Show Hide image

Why is British sex education so terrible?

My solitary sex ed lesson took place when Britain had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Europe. The overwhelming focus was on how to avoid getting yourself knocked up.

Illustration: Michelle Thompson/Handsome Frank

My one and only sex education lesson at secondary school involved a white-haired deputy head teacher, a jumbo pack of condoms and a large bottle of baby oil. Mr Wise – by name but perhaps not by nature – felt that addressing a group of post-pubescent adolescents on the topic of sex would be less humiliating if a bit of humour was injected into proceedings, especially as rumour had it that most of the kids in the class were already engaging in acts which, for his generation, might have been considered “niche”.

Thus we were all instructed to blow up the prophylactics, which we duly did in the hyperactive, bulgy-eyed manner of those balloon animal men you encounter at children’s parties (that is, as if we were freaky cast members of The League of Gentlemen), and then slathered them with baby oil. This led to the condoms bursting and coating the already shiny, oily faces of the assembled Year Tens in a thin film of yet more shiny oil, but nonetheless it did serve as a lesson to us on the importance of never using oil-based lubricants with condoms.

My solitary sex education lesson took place when Britain had one of the highest rates of teen pregnancy in Europe (as it still does). The overwhelming focus was on how to make sure you didn’t go and get yourself knocked up, which as far as we were taught meant remembering that you were not to substitute K-Y Jelly for other liquids. Getting pregnant, we were told, was The Worst Possible Thing That Could Ever Happen To You, and we believed it, even though a couple of girls in the year below seemed to be coping all right and had loads of help from their mams.

I don’t remember being told about any of the contraceptive options other than condoms (my mum took me to the doctor when the time came to go on the Pill), and abortion came up only during RE as part of a classroom discussion chaired by an extremely Christian teacher who seemed to think that an attractive wall display featuring pictures of fully developed foetuses juxtaposed with quotes from the Bible was the way to approach the subject. As for the morning-after pill, in our rural community, it was easier to get your hands on Ecstasy. The word I would use to describe my experience of sex education is “patchy”. And sadly, from talking to the generation below mine, it seems very little has changed.

The latest National Survey of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles shows that we are having more sex than ever. The average number of sexual partners for British women has risen from 3.7 in 1990-91 to 7.7 in 2010-2012, and from 8.6 to 11.7 for men. The research, based on a representative sample of over 15,000 Britons aged 16 to 74, also found that a third of men and women aged 16-24 had had underage sex, and that across all age groups one in six pregnancies is unplanned. Most shockingly, one in every ten women reported that she had been subjected to sex against her will and of these women only 42.2 per cent had told anyone about it. Just 12.9 per cent went to the police.

Despite such findings, coupled with a rising moral panic about internet pornography, slut-shaming, the sexualisation of children and sexting, a British schoolchild is still most likely to encounter the topic of sex as part of a statutory science lesson informing you that “human beings and other animals can produce offspring and those offspring grow into adults”.

Germany has had sex education on the curriculum since 1970 and it has been mandatory since 1992. This includes teaching children not just about the biology of reproduction (though the course is very thorough – some schools even give details of sex positions), but also about sexual violence, abortion, child abuse and various forms of contraception. In Sweden, sex education has been mandatory since 1956 and is usually incorporated into lessons from the age of seven onwards; some schools instruct children from age five or six. The Netherlands, which has one of the lowest teen pregnancy rates in the world, made sex education compulsory in primary and secondary schools in 2012.

In June 2013 the Labour MPs Stella Creasy, Sharon Hodgson and Lisa Nandy put forward a proposal to make sex and relationships education (SRE) part of the National Curriculum, and particularly information on the issue of sexual consent. “In a world of Snapchat, Chatroulette, sexting by ten-year-olds and UniLad, little wonder many are worried about the messages the modern world gives about what is acceptable in relationships,” Creasy wrote. She stressed that “putting sexual consent on the agenda in our schools is vital to empowering young people to make healthy and respectful choices for themselves and each other when it comes to extracurricular activities”.

Creasy said she hoped the proposed reforms would be “uncontroversial”. Disappointingly, the amendment to the Children and Families Bill which would have made sex education compulsory was defeated in both the Commons and the Lords.

Despite Creasy’s efforts, the most up-to-date legislation concerning how we are taught about reproduction is in the Education Act 1996 and the Learning and Skills Act 2000: from an era before most of the big social networks were dreamt of.

Maintained (state) schools must teach some parts of sex education, with a focus mostly on the mechanics (for instance, the biological aspects of puberty, reproduction, the spread of viruses and so on), and no such obligation exists for academies. Michael Gove’s championing of free schools has complicated matters, the schools’ relative autonomy essentially making them a law unto themselves. In an echo of the Tories’ homophobic Section 28 legislation, the free school model funding and academy model funding agreements stipulate that the schools “ensure that children at the Academy [be] protected from inappropriate teaching materials and . . . learn the nature of marriage and its importance for family life and for bringing up children”.

In 2012, a Channel 4 sex education film for primary schools called Living and Growing, which showed cartoon characters having sex in different positions, was withdrawn following complaints that it resembled “a blue movie”. The previous year, the Daily Mail had run an article complaining about explicit teaching materials, under the headline “Is this what you want YOUR five-year-old learning about sex?”, drawing attention to several apparently objectionable and pornographic books for children. One of them (Let’s Talk About Sex by Robie Harris) explained an orgasm, quite sweetly, as “a gentle tingly sort of tickle that starts in your stomach and spreads all over”. In the same book, curiosity about members of the same sex was described as “a normal kind of exploring”.

When teaching materials are being restricted in schools where sex education is mandatory, what is the likelihood of free schools and academies tackling sex education progressively?

“The problem with free schools and academies is that we have seen how easy it is to lose oversight of them. Look at al-Madinah [the Derby free school placed in special measures in 2013],” says Melissa Benn, the journalist and author of What Should We Tell Our Daughters?. “Given that free schools and academies do not have to have trained teachers at all, it’s likely that this problem will get worse.”

State comprehensive schools are at least required to cover the scientific basics. The more general sex and relationships education, which covers the emotional aspects of sexuality, should “equip children and young people with the information, skills and values to have safe, fulfilling and enjoyable relationships and to take responsibility for their sexual health and well-being”, according to the Family Planning Association.

In practice this seldom happens, as Simon Blake of the young people’s sexual health charity Brook explains. “SRE in schools is patchy in quality and continues to be too little, too late, and too biological,” he says. Even then, it is not compulsory in state schools but is contained within the non-statutory personal, social and health education (PSHE) recommended by the National Curriculum, together with such titillating topics as “leisure and tourism” “enterprise” and “citizenship”.

Essentially, the sexual education of any British child is at the mercy of his or her individual school and the teaching professionals within it.

At my comprehensive in north Wales, it was a modular, haphazard affair, the unpredictable rotation of the subjects and teachers leaving entire classes of pupils to roam the corridors like disorientated lemmings, without a clue where they should be going or who should be supervising them. I was lucky enough to avoid the “parenting” module (an appropriate moniker, considering that by leaving age 10 per cent of my year group would be parents), which I suspect was probably intended to fulfil the SRE recommendations. This class involved an ill-fated “flour baby” experiment, an American import whereby pupils were required to draw a face on a bag of flour, name it and carry it around for an entire week as though it were a real baby. It resulted in mass infanticide.

Photo: Corbis

A schoolfriend of mine fondly recalls how she left her flour baby in the care of a classmate while she nipped to the loo during history. She returned to find the baby disembowelled: it had been stabbed repeatedly with a gel pen, and its white entrails lay liberally scattered across the desk. Another “baby” met its end by being thrown from the top deck of the double-decker school bus by its father’s mates, while another classmate returned for the final lesson having baked hers into fairy cakes stored in Tupperware (she’s now a young mum with a cake-baking business).

The experiment, during which flour fights broke out all over the building, with Year Sevens liberally coated in the stuff and drifts accumulating like snow in the maths corridor, was a lesson in how not to teach children about the consequences of unprotected sex. I had always assumed that my school, which once had to recall hundreds of out-of-date tampons that had been handed out to us in “goody bags”, was simply a little bit rubbish. It wasn’t until I started talking to other people about their own experiences of sex education that I realised mine was not an isolated case.

I’ve heard tales of stuttering and embarrassed teachers, strange anthropomorphic VHS cartoons and contradictory, often scientifically inaccurate advice about pubes – and that’s from those who, like me, were lucky enough to receive a single, 50-minute lesson. A straw poll of Twitter (what better way to reach out to the other digitally literate twenty- and thirtysomething casualties of the state education system?) uncovered hilarious and disturbing tales of inaccuracy and incompetence, ranging from a teacher who conducted an entire lesson while obscured behind a screen, through one who said that it was wrong to have more than one sexual partner in a lifetime, to another who showed assembled pupils a video that announced, “Some of your bits ain’t nice.”

Common complaints – in a real-life parody of the infamous sex education scene from Tina Fey’s film Mean Girls (“Don’t have sex, because you will get pregnant, and die”) – included being made to watch videos of women giving birth, or being shown enormous, zoom-focus slides of the pus-ridden symptoms of sexually transmitted diseases, both of which seemed to preclude any discussion of the act itself (perhaps for ever, judging by how traumatised some of the participants seemed).

With the exception of a friend of mine whose attractive young female teacher, later sacked, opened the lesson by saying, “Look, girls, I have had many, many lovers, so ask me anything you like,” almost everyone recounted sex education lessons pervaded by an air of embarrassment, most frequently on the part of the teachers.

This led me to question whether teachers are the right people to be imparting such important information to the next generation of sexually active young adults. Judging by the number of my acquaintances, past and present, who have never discussed sex with their parents, that category of grown-ups cannot be relied on, either.

But what about volunteers? The national voluntary organisation Sexpression:UK has 28 branches at universities and runs workshops for young people to talk about sex. Most of its volunteers are trainee medics. Nick Batley, who is training to become a nurse at King’s College London, thinks this is one of the most effective methods of sex education. “We are closer to the pupils’ age; it wasn’t that long ago that we were going through the same things,” he says. “Also, we’re trained to do this. At KCL, we train around 50 new volunteers a year, and having someone who is trained and clearly enthusiastic about the task is far better than an underprepared teacher who is a bit embarrassed and doesn’t really want to be there.” He adds: “I still cringe whenever I think of the fact my newly qualified English teacher had to teach me about ‘golden showers’.”

Melissa Benn agrees. “I think this whole part of the curriculum should be taught by people coming in from outside. It is not good enough to have a supply teacher or underemployed physics or PE teacher brought in to put a condom on a banana . . . This needs people trained to know how to talk about it, deal with diverse cultures [and] manage all the overt silliness that accompanies such a tricky, delicate, complex area.”

Another common complaint was that the sex education had come far too late, by the time many of the pupils were already sexually active (nowadays, the children will almost certainly have been exposed to pornography). I remember being horrified at age 13,when a girl informed me in the loos that she had been fingered by an older boy. I knew roughly what the process involved, but couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to go through such an ordeal, or what they might enjoy about it, yet some of the kids were doing it. Even the most explicit teenage magazines such as Bliss and J-17, ordinarily so vocal on such subjects as discharge or “funny feelings down there”, were silent on this topic. I remember my mother being somewhat perturbed when she found I’d been reading a magazine that explained in detail what 69’ing was, but where else would I have got the information from, save the playground? My parents were unusually open about matters of reproduction but there were still certain things I’d be too embarrassed to ask them about.

Sex had been a whispered topic of discussion at school ever since I was seven, when I was asked if I was a virgin and, imagining it was something horrible and responding with a disgusted “No!”, I was met with looks of horror. By the time I was 15 I was in the grip of my first pregnancy scare. I had been put on the Pill, but a local doctor put the fear of God into me by telling me that unless I was doubling up with condoms as well, I almost certainly would get pregnant. Thankfully I managed to pluck up the courage to speak to my lovely dad, who calmly reassured me that a pregnancy would not mean an end to my life and that he loved babies and would happily look after mine if I wanted to go to university. Eventually I went to the school nurse to find out if I was packing heat, so to speak, and discovered an orderly queue of young women in a similar predicament outside her door. I wasn’t pregnant – but any sex education at that point would have been far too late coming.

Because of this, it did not surprise me when one young woman described how, during a sex education lesson, a female classmate of hers had put the condom on the plastic penis prop using only her mouth. When you leave a generation of young women to source their sexual information from Cosmo and Eurotrash, what do you expect? Now that youngsters are turning increasingly to pornography as their main point of reference for everything sexual, it’s safe to assume that they’ll already be clued up on the mechanics, not to mention everything from “anal” to “milfs” to “cream pie”. A scene from Beeban Kidron’s 2013 documentary InRealLife shows two teenagers giving her a run-through of all the various types of porn. “Rough sex,” says one, “is like, manhandling a girl around.” Suffice to say, a lesson that stops at a diagram of a vagina just isn’t going to cut it any more.

Although magazines were perhaps the most helpful sources of information available to teenage girls in the 1980s and 1990s, they had their limitations. Much of their advice seemed to boil down to: “Now listen, little lady. One of these days, a man is going to try and have sex with you, and you’re not to be pressured into it. Here’s how to say no.” A useful bit of counsel, certainly, but there was no advice on what to do when really you wanted to say, “Yes, yes, yes!” And what if you wanted to consent to sexual activity with someone of the same gender?

The teaching of consent is one of the most important aspects of a young person’s sex education, and I don’t mean just implying that sex is something that men want and women acquiesce to, but teaching young people of both genders what “yes” and “no” can look like.

There are some excellent resources online showing how to tell if someone is uncomfortable with an intimate situation (for instance, if they say “I don’t like it” or “That hurts”, or if they look frightened) yet there still seems to be a great deal of confusion about what constitutes rape. A 2010 survey conducted by the sexual assault referral agency the Havens found that only 77 per cent of young men between the ages of 18 and 25 (against 92 per cent of young women) thought that having sex with someone who had said “no” constituted rape. And now that porn has taken over from teen magazines as the medium through which teenagers glean information about sex, proper education is needed more than ever, especially because in some kinds of pornography consent can seem a grey area.

It’s hard to predict what the impact on the next generation will be, but as someone who runs a frank blog for young women, The Vagenda, I am hearing, anecdotally at least, that seeing a woman struggle or resist sex constitutes “foreplay” in the minds of some boys and I hear young women expressing anxiety at being expected to mimic certain acts.

One of the lads from InRealLife, a 14-year-old called Ben, describes how the girls who agree to do such things are immediately labelled “slags”. Film footage or images of young girls stripping or performing sexual acts which were then “sexted” to their boy of choice have in some instances been distributed among the student body – or, worse, used to blackmail the girl into further sexual activity.

In the very worst cases, this leads to suicide. Teenage girls remain the group most at risk of abusive relationships; the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children found that a third of girls aged 13-17 have experienced physical or sexual violence in relationships. Women’s Aid says 18 per cent of 16-to-18-year-olds are unsure whether slapping counts as domestic violence. And in 2002 the Department of Health said that at least 750,000 children a year were witnessing domestic violence at home. Teaching both genders what a healthy relationship looks like is a matter of some urgency.

Justin Hancock, who runs the sex education website Bish Training, says that students are crying out for this. “What they really feel was lacking from their sex and relationships education was any relationships education at all,” he tells me. “They want to know how to make relationships work, how to argue, how to negotiate independence and togetherness, how to deal with big-time feelings, how to deal with friends with benefits, what a coercive or abusive relationship looks like, how to start relationships, how to end them . . . in short, they want to learn what many of us want to learn.”

Why have there been so many setbacks in making sex education a part of the National Curriculum, when young people are insisting that they need it so much? I wonder if there’s a feeling that if we don’t teach children about sex they won’t find out about it – an unrealistic hope, in a world of smartphones and internet porn.

I imagine that the hysterical right-wing newspaper articles about putting 13-year-old girls on the Pill and making toddlers watch porn are also persuasive to some people, but then neither does any minister want to champion sex ed and end up being known as Mr or Ms Banana Condom. “No government has wanted to touch it, because it’s a bit of a political hot potato,” says a source at the Department for Education. “There’s no way they can make any changes at all to it without pissing off one demographic or another. The Claire Perrys and Nadine Dorrieses of the world [both Tory MPs] seem hell-bent on keeping any desperately needed progress in that area at bay. Plus Govey’s education reforms giving schools the freedom to govern themselves mean it’s not impossible that there are children in school now who might never receive adequate sex education.”

On 28 January, the House of Lords rejected the bill amendment backed by Stella Creasy that would have made SRE – including teaching about same-sex relationships – compulsory in schools. It received the support of 142 peers but 209 voted against it after it failed to pass in the Commons. The basic Tory position is that sex education is at the discretion of individual schools: the children’s minister Liz Truss argues, “Teachers are best placed to understand the needs of their pupils and do not need additional central prescription.” Her Liberal Democrat coalition partners disagree – as Nick Clegg told a Terrence Higgins Trust event in January, “All the people around the cabinet table don’t quite see eye to eye on this, but I am absolutely clear that we haven’t modernised the guidance. We need to do so . . .” The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, has also condemned Gove’s department for “dragging its feet”; the Education Secretary’s response is that “changing social mores” will only make any updated guidance instantly obsolete.

But the battle isn’t over. The forces ranged against Gove are varied, and strong. As Maggie Jones, a shadow education spokeswoman in the Lords, told me: “The Girl Guides, Mumsnet, the head teachers, the Mothers’ Union and many other campaign groups [are] calling for the education guidance on sex and relationships education to be updated.” She adds, “We are failing young people if we don’t give them the insight and skills to navigate the internet, social media and smartphones safely. It seems that Michael Gove and [the schools minister] Lord Nash are stuck in the last century and increasingly isolated on this issue.”

I am inclined to agree. Gove, a man who seems to embody the “some of your bits ain’t nice” sex ed philosophy more than any other minister, may want teenagers to send love poems to one another rather than sexy selfies, but what about fingering, or the morning-after pill, or even the dangers of using baby oil as lubricant? If children don’t get their information about sex from school, they won’t magically lose all their curiosity; they’ll just find out in the playground, or from porn. All of a sudden Mr Wise, with his condom balloons, is starting to seem quite the revolutionary.

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is the co-author of “The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media” (Square Peg, £12.99)

Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett is a writer for the New Statesman and the Guardian. She co-founded The Vagenda blog and is co-author of The Vagenda: A Zero Tolerance Guide to the Media.

This article first appeared in the 21 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Peak Ukip

JOHN DEVOLLE/GETTY IMAGES
Show Hide image

Fitter, dumber, more productive

How the craze for Apple Watches, Fitbits and other wearable tech devices revives the old and discredited science of behaviourism.

When Tim Cook unveiled the latest operating system for the Apple Watch in June, he described the product in a remarkable way. This is no longer just a wrist-mounted gadget for checking your email and social media notifications; it is now “the ultimate device for a healthy life”.

With the watch’s fitness-tracking and heart rate-sensor features to the fore, Cook explained how its Activity and Workout apps have been retooled to provide greater “motivation”. A new Breathe app encourages the user to take time out during the day for deep breathing sessions. Oh yes, this watch has an app that notifies you when it’s time to breathe. The paradox is that if you have zero motivation and don’t know when to breathe in the first place, you probably won’t survive long enough to buy an Apple Watch.

The watch and its marketing are emblematic of how the tech trend is moving beyond mere fitness tracking into what might one call quality-of-life tracking and algorithmic hacking of the quality of consciousness. A couple of years ago I road-tested a brainwave-sensing headband, called the Muse, which promises to help you quiet your mind and achieve “focus” by concentrating on your breathing as it provides aural feedback over earphones, in the form of the sound of wind at a beach. I found it turned me, for a while, into a kind of placid zombie with no useful “focus” at all.

A newer product even aims to hack sleep – that productivity wasteland, which, according to the art historian and essayist Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, is an affront to the foundations of capitalism. So buy an “intelligent sleep mask” called the Neuroon to analyse the quality of your sleep at night and help you perform more productively come morning. “Knowledge is power!” it promises. “Sleep analytics gathers your body’s sleep data and uses it to help you sleep smarter!” (But isn’t one of the great things about sleep that, while you’re asleep, you are perfectly stupid?)

The Neuroon will also help you enjoy technologically assisted “power naps” during the day to combat “lack of energy”, “fatigue”, “mental exhaustion” and “insomnia”. When it comes to quality of sleep, of course, numerous studies suggest that late-night smartphone use is very bad, but if you can’t stop yourself using your phone, at least you can now connect it to a sleep-enhancing gadget.

So comes a brand new wave of devices that encourage users to outsource not only their basic bodily functions but – as with the Apple Watch’s emphasis on providing “motivation” – their very willpower.  These are thrillingly innovative technologies and yet, in the way they encourage us to think about ourselves, they implicitly revive an old and discarded school of ­thinking in psychology. Are we all neo-­behaviourists now?

***

The school of behaviourism arose in the early 20th century out of a virtuous scientific caution. Experimenters wished to avoid anthropomorphising animals such as rats and pigeons by attributing to them mental capacities for belief, reasoning, and so forth. This kind of description seemed woolly and impossible to verify.

The behaviourists discovered that the actions of laboratory animals could, in effect, be predicted and guided by careful “conditioning”, involving stimulus and reinforcement. They then applied Ockham’s razor: there was no reason, they argued, to believe in elaborate mental equipment in a small mammal or bird; at bottom, all behaviour was just a response to external stimulus. The idea that a rat had a complex mentality was an unnecessary hypothesis and so could be discarded. The psychologist John B Watson declared in 1913 that behaviour, and behaviour alone, should be the whole subject matter of psychology: to project “psychical” attributes on to animals, he and his followers thought, was not permissible.

The problem with Ockham’s razor, though, is that sometimes it is difficult to know when to stop cutting. And so more radical behaviourists sought to apply the same lesson to human beings. What you and I think of as thinking was, for radical behaviourists such as the Yale psychologist Clark L Hull, just another pattern of conditioned reflexes. A human being was merely a more complex knot of stimulus responses than a pigeon. Once perfected, some scientists believed, behaviourist science would supply a reliable method to “predict and control” the behaviour of human beings, and thus all social problems would be overcome.

It was a kind of optimistic, progressive version of Nineteen Eighty-Four. But it fell sharply from favour after the 1960s, and the subsequent “cognitive revolution” in psychology emphasised the causal role of conscious thinking. What became cognitive behavioural therapy, for instance, owed its impressive clinical success to focusing on a person’s cognition – the thoughts and the beliefs that radical behaviourism treated as mythical. As CBT’s name suggests, however, it mixes cognitive strategies (analyse one’s thoughts in order to break destructive patterns) with behavioural techniques (act a certain way so as to affect one’s feelings). And the deliberate conditioning of behaviour is still a valuable technique outside the therapy room.

The effective “behavioural modification programme” first publicised by Weight Watchers in the 1970s is based on reinforcement and support techniques suggested by the behaviourist school. Recent research suggests that clever conditioning – associating the taking of a medicine with a certain smell – can boost the body’s immune response later when a patient detects the smell, even without a dose of medicine.

Radical behaviourism that denies a subject’s consciousness and agency, however, is now completely dead as a science. Yet it is being smuggled back into the mainstream by the latest life-enhancing gadgets from Silicon Valley. The difference is that, now, we are encouraged to outsource the “prediction and control” of our own behaviour not to a benign team of psychological experts, but to algorithms.

It begins with measurement and analysis of bodily data using wearable instruments such as Fitbit wristbands, the first wave of which came under the rubric of the “quantified self”. (The Victorian polymath and founder of eugenics, Francis Galton, asked: “When shall we have anthropometric laboratories, where a man may, when he pleases, get himself and his children weighed, measured, and rightly photographed, and have their bodily faculties tested by the best methods known to modern science?” He has his answer: one may now wear such laboratories about one’s person.) But simply recording and hoarding data is of limited use. To adapt what Marx said about philosophers: the sensors only interpret the body, in various ways; the point is to change it.

And the new technology offers to help with precisely that, offering such externally applied “motivation” as the Apple Watch. So the reasoning, striving mind is vacated (perhaps with the help of a mindfulness app) and usurped by a cybernetic system to optimise the organism’s functioning. Electronic stimulus produces a physiological response, as in the behaviourist laboratory. The human being herself just needs to get out of the way. The customer of such devices is merely an opaquely functioning machine to be tinkered with. The desired outputs can be invoked by the correct inputs from a technological prosthesis. Our physical behaviour and even our moods are manipulated by algorithmic number-crunching in corporate data farms, and, as a result, we may dream of becoming fitter, happier and more productive.

***

 

The broad current of behaviourism was not homogeneous in its theories, and nor are its modern technological avatars. The physiologist Ivan Pavlov induced dogs to salivate at the sound of a bell, which they had learned to associate with food. Here, stimulus (the bell) produces an involuntary response (salivation). This is called “classical conditioning”, and it is advertised as the scientific mechanism behind a new device called the Pavlok, a wristband that delivers mild electric shocks to the user in order, so it promises, to help break bad habits such as overeating or smoking.

The explicit behaviourist-revival sell here is interesting, though it is arguably predicated on the wrong kind of conditioning. In classical conditioning, the stimulus evokes the response; but the Pavlok’s painful electric shock is a stimulus that comes after a (voluntary) action. This is what the psychologist who became the best-known behaviourist theoretician, B F Skinner, called “operant conditioning”.

By associating certain actions with positive or negative reinforcement, an animal is led to change its behaviour. The user of a Pavlok treats herself, too, just like an animal, helplessly suffering the gadget’s painful negative reinforcement. “Pavlok associates a mild zap with your bad habit,” its marketing material promises, “training your brain to stop liking the habit.” The use of the word “brain” instead of “mind” here is revealing. The Pavlok user is encouraged to bypass her reflective faculties and perform pain-led conditioning directly on her grey matter, in order to get from it the behaviour that she prefers. And so modern behaviourist technologies act as though the cognitive revolution in psychology never happened, encouraging us to believe that thinking just gets in the way.

Technologically assisted attempts to defeat weakness of will or concentration are not new. In 1925 the inventor Hugo Gernsback announced, in the pages of his magazine Science and Invention, an invention called the Isolator. It was a metal, full-face hood, somewhat like a diving helmet, connected by a rubber hose to an oxygen tank. The Isolator, too, was designed to defeat distractions and assist mental focus.

The problem with modern life, Gernsback wrote, was that the ringing of a telephone or a doorbell “is sufficient, in nearly all cases, to stop the flow of thoughts”. Inside the Isolator, however, sounds are muffled, and the small eyeholes prevent you from seeing anything except what is directly in front of you. Gernsback provided a salutary photograph of himself wearing the Isolator while sitting at his desk, looking like one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. “The author at work in his private study aided by the Isolator,” the caption reads. “Outside noises being eliminated, the worker can concentrate with ease upon the subject at hand.”

Modern anti-distraction tools such as computer software that disables your internet connection, or word processors that imitate an old-fashioned DOS screen, with nothing but green text on a black background, as well as the brain-measuring Muse headband – these are just the latest versions of what seems an age-old desire for technologically imposed calm. But what do we lose if we come to rely on such gadgets, unable to impose calm on ourselves? What do we become when we need machines to motivate us?

***

It was B F Skinner who supplied what became the paradigmatic image of ­behaviourist science with his “Skinner Box”, formally known as an “operant conditioning chamber”. Skinner Boxes come in different flavours but a classic example is a box with an electrified floor and two levers. A rat is trapped in the box and must press the correct lever when a certain light comes on. If the rat gets it right, food is delivered. If the rat presses the wrong lever, it receives a painful electric shock through the booby-trapped floor. The rat soon learns to press the right lever all the time. But if the levers’ functions are changed unpredictably by the experimenters, the rat becomes confused, withdrawn and depressed.

Skinner Boxes have been used with success not only on rats but on birds and primates, too. So what, after all, are we doing if we sign up to technologically enhanced self-improvement through gadgets and apps? As we manipulate our screens for ­reassurance and encouragement, or wince at a painful failure to be better today than we were yesterday, we are treating ourselves similarly as objects to be improved through operant conditioning. We are climbing willingly into a virtual Skinner Box.

As Carl Cederström and André Spicer point out in their book The Wellness Syndrome, published last year: “Surrendering to an authoritarian agency, which is not just telling you what to do, but also handing out rewards and punishments to shape your behaviour more effectively, seems like undermining your own agency and autonomy.” What’s worse is that, increasingly, we will have no choice in the matter anyway. Gernsback’s Isolator was explicitly designed to improve the concentration of the “worker”, and so are its digital-age descendants. Corporate employee “wellness” programmes increasingly encourage or even mandate the use of fitness trackers and other behavioural gadgets in order to ensure an ideally efficient and compliant workforce.

There are many political reasons to resist the pitiless transfer of responsibility for well-being on to the individual in this way. And, in such cases, it is important to point out that the new idea is a repackaging of a controversial old idea, because that challenges its proponents to defend it explicitly. The Apple Watch and its cousins promise an utterly novel form of technologically enhanced self-mastery. But it is also merely the latest way in which modernity invites us to perform operant conditioning on ourselves, to cleanse away anxiety and dissatisfaction and become more streamlined citizen-consumers. Perhaps we will decide, after all, that tech-powered behaviourism is good. But we should know what we are arguing about. The rethinking should take place out in the open.

In 1987, three years before he died, B F Skinner published a scholarly paper entitled Whatever Happened to Psychology as the Science of Behaviour?, reiterating his now-unfashionable arguments against psychological talk about states of mind. For him, the “prediction and control” of behaviour was not merely a theoretical preference; it was a necessity for global social justice. “To feed the hungry and clothe the naked are ­remedial acts,” he wrote. “We can easily see what is wrong and what needs to be done. It is much harder to see and do something about the fact that world agriculture must feed and clothe billions of people, most of them yet unborn. It is not enough to advise people how to behave in ways that will make a future possible; they must be given effective reasons for behaving in those ways, and that means effective contingencies of reinforcement now.” In other words, mere arguments won’t equip the world to support an increasing population; strategies of behavioural control must be designed for the good of all.

Arguably, this authoritarian strand of behaviourist thinking is what morphed into the subtly reinforcing “choice architecture” of nudge politics, which seeks gently to compel citizens to do the right thing (eat healthy foods, sign up for pension plans) by altering the ways in which such alternatives are presented.

By contrast, the Apple Watch, the Pavlok and their ilk revive a behaviourism evacuated of all social concern and designed solely to optimise the individual customer. By ­using such devices, we voluntarily offer ourselves up to a denial of our voluntary selves, becoming atomised lab rats, to be manipulated electronically through the corporate cloud. It is perhaps no surprise that when the founder of American behaviourism, John B Watson, left academia in 1920, he went into a field that would come to profit very handsomely indeed from his skills of manipulation – advertising. Today’s neo-behaviourist technologies promise to usher in a world that is one giant Skinner Box in its own right: a world where thinking just gets in the way, and we all mechanically press levers for food pellets.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge