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Get me Sporty Spice

Mental illness is a defining issues of our time and will affect one in four of us. But the media are reluctant to cover the subject without the obligatory celebrity endorsement.

 

Many of the people who start their careers wanting to be journalists find out pretty quickly that the job is not what they thought. They dream of truth-seeking heroics, but it often doesn’t work out that way. They recoil from the media’s cynicism. They don’t want to become hacks ruled by tabloid values, and fear they will be condemned never to write about the things that really matter. So, they become charity press officers instead. At least, I did. No dumbing down or marching to the editor’s tune for me. I chose the path to true virtue: the freedom to work only on the stories I really cared about . . .

Yet here I am, years later, working at the mental health charity Rethink and spending my time chasing celebrity quotes and case studies that fit the “under 30, photogenic female” demographic demanded by the press. Instead of explaining to millions why mental health discrimination is the next big civil rights issue, I’m often to be found reminding journalists that our beloved Stephen Fry has bipolar disorder.

This has been especially true while I’ve been working on Time to Change, the national campaign to end the stigma on people who experience mental health problems. If you read the papers or travel on the London Un­derground, you’ll probably have seen photos of Stephen, as well as Ruby Wax and Alastair Campbell, peering at you from the page or following you up the escalator. They’ve been fronting the campaign, designed to break down one of our last great taboos, by sharing their own experience of mental illness. Nothing wrong with that per se – in fact, it has pro­bably doubled the coverage the campaign would otherwise have received.

But there’s the rub. Shouldn’t we want to hear about these issues anyway? Do we really need to look to the stars? I started “selling” this campaign to journalists armed with a raft of compelling stories of real-life discrimination – the experienced business analyst who, after six months off with depression, made 150 job applications before an employer would give him a chance; the singer barred from joining a choir because she had had schizophrenia; the Cambridge graduate refused a chance to train as a teacher because of a history of mental health problems. They’re interesting stories, emblematic of a stigma that still surrounds mental illness, and they matter to a great many people: one in four of us will have a mental health problem at some stage. And journalists know it. “Wow, yes, that is very interesting,” they say. “It’s dreadful, isn’t it? I know someone that happened to, actually, but . . . I was wondering if you could get me Mel C, y’know, Sporty Spice? Or Ruby Wax? Or, even better, do you have any new celebs who’ve had problems in the past?”

Not only glossy women’s magazines or the red-top papers gave this response. Those on the guilty list include the Daily Telegraph and the BBC (evidence, perhaps, of an increasing tabloidisation of the British media). I wasn’t even especially surprised when, after I had lined up a series of “real people” with fascinating stories for Newsnight, the producer scrapped it and said the programme wouldn’t cover the campaign at all unless they had a film on Alastair Campbell talking about his breakdown in the 1980s and recurrent depression. I’ve lost count of the number of times a section editor has come back to me saying that “we’d love to do something on Time to Change – if you can get me a famous face”.

Celebrity sells. We know that. It is a tried and trusted method of polishing up a brand and increasing product sales. So it might make a lot of sense for charities to adopt proven marketing methods if they are fundraising. At a push, you might compare the decision to buy a product with the decision to “buy in” to a charity. But that’s not what Time to Change is all about. We don’t want people’s money; we want to mobilise popular indignation about the fact that mental illness, an issue that affects 25 per cent of the population, is still shrouded in shame. And I’m not so sure celebrities could, or should, lead social movements. I choked on my breakfast a few weeks ago when I read Ed Miliband’s call for green activists to launch a “mass social movement – like Make Poverty History”. Make Poverty History, with its TV adverts starring the highest-paid Hollywood darlings, looked more like a Gap advert than a popular social movement to me. But if it works, does it matter?

And it does work, to a degree. In fact, it worked on me. I confess that it was Simple Minds’s Jim Kerr who brought me to the anti-apartheid debate as a kid. In my teens, I joined Amnesty because the sleeve notes on U2’s Achtung Baby told me to. Yet predicating a campaign, an advert or an article purely on the involvement of a celebrity so often leads to the message and the issues becoming oversimplified. Francis Bacon said: “Fame is like a river, that beareth up things light and swollen and drowns things weighty and solid.” It’s very easy for complex social issues to become diluted and even drowned in the torrent of celebrity on which they’re often carried.

More and more of our information now comes through the prism of fame, even health warnings (Kylie, Jade Goody). We will never know how many people voted for Barack Obama because of Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement. I would guess that most New Statesman readers, like me, are pleased Oprah did endorse Obama, because we’re happy with the outcome. I also like the outcome of Alastair Campbell’s fronting the Time to Change campaign (coverage in several national papers and a bevy of TV spots), but I’m not comfortable with the fact that we needed his fame to achieve it. Nor is he, I think. As we sat in a radio studio one afternoon and he did his tenth regional interview of the day, he asked me why I hadn’t got some “real people” telling their stories on their local radio stations. Oh, how I’d tried.

When I heard he was guest-editing the New Statesman, I thought to myself: “He’s bound to give us some coverage.” And it didn’t surprise me either that he said he wanted me – and not a celeb – to say whatever I wanted about the issues and the campaign.

There is no doubt whatsoever that listening to a high-profile public figure divulge their experience of psychosis is riveting. And, with or without the charity brief, we have found a celebrity who understands that, in having a boss who didn’t hold his mental health against him (in his case the Prime Minister), he was in the lucky minority – he knows that the stigma of mental health illness is real.

Alastair Campbell, Stephen Fry, Ruby Wax and Patsy Palmer are all good ambassadors for Time to Change because they speak from personal experience, they care about the issue and they know how to engage people. But celebrities alone do not constitute a movement: a deeper level of engagement and popular mobilisation must happen. Without it, our support for campaigns is no more meaningful than our preference for a particular brand of cooking sauce or, for that matter, a certain colour of rubber wrist bracelet.

And if there are any editors out there who want to hear about real stories of ordinary people suffering discrimination on the grounds of mental health problems, past or present, please don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Hilary Caprani is media manager for Rethink: www.rethink.org

Rethink, along with Mind and Mental Health Media, is leading Time to Change, England’s most ambitious campaign to end the stigma and discrimination faced by people with mental health problems. Find out more at: www.time-to-change.org.uk

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Campbell guest edit

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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