Adam Curtis, Behaviorism and Behavioral Economics

Adam Curtis has a blog

Curtis is IMO the most interesting documentary-maker currently active, by a healthy margin. He spends months or years closeted in the BBC archives, intermittently emerging with documentaries like The Trap or The Power of Nightmares.

Most of his documentaries fit into a coherent project, an intellectual history of the 20th century. What continually fascinates him is the interaction between emotions and politics, how ideas about human nature shape how we see ourselves, and so form the background assumptions which justify political movements. As he told Charlie Brooker:

“What I’m hoping they’ll do is pull back like in a helicopter and look at themselves and think about how they’re a product of history, and of power, and politics, as much as a product of their own little inner desires. We’re all part of a big historical age. That’s just what we are. And, sometimes, we forget.”

The blog extends these themes, often accompanied by decades-old clips which might otherwise never have found there way online.

Here is a typically fascinating post. Curtis takes Behavioural Economics — popularised in ‘Nudge’ and by Dan Ariely, now being politically weaponized by Cameron’s Behavioural Insight Unit — and ties it to Behavoiurism. This is the psychological apporoach* of treating the mind as a black box, not trying to understand it internally but just tracking how it responds to certain stimuli. Curtis:

Drawing on… behaviourist ideas [Nudge author] Thaler wrote a paper in 1981 with a great title – An Economic Theory of Self-Control.

This is what lies behind the Downing Street unit’s plans to find mechanisms to manipulate people so they will do “good” things – like save more for retirement or eat less bad food.

Skinner himself was acutely aware that modifying human behaviour in these ways raises serious political questions. Not just about individual freedom, but about who decides what is “good” behaviour, and what happens when others decide it is bad.

These are questions that the Nudge enthusiasts seem to be blithely unaware of.

The whole blog is fascinating, and is at the very least full of arguements to interestingly disagree with. I’m a fan.

* ‘approach’ because it hovers uneasily between being a methodological practice of conducting experiments and a theory of how the mind works. It’s comparable to the ‘homo economicus’ model of rational self-interest in economics. Both are trivially true, but only if you sideline some of the most important causes of behaviour. Both function very well in narrow circumstances which make for good journal articles, tempting researchers to focus on those circumstances and ignore the rest. Both thus had a similar academic trajectory — innumerable grad students applying the theories in ways that were clever, internally consistent, and applied to the real world only if you ignored the footnotes — attacked continually by outsiders determined to blame the theory for the shortcomings of its application.

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