A dysfunctional family feast

Christmas today, writes Henry Sutton, means having to say you're sorry to your step-parents, stepchi

"Thank God it happens only once a year," my mum invariably says. Yet for years I had two Christmas Days, one straight after the other. Both with presents and hot turkey, and hours in front of the telly. Christmas Day itself was usually spent with my mum and stepfather, and possibly two of his real children from his first and second marriages, and maybe a former stepchild he'd inherited after his first wife had emigrated to Australia with his second wife's husband - my mother's his third wife. And for my second Christmas Day my full brother, sister and I would dutifully go to my dad's and his current wife's or partner's and some other odd assortment of children. My father's now about to get married for the fourth time - I think.

Quite normally also present on either day would be a few elderly relatives squashed in a corner, like extra stuffing. There was always someone I'd never met before, or if I had I'd have forgotten what they were called or where they fitted in. My proper siblings and I began giving them nicknames such as Mogadon Woman, or the Poisoned Dwarf, or Creme de Menthe (I've never seen a person consume so much of the sickly green liquid) and, when we were a little older, we always made sure we had a supply of small innocuous gifts we'd carefully wrapped but hadn't yet attached labels to. There were never enough to go around - except the year of my father's second marriage, which was so quick that they met, married and separated all between the two Christmases.

Although my parents didn't separate until I was ten, the odd thing is I can't really remember a Christmas when they were together. We used to live opposite a golf course and my father played golf whenever he wasn't working, which included Christmas Day and Boxing Day. The one time it snowed my sister and I made skis out of some old plywood (we used Sellotape to make the tips) and shot all over the fairway, though even that year my father was absent. Years later I learned that he had been visiting his father who had been sent down for dealing in stolen goods.

I have vague memories of being taken to my mother's parents but they were very strict and my grandfather didn't like children much - we had to stay in a caravan in the garden. Going to my father's parents (this must have been after my grandfather was released) was much more fun. My grandmother loved playing practical jokes and imitating her dog, or Peggy, the donkey she once had, though she used to favour my sister terribly (who always got much larger portions and her fags to light).

Of all my childhood Christmases (and I suppose I had one and a half times as many as I should have had, though no more than most of my friends) the one that particularly sticks out is the first double Christmas after my parents separated. For some reason we spent actual Christmas Day with dad (he gave up golf after he split from my mother) and Christmas Day Mark II with mum. Neither of them yet had official new partners so there were no extras, only strange phone calls - at my mother's, anyway.

On Christmas morning our mother dropped us off at a cold rented house. She didn't come in (she didn't leave the car), which was perhaps just as well because we found cereal packets had been nailed to the walls. My father was living off cornflakes and then I think it was Golden Nuggets (he's always loved cereal and diligently tries each new variety), and he'd had some friends over for Christmas Eve drinks, he explained, and they'd all decided to decorate the house. The cereal packets were about the only cheery things they could find.

That year my father's presents came wrapped in newspaper for the first time, which he continued to use, though sometimes this was substituted with M&S carrier bags, until he stopped giving us presents. We went out for lunch - which I think was the first time he'd ever taken us to a restaurant. On Boxing Day we ate cold food my mother brought back from her mother's (at least I think that's where she'd been). My mother's always hated cooking. It makes her tense and tearful. "Nobody ever bloody appreciates it anyway," she says at least ten times a Christmas. She usually follows this with, "I don't know why I've bothered with Christmas this year. Next year I'm going to leave you all to it." (She hasn't yet.)

I think what made my first double Christmas so memorable was not so much my parents' recent separation as the lack of any attempt by either of them to make Christmas even seem normal. They weren't pretending anything any more. There was dad hunting around for cash to pay for our lunch and mum who'd bought her first plastic Christmas tree because she couldn't face Hoovering up any more pine needles. As the years have gone by, what's struck me as particularly strange is this urge to create a "proper" family Christmas, to pull together all these distantly related people when most of you either don't get on or don't even know each other; this adhering to one tradition, one institution, when all the others have collapsed around it.

The plate-smashing and walking out didn't start until the man who was to become my stepfather had actually moved in to my mother's, along with, over the years, various quantities of his real and ex-stepchildren. There must have been a few incident-free Christmas Days at my mum's - one for sure was when my stepfather's eldest son slept through it having spent Christmas Eve joy-riding (he had the biggest assortment of car keys I've ever seen). And there was the time my mother's father (the one who didn't like children) was seriously ill and we ate sandwiches at home while she visited him in hospital. But mostly my mother struggled to fit this ludicrously large turkey into the oven. And mostly it came out crisped beyond recognition, or still pink in the middle, weeping watery blood. Though that wasn't the real disaster. The real disaster came during the eating of it. Or the clearing up afterwards.

"Please try to get on," my mother would plead for weeks before the event, "just for me." Or she might say, "He [the stepfather] has promised to be good." Over the years my stepfather has supposedly promised my mother all sorts of things, but mostly that he'll change, that he'll be pleasant for once. And so have we. Yet none of us seems to have managed it. If anything we've got worse, we've become more ourselves. It's us (my brother, sister and I) against them (my stepfather and the various bits of his family). Now I tell my mother people don't change. We just have to learn to tolerate each other.

My mother, who's stuck in the middle, usually walks out first - often while we're still eating. My stepfather doesn't stomp off until after he's finished eating - he likes his food too much. My mother simply slips out of the room, perhaps hiding her face, leaving us shamefully wondering for a few moments whether she's just going to the toilet until we hear the front door quietly shut after her. Oh, we rush after her all right, our guilt horribly amplified in the dank Norfolk air soaked through with that weighty Christmas quiet.

Her husband, on the other hand, suddenly explodes. The slightest provocation by my sister, my brother or I can set him off - you get the sense that he's been storing it up throughout the day. He frantically searches for a plate, or a glass, or preferably the gravy jug which he picks up and hurls across the posh marble-effect lino he normally doesn't even like people walking on. And then he leaves the house slamming the door.

The only thing that gets out of control at my dad's is my grandmother. Now in her nineties and with her hair a lank white instead of a bouncy orange, she still smokes tons of B&H, which my sister has to light for her, and does remarkably energetic impersonations of Peggy the donkey. What I've always felt, going to my father's various homes (or more literally his current partner's home), is that I'm a guest, that I'm peering into somebody's life I'm slowly losing touch with. Christmas is about the only time of the year I see him now. He's grown grey and soft and has developed heart disease. However, no one ever stomps out in a huff, perhaps because no one knows each other very well. We're all too busy establishing connections, struggling for things to talk about. Resentment and jealousy haven't had time to build up.

My sister was the first not to appear for Christmas at all one year, and how my brother and I wished we'd made the break, too. But slowly and inevitably one or other of us didn't show up as we became more involved with boyfriends and girlfriends. In the four years I've been married, my wife and I have avoided family Christmases altogether - either with her parents or mine. Last year we had a non-Christmas with some minimalists in Northumberland. Their house was hard and empty, and because neither of them drank or ate meat, being polite, neither did we. On Christmas Day we went for a four-hour walk over snowy hills and bleak moors and, though feeling cleansed through and miles away, I couldn't help wondering whether my stepfather had yet smashed a plate, and where exactly my father was spending Christmas.

And I thought back to telling my mum that people don't change and realised that perhaps I wasn't quite right - people can change, it's just that it's all part of growing up and moving on. But when it comes to family Christmases and going home it's so easy to be engulfed by the past. Stuck in the minimalists' perfect house where nothing was out of place, sober and hungry, for the first time in my life I felt like smashing a plate. Not out of some jealous, childish rage but because I wanted to create a bloody mess. Because that, to me, I suddenly understood, is what Christmas is all about. I was missing it like mad.

Henry Sutton's novel, "The Househunter", will be published in January by Sceptre, £6.99

This article first appeared in the 18 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, A time for unadulterated tradition

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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?

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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.

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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?

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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