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We’re all rats in a cage

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PSYCHOLOGY was becoming of popular interest in the 1960s. Julian Wintle (later of The Avengers fame) had produced an ITV series entitled The Human Jungle. The 26 episodes (all available on DVD) were polished and credible. They nearly always began with some hapless soul flipping out over something; Dr Corder (played soothingly by Herbert Lom) had the task of unearthing the cause lying deep in the patient’s unconscious mind.

I had achieved two good A-Level grades in 1969, and my teachers were enthusiastic that I should go on to university. But what to study? Well, why not psychology? Surely it would equip me well for any subsequent career choice, I reasoned.

Knowing very little about psychology, other than what I had seen in the Human Jungle and a superficial knowledge of Thigpen and Cleckley’s account of multiple personality disorder, as described in their book The Three Faces of Eve, I arrived bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the main lecture theatre in October 1969 for my first lecture in psychology from the professor of the department.

The professor in question died ten years ago. I won’t name him, but plenty of TCW readers will know who he was.

To my surprise, this first lecture consisted of a long critique of the concept of ‘the unconscious’. There might or might not be such a thing, the argument was made, but so what? We cannot see it or measure it, we are only postulating, so why not cut corners and eliminate the unconscious from our consideration altogether? All we can know is that which we can observe; and that observable thing, where living organisms are concerned, is behaviour.

And so I was disabused of my quaint notion about psychology being the study of the mind, and introduced to this new concept that psychology – at least as far as this particular department of psychology was concerned – was the science and study of behaviour.

Next up came our Science of Behaviour PhD lecturer. Again, he died a few years ago, and I won’t give his name. He introduced us to the joys of the Skinner Box and schedules of reinforcement (in lay terms, giving a rat a food pellet each time it presses a lever). Upon such meticulous experiment and observation the laws that govern the behaviour of all living things could be ascertained. Once those laws were corroborated and confirmed by further experiment, psychologists could devise environments which would elicit desired behaviour and extinguish undesired behaviour. This practice would be called behavioural engineering.

The champion of behavioural psychology was American psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner, the eponymous designer of the Box and author of the books Science and Human Behaviour; Beyond Freedom and Dignity; and Walden Two – the latter a sort of semi-science fiction novel, the title being based on Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, or, Life in the Woods.

Skinner’s Walden Two posits a utopian community which is run on the principles of behavioural psychology. A telling and perhaps intentionally ironic detail in the book is the description of a flock of sheep which no longer need an electrified fence to keep them penned. They have been conditioned not to stray from their ‘enclosure’.

You didn’t need to be too much of a philosopher or logician to spot one or two fallacies and self-contradictions in behavioural psychology, but what struck me most forcibly (and the faculty were never happy when I tried to point it out) was that what we were studying was not so much behaviour, but rather coercion. A rat in a Skinner Box is caged. Its behavioural repertoire is restricted. It is also food-deprived (what the layman calls ‘hungry’.) Therefore it is under duress.

When I ponder the fact that the government has the Scientific Pandemic Insights Group on Behaviour (SPI-B) advising it on the coronavirus pandemic, it does rather make me purse my lips and furrow my brow. What would behavioural psychologists know about a virus? Don’t tell me we’re all going to be dumped into a metaphorical Skinner Box, and have our behaviour shaped and modified by a series of scientifically designed reinforcements and punishments. Is this going to be Walden Three?

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Steve Jamnik
Steve Jamnik (pseudonym) was a student of psychology in the seventies, before ditching it to work in television.

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