Now, boys, that's not very nice

The left believes in altruism, equality, community and all-round cuddliness. Caroline Danielfinds ne

When John Major departed from 10 Downing Street he left behind more than just memories of snatched sandwiches over his desk and morning tea in the kitchen with Norma. He also left a bottle of champagne for Tony Blair with a note saying that he'd had seven great years in the old place, and that he was sure that Blair would have a great time there, too.

Now that seems like a nice thing to do. But then Major always came across as the sort of man your granny would knit a cardigan for. Honest John. Nice John. A good man, sadly fallen among Eurosceptics.

More surprising, at least to those on the left, has been the discovery that (say it quietly) Michael Portillo is also actually rather nice. So nice that many of his civil servants cried when he left office. Portillo's attempt to slip out discreetly from the Ministry of Defence was rumbled when a voice over the public address system said he was about to leave the building and hundreds of staff members turned up to say farewell.

Several Tory ministers were not so nice by all accounts (Michael Howard, for example, was not popular with his civil servants) and there are plenty of nice people on the left. Lord (Alf) Dubs of Battersea, a Labour minister in the Northern Ireland Office, is "the most indisputably nice person that I have ever met", according to Matthew Parris, the Times columnist and former Tory MP. "He's so nice I found him crying in the Lords because he had won the constituency raffle and he worried that people would think he had fixed it."

So Parris has proposed a "Dubs scale" of niceness. And he is clear that ideologues would score low. Indeed, both Arthur Scargill and Alfred Sherman, the former director of the Centre for Policy Studies, would probably score negative points. "The reason ideology goes with nastiness," argues Parris, "is that they look at the world through a theoretical structure. They don't like people very much so they need a structure."

Certainly, one would not usually want to go on a date with an ideologue. But more generally, is it people on the left or on the right who should scoop up more "Dubs" points?

I tried asking a cross-section of politicians. Teresa Gorman replied with a scrawled fax bearing the words: "Why ask me, you must be MAD!"

Most people on the left, I found, are noisily confident that they are nicest. And you would expect the left to be nicer. After all, the left has a more optimistic and flattering view of human nature, believing that people can change and be made less selfish, less greedy, cuddlier and generally more communally minded. The left is supposed to believe in equality, that people should be respected for what they are and what they have the potential to become. And the left is supposed to believe in collective action, rather than in every man for himself. Even the right sometimes acknowledges, implicitly, the left's greater niceness, when it says that the left has too rosy a view of human nature.

But in practice the left, particularly in power, doesn't always behave as nicely as its own rhetoric suggests it should. Take just a few examples from recent months. David Clark, widely regarded as one of the nicest cabinet ministers, was booted out. (As Parris says, "one of the problems with being a nice person is you don't realise how nasty everyone else is.") Gordon Brown has been accused of having "psychological problems" by a Blair aide. Last week, anonymous Treasury sources dismissed Peter Mandelson's plans for Post Office reform as "garbage" and "rubbish". Not very nice, and certainly not what you would call community-minded.

Members of Tory governments rubbished each other, too. Under Margaret Thatcher, John Biffen was famously described by Bernard Ingham as a "semi-detached" member of the government. Even nice John Major was caught out saying that some members of his cabinet were "bastards". But the poisonous atmosphere at the top of the Labour Party is widely regarded as worse than under the previous government.

It wasn't especially nice, either, that Robin Cook had 45 minutes to decide between his wife and his mistress, or that he publicly blamed his civil servants for the Sierra Leone affair.

Then there are all those special advisers. Some of them seem unable to meet government detractors with sophisticated point-by-point rebuttal. Instead, they adopt a style of brusque bullying to compensate for their youthful inadequacies in the fields of policy and personal relations. There is a naive view that your political influence is directly proportional to your ability to bully rather than persuade. A deep-seated political insecurity has bred this strutting self-importance in some of the advising classes.

The Blairites in particular can come across as a touch too self-savouring. Some remain scarred by the bunker mentality of opposition and have resorted to a kind of introverted tribalism. They are bonded together by a meritocratic cliquishness fused from the years together in opposition, and the knowledge that they got to the top of the political tree by dint of their own hard work. They are terribly nice to their own, and loyal to each other, but they can adopt an off-handedness towards people whom they don't think are "on side". They may write speeches about the "giving age" and about building a "decent society", but that decency doesn't always start at home.

These people inherit from Thatcherism a certain kind of meritocratic sniffiness. Meritocracy militates against niceness. It's hard to empathise with those who failed, if you believe they failed because they didn't make the best use of their opportunities. As John Gray, professor of European thought at the London School of Economics, puts it, "the circumstances which make people nasty is a feeling of unchallengeable power", and the Blairites have it, for now.

But there's something else about people on the left which earns them negative Dubs points. Because they believe that society can change, they dash about trying to tweak the status quo by dreaming up clever improving schemes, rather like a photographer changing the backdrop in the hope of showing off his clients in their best light. They believe in a "project". Until that "project" is over, they can't relax and lighten up.

This attitude of mind is caught in a poem by Bertolt Brecht, called "To Those Who Come After", in which he wrote: "We, who wanted to prepare the ground for friendliness, could not ourselves be friendly."

Sitting next to a prominent young (but getting older) new Labourite at a round-table discussion on Europe, I rose to leave early to celebrate my birthday. The sober (occasionally) man pulled my sleeve and whispered earnestly, with no trace of a smile: "I bet Margaret Thatcher never got on in the world by leaving political functions early to celebrate her birthday."

Yet according to Ian Christie, deputy director of Demos: "One purpose of socialism ought to be to allow more people to sit around in cafes having fun with each other. Instead, the left often has a sense that they are doing more important things than the right, that they shouldn't hang around being funny but need to be earnest and active. Yet social cohesion can be promoted by laughter and companionship."

It is not just companionship that gets lost in the mix. A sense of courtesy can, too.This in part is a remnant of class warriordom. "The left still retains the idea that manners and ritual conventions are a badge of servitude," thinks Laurie Taylor, NS columnist.

"There's a feeling on the left that you're in a tremendous hurry and don't have the time for these little courtesies," observes Rick Nye, the nice director of the Social Market Foundation.

In contrast, as the philosopher Roger Scruton points out, "in the British context manners have always been part of being a Conservative".

None of this means that the right as a whole deserves more Dubs points. Right-wingers may be more civil but, as Andrew Puddephatt, the director of Charter 88, claims, they "have an ease and grace which comes with the assurance of power. You realise that the charm and politeness is often a kind of condescension and is a superficial kind of niceness."

John Gray also thinks it wrong to be romantic about the old patrician Tories. "They could be tolerant and open-minded but this was founded on a view of hierarchy and inequality, and emerged from a feeling of unchallengeable social power."

And the right is certainly not very nice to foreigners. "A lot of Tory ministers seemed to think it was funny to be rude to foreigners," says Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. "At an Ecofin council meeting the German delegate arrived late and Norman Lamont looked at his watch and quipped, 'I thought the Germans were supposed to be punctual'. He thought it was very funny to be rude."

So both the left and the right are not as nice as they should be. But is niceness really such a political asset anyway?

In the 1987 party political broadcast on ITV for the Liberal/ Social Democrat Alliance, Sir David Steel lamented that "to listen to some people in politics you'd think that 'nice' was a four-letter word". And look what happened to him. Back in the 1920s, something similar happened to Sir Austen Chamberlain, a Tory leader of whom it was said that "he always played the game and always lost it".

George Walden, the former Tory MP, thinks "it's often niceness that causes all the trouble. Niceness is a killer really. Niceness settles for mediocrity. Michael Foot was a grossly self-indulgent politician but he was a nice bloke."

And Steven Lukes, a twin-hatted professor of moral philosophy at Sienna, Italy, and of sociology at New York University, thinks that "the left is supposed to be critical of the existing order of things. An essential tool in their armoury has to be satire. Too much niceness blunts the edge of satire, so the left had better not be very nice. It's not necessarily a political virtue, being nice."

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