Trick or Treat

Is it okay to “trick people” for their own good?

That question comes up early in John Staddon’s book The New Behaviorism. I’ve just started reading it, and it’s a thought-provoking analysis.

Behaviorism is a psychological approach that, true to its name, focuses on how people act instead of how they feel. It also looks at how to encourage people to act in specific ways. (It doesn’t focus only on people, but that’s what’s relevant here.)

From Facebook to Fake News, from computer games to popular entertainment, much of what we see in daily life uses behaviorist ideas to get us to do or believe certain things.

For example, a key technique is variable reinforcement. If you give people a reward whenever they perform action X, you can motivate them to do it. But if you unpredictably reward them only some of the time instead of all of the time, you can addict them to doing it. That’s almost the entire science of online clickbait. Sometimes you get a reward, and sometimes you don’t. You just keep clicking. And suddenly it’s two o’clock in the morning.

Behaviorism was pioneered by John B. Watson (no relation to the Sherlock Holmes character), a Columbia University psychologist. Columbia fired him for cheating on his wife — what a different era that was! — and he went to work in advertising. He was a big success at getting people to buy things. That gave some evidence for his ideas.

His most famous successor was the Harvard psychologist B.F. Skinner, who not only extended the science of behaviorism but popularized it as a philosophy. That’s what raised the question about tricking people for their own good.

Skinner believed government should use behaviorist ideas to make people act in socially desirable ways and to discourage them doing things that were socially harmful.

Of course, the devil is in the details of defining “desirable” and “harmful” — and in who gets to define them.

But it raises the question that Staddon posed in response to Skinner. Is it “okay to use science to trick the citizenry as long as it gets them to do the right thing”?

I haven’t read far enough yet to know Staddon’s answer, though I expect it to be some version of “no, it’s not okay.”

The more general question is whether or not people in power should deceive the population for its own good. Using science just makes the deception more effective. The moral issue is the deception itself.

I’d answer that as a practical matter in the real world, the deception is almost always wrong. It assumes that the people in power “know best” what’s good for people in general.

Occasionally it’s true, but usually it’s not. And when it’s not true, people in power still try to impose their harmful or mistaken beliefs on everyone else.

That’s much worse than giving people the freedom to believe and act as they wish, as long as they don’t attack or coerce others. Some people will still be mistaken, but their mistakes won’t be forced on the rest of us.

Check out my new book Why Sane People Believe Crazy Things: How Belief Can Help or Hurt Social Peace. Kirkus Reviews called it an “impressively nuanced analysis.”

About N.S. Palmer

N.S. Palmer is an American mathematician.
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2 Responses to Trick or Treat

  1. J P says:

    This is what I think of whenever The Federal Reserve is in the news. When the goal is anything other than reinforcing the stability of the Dollar it all comes down to manipulation of the public. People can be herded this way or that with interest rate/money supply decisions which send out false signals “for their own good.”

    It would be amusing if they had not done such real damage over the decades.

    Have you finished the book yet?


    • N.S. Palmer says:

      I haven’t finished the book yet, but I plan to finish it presently. I’m on a fitness vacation, so between running, lifting weights, and relaxing, I’ve got some extra time. Re the Fed, I agree with you but have one reservation. Markets are moved both by rational factors and by what John Maynard Keynes called “animal spirits:” when people feel confident and optimistic, they are more likely to do things. A lot of the Fed’s manipulation is of that sort. However, there are also the drawbacks noted in the blog post: What are the Fed officials’ motivations, and do they actually know what they’re doing? Half and half, at least that’s how it looks to me.


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