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Dissed incentives

07 August 2015


IN SOME fields of human knowledge, we stand on the shoulders of the giants who have gone before. In others, we find ourselves in deep pits dug by our predecessors.

Academics can be at their most eloquent when bitching about colleagues, but this damning assessment of the work of psychologist B. F. Skinner is particularly significant since behaviourism — the theory that Skinner promoted — is so prevalent in modern thinking.

Mind Changers (Radio 4, Monday of last week) presented an intriguing account of the man and his methods: a man whose study was decorated with pictures of his hero Pavlov and cluttered with homemade gadgets; and methods that included use of the infamous Skinner Box, by which rats, pigeons, and people could be observed, responding or not to reinforcement stimuli.

Such methods earned him a reputation for a control-freakery that extended to locking his daughter up in such a box. Now an adult, Deborah Buzan insisted here that this was all nonsense, and that she had enjoyed a normal and happy childhood. As a demonstration of the efficacy of her father’s techniques, she then got her cat to play the piano.

Behaviourism might not be highly regarded in academia any longer; nor does Skinner’s vision of a utopia based on close regulation of action sound now like anything more than a B-movie horror fiction. But every time we bribe a child with a treat, we are exercising a behaviourism-lite to which we ourselves have been conditioned.

Rewards for good or appropriate behaviour might come in many forms: bird seed, a sweet, or a 50K bonus. But what about virtue? In The New Economy: Does sharing mean caring? (Monday-Friday of last week), Tim Samuels investigated the “Sharing Economy” that we apparently all enjoy post-credit crunch: an economy in which we happily share a car journey.

The internet has made all this easier. Websites such as Airbnb and Uber are now valued in billions. The presenter met Janey, and rented her ger (a Mongolian yurt, since you ask). Janey was most definitely not doing it for the money. It was the right thing to do. I suspect not all share Janey’s high moral principles: another website, www.campinmygarden.com, which does what it says on the “www”, grew out of the desire of residents of the SWs to make money out of the Wimbledon tennis tournament. One cannot avoid the feeling that the sharing economy is more about monetising assets than making the world a better place.

Certainly, B&B landlords are getting cheesed off about it; while they’re busy fitting fire escapes and checking the sell-by date on the sausages, their neighbours are happily putting their feet up on their combustible furniture and keeping the tea- and coffee-making facilities to themselves.

But there is such a thing as true altruism. We know it to be true because Canon Giles Fraser told us on A History of Ideas (Wednesday of last week, Radio 4). It is demonstrated by the programme itself: an Open University production, generously shared with Radio 4. The embattled BBC is one institution at least that is having to embrace the sharing economy, whether it likes it or not.

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