Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Skinner Box

Steady diet of panic and fear pits Americans against each other

Bucks County Courier Times

In a college course on psychology I studied behaviorism — the understanding that animals can learn, can be “conditioned” to make predictable responses to repeated stimulus and circumstances.

In one experiment, we placed laboratory rats in a small cage called a Skinner Box, named after one of the pioneers in the discipline, and observed the “bar press” response.

At one end of the cage was a bar on a hinge. When a rat eventually leaned on it, it was pressed down and released a food pellet into a tray. The rat ate it. The smarter rats made the connection quickly — do this and eat — but eventually even the dumb ones figured it out.

Then we put the same rats in another cage with a bar at both ends. One released a food pellet when pressed and the other did not, and we discovered the really smart rats.

We would later learn that people can be similarly conditioned to make predictable responses. This understanding is the basis of all modern advertising, and most politics.

For example, if a politician makes the right response when voting on legislation or directing policy, there may be a reward for that behavior; or in scientific terms, a stimulus to repeat that behavior. But some rewards are better than others, and some politicians learn very quickly indeed.

But voters can also be conditioned to pull the right lever. Say the word “jobs” or “values” after a politician’s name in a million dollar’s worth of 30-second spots over six weeks, and people start to associate them; even though the politician has no plan to create jobs and may well be devoid of values.

There was another experiment. We put a lot of rats in a big cage, and gradually reduced the food supply. The competition for the dwindling resource got ugly.

This is behavior that Americans have observed many times among people in the news from very poor, Third World countries and in some disasters. Now, we can see it daily in the United States.

As ever more of the wealth and resources of the United States are concentrated in fewer hands, and as food, housing, health care and other vital resources are withdrawn, the competition for what remains is getting ugly and Americans are set one against the other.

In some communities, teachers and unions seem to be the villain as Americans confront dwindling available resources and fight to hold on to what they have left.

Teachers, it is argued, have it too good — salaries, health care and retirement that are better than those of others. And in some communities that is true. But leaving aside for the moment that teachers did not steal these benefits, but rather secured then in contract negotiations to which there was another party — a democratically elected school board — it is interesting to note how some voters have been conditioned to make a particular response.

Instead of fighting for better wages, health care and retirement for themselves and everybody else, many seem only to want to pull down the teachers.

This is all the more remarkable because, while the rats in the Skinner Box could not know or understand that someone was manipulating the food supply, most American adults are capable of understanding that someone is manipulating and controlling the wealth and resources that could be shared to lift every American up, and there is no need to pull anyone down.

The American people are being conditioned to make these responses, no less than rats in a Skinner Box.

But people are more complicated than rats, and while physical stimulation and reinforcement can be useful, these methods are generally illegal (except at places like Guantanamo) and those who wish to produce desired political behavior must resort to emotional stimulation. Fear is the No. 1 tool.

So Americans are fed a steady diet of fear — terrorists (now that the Commies are gone), global financial collapse, and life threatening debt and deficits to persuade them that improving the lives of all is just not an option, and bringing down others is the only way for you — personally — to have any security in this evidently insecure world.

I mean, your job could go tomorrow. Did we mention that?

It is all so bogus. There is money all over the place in the United States, and rather than make scapegoats of teachers, or anyone else, adult Americans should be able to look at 10 years of ruinously expensive wars, decades of massive subsidies to a few favored industries, off-shored jobs, fantastic corporate wealth, the looting of the Treasury by a relative handful of Wall Street banksters, and politicians conditioned by legalized bribes to make all that possible — and figure it out.

And perhaps Americans are now figuring it out. There was a recent election in the county where this newspaper is published — education and income well above the mean in America. Nobody came. Turnout was the lowest ever recorded.

It may be that those who control the wealth of America have succeeded too well, and the American people have been conditioned by endless experience to understand, finally, that there is no connection between voting and their welfare.

I wonder what comes next?