in our cover story, when A Clockwork Orange depicted a terrifying vision of state control, Time found Skinner unsettling enough to put him on its cover and ask, “Skinner’s Utopia: Panacea, or Path to Hell?”

Yet Skinner’s insights into behavior, and his methods for shaping it, never disappeared. Names were changed, fingerprints erased, but his ideas formed the basis (somewhat hilariously, given their menacing image) of Weight Watchers, one of the most successful mass-market weight-loss programs. Now, combined with technology Skinner did not anticipate (but Orwell, come to think of it, sort of did), behavior modification is emerging as a means to confront everything from obesity to climate change. We can cheaply monitor our behavior with smartphones and use the same devices to draw “positive reinforcement” from our social networks; in theory, people can take better control of themselves this way, rather than surrendering to, say, an advertisement for a Double Down from KFC.

Our era is less fearful than contemptuous of government. The Iron Curtain is receding in memory, and pundits complain that the American government is, if anything, too weak, too helpless in the grip of special interests, to do anything but rename buildings after Ronald Reagan.

Yet just because we aren’t paranoid doesn’t mean no one’s out to get us, and there always was something truly creepy about Skinnerism. Skinner’s own utopian novel, Walden Two, came out in 1948, the year before 1984. In it, a searching yet skeptical psychology professor visits a commune created by a former colleague named Frazier, who, didactically, in the way of such novels, guides him through the place. To teach toddlers self-control, Frazier says, workers hang lollipops “like crucifixes” around their necks and tell them they may eat the whole thing later, provided they don’t lick it until permitted.

Frazier envisions a “selective breeding” program and continuous experimentation with children’s behavior to create great mathematicians and artists—a social “Superorganism” to generate superior people. Frazier explains:

When we ask what Man can make of Man, we don’t mean the same thing by “Man” in both instances. We mean to ask what a few men can make of mankind. And that’s the all-absorbing question of the twentieth century. What kind of world can we build—those of us who understand the science of behavior? (Though unnerved by Frazier’s God complex, the narrator in the end joins the commune, preferring its methods to the consumerism, inequality, and stress of mid-century American life.)

Maybe our fear of government is less pronounced because other fears have grown up beside it—fears of control by Big Data corporations, or their machines. Reading Freedman’s piece, you might feel these fears stir, like when one academic explains how people can condition themselves (or be conditioned?): “You put sensors in phones and throughout the home, you develop algorithms that can infer what people are doing, and then you provide tailored automatic feedback that reinforces the right behaviors.” In the Technology column this month, Andrew Keen describes new “social discovery” apps that, based on users’ data, try to connect us with nearby strangers whom the programs determine we should find interesting. Is this a sign that we are taking control of our lives, or that we are surrendering it?

Yet the most powerful form of control over the individual never required electricity or even a state apparatus. It can be seen operating at full force in our comic and frightening short story, “Honors Track,” by Molly Patterson. There we see the warping effect of social pressure transmitted, intentionally or not, by parents, teachers, and peers. As Frazier observes in arguing for his own behavioral control rather than that of post-war mores: “Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless. It enslaves him almost before he has tasted freedom.” Outside of Walden Two, we may believe that we control ourselves. “But,” Frazier warns, “don’t be misled, the control always rests in the last analysis in the hands of society.”

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/06/what-man-can-make-of-man/308973/