Freedom of Choice or Environmental Manipulation?

While pursuing my bachelor’s degree in social work, I took a class called positive psychology. At the time I was very excited as the study of the human mind was very interesting to me. I still find it fascinating, just not in the same way. I came to learn, over time, that psychology is a study that concerns itself with controlling human behavior, not simply learning from it. In positive psychology the emphasis seemed to revolve the creation of a standardized happiness. This was very troubling to me because happiness is generally understood to be an individual pursuit. Different things in life make different people happy, we are individuals. To define happiness in scientific terms, in a collective, uniform fashion deprives human beings of their individuality, in my opinion. The study of human behavior has been placed under the microscope of psychologists who tend to view man in evolutionary terms. Most psychologists do not believe in God; (or at least psychology’s origins are absent the belief in God) therefore, the idea that man is in control of his behavior is generally rejected in favor of more collective, secular explanations.


  “If we are to use the methods of science in the field of human affairs, we must assume that behavior is lawful and determined. We must expect to discover that what a man does is the result of specifiable conditions and that once these conditions have been discovered, we can anticipate and to some extent determine his actions. This possibility is offensive to many people. It is opposed to a tradition of long standing which regards man as a free agent, whose behavior is the product, not of specifiable antecedent conditions, but of spontaneous inner changes of course. Prevailing philosophies of human nature recognize an internal “will” which has the power of interfering with causal relationships and which makes the prediction and control of behavior impossible. To suggest that we abandon this view is to threaten many cherished beliefs—to undermine what appears to be a stimulating and productive conception of human nature.”[1]


The above is from B.F. Skinners Science and Human Behavior. He is saying that the traditional, spiritual view of man must be rejected if the study of human behavior is ever going to be conducted from a strictly, scientific viewpoint. Skinner held a Utopian view of life believing that psychology and the study of human behavior could be used to push society in a more collective direction. According to Deborah Altus and Edward Morris, writing for the Association of Behavioral Analysis International[2], Skinner viewed American life as mundane and felt people should be motivated to experiment with more communal types of living. This is important to understand because Skinner’s influence is deep and wide ranging in the study of human behavior. To study human happiness, for example, from the perspective that man is not in control of his behavior and there is no God, could have its consequences. Especially when you consider the study of psychology itself focuses on controlling human behavior, not merely understanding it. This, however, is exactly what is happening.


In 2005, Time Magazine published an article entitled The New Science of Happiness[3]. The field of positive psychology has taken on the study of human happiness to determine how to make life better for all of us. In my opinion this can only be accomplished by viewing man through Skinner’s perspective. To determine what makes man happy while considering man’s individual characteristics would be a daunting task. Therein lies the problem of studying human behavior. Conclusions that seek to explain man’s actions can only be reached if man’s individuality is absent from the equation. Science, in its search for definitive answers must set an agreed upon standard from which its study will be conducted. In most cases, the study of human behavior is done from Skinner’s viewpoints, which is based on Darwinian evolution.


“In what we may call the pre-scientific view (and the word is not necessarily pejorative) a person’s behavior is at least to some extent his own achievement. He is free to deliberate, decide, and act, possibly in original ways, and he is to be given credit for his successes and blamed for his failures. In the scientific view (and the word is not necessarily honorific) a person’s behavior is determined by a genetic endowment traceable to the evolutionary history of the species and by the environmental circumstances to which as an individual he has been exposed. Neither view can be proved, but it is in the nature of scientific inquiry that the evidence should shift in favor of the second”[4].


This means, essentially, that any study that sets out to determine what causes a certain human behavior is going to be done from a secular, collective viewpoint that offers a one size fits all explanation. The findings presented in Time Magazine’s article seem to reflect B.F. Skinner’s biases towards communal living and Utopianism. One of the first points they make represents the leftist, anti-capitalist view that the pursuit of wealth does not lead to happiness. This is something we all understand. We don’t need psychology to tell us money doesn’t buy happiness. Their bigger point however is that once an “individuals basic needs are met,” the pursuit of additional wealth does nothing to raise our happiness levels. Who determines what constitutes our basic needs? So, all we need to be happy is to be fed, have a roof over our head and feel a general sense of belonging to a community of some kind?  They also suggest that pursuing a higher education has no affect on a person’s general happiness. This may be true for some people. I’m currently pursuing a master’s degree in professional writing and since I have taken this challenge on, I feel more fulfilled in certain areas of my life. Finally, they assert that religious people have a higher level of happiness, but they can’t ascertain whether that has “anything to do with the God part,” or if simply being a part of the community accounts for it.


They then treat us to an obvious no brainer by suggesting people with a lot of friends and ties to the community have higher levels of happiness than those that don’t. Seriously? How long did it take for them to figure that out?


Here is where things get a little contradictory. Numerous psychologists have come to agree that a person does have it within their control to change their happiness levels if they do it in one of three ways that they have determined will make you happy. One, you can make a gratitude journal and keep track of things that you are grateful for. What if you are grateful for the additional wealth you don’t need because your basic needs are met? What if you are grateful for the opportunity to pursue a higher education? Second, perform acts of kindness. Visit a nursing home, mow a neighbor’s lawn or helping someone with a project of some kind. It is suggested that doing five kind acts a day will drastically improve happiness. Finally, make a list of your personal strengths and how to use them. Personal strengths are defined as generosity, humor and gratitude. The contradiction here is generosity. What does a person have to be generous with if happiness is simply having basic needs met? What if a person is happy because he is working his tail end off knowing that he is providing for his family? Well, here we are at Skinner’s biases. In the book “The Shaping of a Behaviorist[5]” Skinner describes the traditional view of American life as being “lockstep;” meaning that people are just mundanely following along with the ideas of marriage, home ownership and raising a family. The basic idea is that science is telling us that they know what is best for us and if we simply surrender our outdated views on what we think makes us happy we will all live much happier more fulfilled lives.


Cass Sunstein, Barack Obama’s former regulatory czar wrote a book called Nudge[6]. Essentially, this book is about how people can be “nudged” or pushed into making better decisions for their lives. Or, to put it more bluntly, nudged into freely making the decisions that government and science think would be better for their lives.


“But our basic source of information here is the emerging science of choice, consisting of careful research by social scientists over the past four decades. That research has raised serious questions about the rationality of many judgments and decisions that people make. To qualify as Econs, people are not required to make perfect forecasts (that would require omniscience), but they are required to make unbiased forecasts. That is, the forecasts can be wrong, but they can’t be systematically wrong in a predictable direction. Unlike Econs, Humans predictably err. Take, for example, the “planning fallacy”—the systematic tendency toward unrealistic optimism about the time it takes to complete projects. It will come as no surprise to anyone who has ever hired a contractor to learn that everything takes longer than you think, even if you know about the planning fallacy”[7].


This is alarming on many levels. Some people may see the rationality in having government dictate choices for our own good. In fact, this is the rallying cry of the political left. It is, however, very dangerous and denies human beings their individuality and ability to live free autonomous lives. Again, we can draw on the words of B.F. Skinner and his theories on operant conditioning.


“As we learn more about the effects of the environment, we have less reason to attribute any part of human behavior to an autonomous controlling agent. And the second view shows a marked advantage when we begin to do something about behavior. Autonomous man is not easily changed: in fact, to the extent that he is autonomous, he is by definition not changeable at all. But the environment can be changed, and we are learning how to change it. The measures we use are those of physical and biological technology, but we use them in special ways to affect behavior”[8].


What Skinner is saying that man’s behavior can be changed and guided in a certain way through the manipulation of the environment around him. People can be “nudged” into behaving into what the government would consider to be a politically correct, acceptable way by subtly enforcing a behavior standard through the environment in which we live. This is the study of human behavior from a scientific perspective absent of God. What we could end up with is a scientifically enforced definition of happiness which is used to dictate every aspect of our lives for our own good.


The main point of this article isn’t so much about Time Magazines article or the study of happiness in general; but the fact that science is investing in the manipulation of the environment to control our behavior. The government obviously doesn’t believe we can make choices in our best interest. If they did, they would leave us alone. The very principle of our nation is based on the premise that people, when left to their own devises, will make decisions that are in their best interest and more importantly, in the best interest of society. This thinking is what led to the most prosperous and free society the world has known. A society that incidentally, the left despises. The possible implications of a science of behavior which controls our actions through environmental manipulation are many. In the book Nudge, Sunstein refers to what he calls a choice architect. This is a person who controls choices we make. The examples given have to do with market decisions such as healthcare choices, or how we choose the foods we eat but there is a potential to apply this concept on a much larger scale. For example, are our elections set by choice architects? Are our choices for president controlled? Is the economy controlled to a certain extent to control the economic decisions we make? These are possibilities that must be considered given the information provided. The ability to control behavior through environmental manipulation strips us all our individual autonomy creating a dangerous precedent for the concept of individual freedom.




[6] file:///C:/Users/driss/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/Richard_H._Thaler_Cass_R._Sunstein_Nudge_Improv.%20(1).pdf
[7] file:///C:/Users/driss/AppData/Local/Packages/Microsoft.MicrosoftEdge_8wekyb3d8bbwe/TempState/Downloads/Richard_H._Thaler_Cass_R._Sunstein_Nudge_Improv.%20(1).pdf

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