Deadly Illusions: Objectivity & the Behaviorist Trap

A century ago the West entered an age of artificial substitutes, technical ingenuity, mechanical products, technological values, and accelerating motion. The watchword of the age was objectivity — an illusive standard for leaders and the led. Objectivity deeply affected the emerging mass communications industry, which before long was serving as one of the most powerful tools of global management.

In the 19th century news was an open ideological weapon; opinions splattered across printed pages. But the new age brought with it a new form — objective reporting. Based on the notion that rational people could discover the truth if presented with enough unfettered facts, objectivity quickly became the unchallenged goal of the professional press. In 1947, however, the Commission on Freedom of the Press noted that it was no longer just the goal. It had become a fetish.

By the end of the 20th century factual fetishism was a social illness fed by print and electronic media. As journalist Mark Harris put it, “Only hard data are useful to the press. Unable to negotiate meditation, the media turn it off. Reporters cannot believe things they cannot instantly absorb, jot down, add up and phone in.” In the words of TV’s most famous FBI man, Jack Friday, like a good cop, a good reporter — or a rational leader — wants “nothing but the facts.” That many of these so-called “facts” turned out to be false, incomplete or inaccurate, and objectivity itself was an impossible standard, seemed not to matter.

Humanity turned further outward toward the “objective,” and upward toward “order” through scientific methods and bureaucratic organizations. The dream of the new world, at first sounding much like Rousseau’s vision of a naturalized community, became the reality of centralization, regimentation, and predictability. Human relations and behavioral engineering were primary tools used by leaders to turn citizens into more easily conditioned extroverts.

Materialist assumptions replaced the concept of a “rational soul” with a “tabula rasa” upon which managers attempted to write. The term “tabula rasa” was introduced by John Locke in 1672, just as a new English middle-class was disposing of the divine rights of kings. Rejecting Descartes’ theory of innate knowledge, Locke traced it instead back to sense perception. We begin, he said, as blank slates, without general principles. After birth external stimuli imprint themselves upon the mind. Locke applied Newton’s mechanistic view to the theory of knowledge:

“Let us then suppose the mind to be, as we say, white paper, void of all character, without any ideas; how comes it to be furnished? Whence comes it by that vast store, which the busy and boundless fancy of man has painted on it with an almost endless variety? Whence has it all the materials of knowledge and reason? To this I answer in one word, from experience; in that all our knowledge is founded, and from that it ultimately derives itself.”

Combined with dialectical materialism, Locke’s hypothesis found considerable support in the 20th century. The conditioned reflex — training to respond to a given stimulus in a predetermined fashion — was a shaping mechanism that, according to psychologist J.B. Watson, confirmed that the human being is “an assembled organic machine ready to run.” The techniques of operant conditioning developed by Skinner rested upon an assumption that the “living organism” called human being functions faithfully in response to externally administered stimuli. This gradually conferred on managers, as natural programmers for these living machines, the status of cultural designer. The rest of humanity was meanwhile consigned by behaviorism to a rational extroversion that removed the summum bonum — the highest good, always a bit beyond reach – 

from view.

The other-directed person, noted David Reisman in his seminal study The Lonely Crowd, is the model of the salaried employee and bureaucrat in any metropolitan area, “torn between the illusion that life should be easy, if he could only find the ways of proper adjustment to the group, and the half buried feeling that it is not easy for him.” Reisman documented how the shift away from agriculture and the growth of habits of scientific thought caused religious feelings to give way to rational, often individualistic attitudes.

The centralization and bureaucratization of society, in turn, increased awareness of and sensitivity to other people. The result was the other-directed person — Fromm’s “marketer,” Mills’ “fixer,” Arnold Green’s “middle class male child.” Other-direction insured conformity and, therefore, comfort in one’s peer group. Rational extroverts care very much what others think of them. Being liked is the chief area of concern:

“What is common to all other-directed people is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual — either those known to him or those with whom he is indirectly acquainted, through friends and through the mass media. This source is of course ‘internalized’ in the sense that dependence on it for guidance in life is implanted early. The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance: it is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered throughout life.”

The other-directed person is often a rational manager who believes that all associates are essentially customers, and all objects of either conciliation or manipulation. Jung describes this person as an extrovert psychological type of either the thinking or feeling rational variety. Such a leader is object-oriented and dedicated to given facts, never expecting to find absolute factors in his own inner life; the only ones he knows are outside himself. His guide is external necessity. His consciousness, said Jung, looks outward because that is where the essential and decisive determinant is found. No serious attempt to overreach the boundary of facts is made, since facts are a source of almost inexhaustible fascination.

The moral standard of the modern, rational leader coincides with the demands of society. Above all, such a person is adaptive. Yet adjustment to the objective situation, the demands of the environment, isn’t merely adaptation. The factual fetishism of rational managers traps them in short-range planning and bans considerations beyond the observable, all those things that lie outside the immediate conditions of time and space. Instead, the manager does only what is needed and expected.

In most modern societies, leaders and managers have formed a new class, a brotherhood of ascensionists. For these committed strivers, the highest person represents the utmost in power, authority, and sometimes even intelligence. But as Lewis Mumford noted, those who look upward and outward, moving across vast distances at rapid speeds, often forget to look downward and inward. Both self and Earth are thus sacrificed in a quest for order and control, and the rejection of the inner being becomes the curse of our age.

The dominance of rational habits of thought in virtually all areas of life has given theory the veneer of absolute truth. Despite the limits of perception, we struggle for certainty about the small bits of knowledge we hold. Our spirit of logical inquiry is too often a journey to eradicate doubt and establish doctrine. Once a hypothesis has been verified, the next step is to corroborate, refine and disseminate it. In this way a variety of flawed and false theories attain the status of law.

A significant example is the behaviorist hypothesis that the only elementary function of the central nervous system is reflex. To verify this, only experiments that registered responses to “change” were conducted. According to ethologist Konrad Lorenz, these experiments were executed in a way “that precluded their revealing that the central nervous system can do more than react passively to stimuli.” He concluded that, “The Skinnerian has no right to comment on innate behavior or on aggression, because he cuts it from consideration.”

Nevertheless, they do comment — on this and many other matters, continuing to spread this belief system. Despite its blind spots, the Skinnerian world view has made a deep impact and almost become an item of faith. The simplicity of the reflex doctrine, along with the apparent exactitude of related research, has led to considerable acclaim. In Civilized Man’s Eight Deadly Sins, Lorenz noted:

“Even religious believers could be converted to it, for if the child is born as a ‘tabula rasa,’ it is the duty of every believer to see to it that this child and, possibly, all other children, are brought up in what he believes to be the only true religion. Thus behavioristic dogma supports every doctrinaire in his conviction.”

Behaviorism is essentially the doctrine of human as mechanism restated as a democratic principle: all of us are created potentially equal-blank slates without instinct, and would be equal under the same external conditions. The threat to democratic order therefore is the “myth” of the inner being, which suggests differences in social need and response.

Most leaders generally accept such mechanistic doctrines, moving their organizations toward increased predictability, continuing the search for the Absolute. Yet, in order for rationality to function as the central operational principle, people must be unresisting objects. The rulers of the modern world may disagree about ideology or economics, but they have apparently reached a virtual consensus on at least one matter — that the conditioning of humanity is highly desirable. The social contract, in the  US and elsewhere, may have been initiated with the ideal of individualism, but its implementation has progressed dramatically toward order and uniformity.

Judging from the higher degree of extroversion in developed societies, and the popularity of analysis and certainty, mass indoctrination has been remarkably effective. But classification without reflection upon whole systems can be dangerous; this rational approach is easily prey to reductionism. It smirks as subjective attempts to gain insights without quantification or operational research, considering the filter of measurement the only dependable standard. To look at and work with human beings is this manner, one must accept a dehumanized view of consciousness. Along with that comes aggressive action to suppress subjective experience, impulse, instinct and other challenges to pure reason.

Skinner proclaimed that the autonomous human was dead: long live conditioned and conditioning humanity! What we need is just more objective, exact research to push back the decimal places that measure the “real world.” But our half-buried feelings have not disappeared. The adjusted life, they remind us, does not bring us closer to the “summum bonum,” and may instead have moved us farther away.

This is a excerpt from Prisoners of the Real. 

To read other chapters, go to Prisoners of the Real: An Odyssey