David Young
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The motherhood trap

It seems like a great time to be a woman in politics - but the fact that childless women are vilified as selfish, while so few mothers make it to the top, reveals an uncomfortable truth about how far we still have to go to achieve equality.

Look around the top of politics and it seems like a wonderful time to be a woman. Two of the four candidates for the Labour leadership are female – Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall – as are three of the five in the race for deputy: Stella Creasy, Caroline Flint and Angela Eagle. One of the three likely contenders for the next Tory leadership is a woman, Theresa May. The next leader of Scottish Labour is likely to be Kezia Dugdale, and she will find herself debating two other female leaders, Nicola Sturgeon of the SNP and the Tories’ Ruth Davidson. Half of the shadow cabinet is female, and there are seven women in the cabinet. The most powerful politician in the European Union and perhaps the world is Angela Merkel.

But these eye-catching facts conceal an uncomfortable truth: remarkably high proportions of the most successful women in politics are childless. (All the named politicians above are, except Cooper and Flint.)

For much of the last parliament, the only mother in the cabinet was Maria Miller, and New Statesman research shows that while the 14 men in the shadow cabinet have 31 children between them, the 13 women have only 16. Seven of the women are childless, against three of the men.

This disparity is evident throughout parliament, according to wider research carried out by the academics Sarah Childs and Rosie Campbell in 2013. They found that 45 per cent of female MPs were childless, compared to 28 per cent of men. “On average men MPs have 1.9 children compared to 1.2 for women MPs,” they wrote. “There is also a sex difference in the age of MPs’ children: the average age of MPs’ eldest child when they first entered parliament is 12 years old for men and 16 years old for women . . . All of this would suggest that mothers – and not just women – are significantly descriptively under-represented in British politics.”

Why does that matter? It matters not only because a parliamentary democracy should strive to reflect the populace it serves, but because the barriers stopping the ascent of MPs who are mothers reflect the structural discrimination throughout society.

The “motherhood trap” exposes one of capitalism’s most uncomfortable secrets – the way it relies on so much unpaid labour, often from women, to sustain itself. This labour comes at the expense of career opportunities, and their lifetime earning power: the pay gap between men and women in their twenties is all but eradicated, but a “maternity gap” still exists, and women’s wages never recover from the time devoted to childbearing.

Despite this, and despite the huge energy generated by the feminist movement in the past decade, questions of care have not gained as much attention as they did during the “Second Wave” in the 1970s. In 2014, the New Republic’s Judith Shulevitz suggested that the F-word itself should be replaced with “caregiverism”, to stress that challenging the exploitation of unpaid labour was critical to achieving equality. Without a structural analysis of the problem, Shulevitz argued, it was too easy to see these debates as “personal dilemmas – opting out, opting in – rather than as Hobson’s choices imposed on us”. She added: “Limiting work hours used to be one of the great causes of the labour movement.”

That brings us back to parliament. Over the past month, I have spoken to more than a dozen women and men, many of them involved in politics at the highest levels. There was universal agreement across the ideological spectrum that it is difficult to balance caring responsibilities with a political career. At the same time, selectors, voters and the media often expect a politician to have a family as a way of signalling that they are “normal”. So women face an impossible situation. If they have children, people disparage them as not dedicated enough to the job. If they don’t, people disparage them for having nothing else in their lives but the job.

Indeed, a 2014 study found that when it came to workers having children, there was a “fatherhood bonus” but a “motherhood penalty”. As the author of the study, the sociology professor Michelle Budig of the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told the New York Times: “Employers read fathers as more stable and committed to their work; they have a family to provide for, so they’re less likely to be flaky. That is the opposite of how parenthood by women is interpreted by employers. The conventional story is they work less and they’re more distractible when on the job.”

Rosie Campbell and Sarah Childs think the same is true of MPs. “It’s a no-win for women,” Campbell told me. “For men, having a wife and children is a political resource, whereas for women, not having children was the thing that gave them the time to do politics.”

The downside to this added time, however, is being open to accusations of selfishness, and the suggestion that the women have made a calculated career decision that somehow alienates them from “ordinary people”. (Roughly 20 per cent of women in the UK aged 45 do not have any children, according to the Office for National Statistics, up from one in nine of their mothers’ generation: not having children is far from rare.)

On 6 July in a column for the Huffington Post, the former Labour minister Helen Goodman wrote that she supported Yvette Cooper for leader because, “As a working mum, she understands the pressures on modern family life. We need a leader who knows what challenges ordinary people face day to day, and who is committed to helping them.” The implicit contrast here was with Liz Kendall, who is both childless and single, her last relationship having ended just before the general election.

But as Isabel Hardman wrote in a blog for the Spectator, “Being a parent does not automatically mean you will understand even other parents. You will still need empathy in order to put yourself in the shoes of a single mother living on benefits if you are married and running a house on two salaries.” In other words, Cooper and Kendall have more in common with each other, uterine usage aside, than either does with a constituent struggling on the minimum wage.

Yet speaking “as a mother” is presumed to be a short cut to authenticity and normality. When Maria Miller wanted to bring in controls on web access to hardcore pornography in 2013, she told the press: “As a mother, I am determined to protect my children from the depravity of internet porn.”

Male politicians, by contrast, get the best of both worlds. They have a family that can be marshalled as photogenic props or used as fodder for personal anecdotes in speeches, and their home life grounds them and makes them appear “normal”. (The coverage of the Cooper/Kendall spat largely failed to mention that Andy Burnham and Jeremy Corbyn have children. And most commentators presumed Miller’s comments to be a coded gibe at Theresa May, Theresa Villiers and Justine Greening but not Eric Pickles or William Hague.)

So, what can be done to make life easier for both sets of women – those caught in the motherhood trap, and their childless sisters, portrayed as selfish and single-minded? Just as importantly, what can be done to bridge the gap so that a woman’s family status is no longer seen to define her quite so acutely? Let’s look at each in turn.

 

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In May 1997 a record 101 female Labour MPs entered the Commons. It was parliament’s own version of the Big Bang, driving up the percentage of women in the House from less than 10 to more than 15 per cent. There was strength in numbers, allowing policy areas that had been marginalised – or dismissed as merely “women’s issues” – to be heard. The macho, public school-cum-gentleman’s club culture of Westminster also took a knock. But there was a problem. “Lots of us who were newly elected in 1997 came in assuming it was fine – we were ­going to sort out the hours of the House of Commons,” the former Labour minister Patricia Hewitt told me. “And we assumed that all female MPs would have the same view on this.”

They didn’t. Politicians who lived within commuting distance of London, or whose family home was in the capital, wanted parliament to operate to normal working hours so that they could get home in the evenings to see their children during the week. But Hewitt and her colleagues discovered that MPs in farther-flung seats were away from their family during the week anyway, and so didn’t mind the long sitting hours. They wanted a late start on Monday and an early finish on Thursday to maximise the time they could spend with their family.

They also discovered that many male MPs liked the late sittings and the “collegiality” of the Commons. Hewitt recalls: “Many of them would make the argument: ‘No, no, no, it’s absolutely vital that we’re voting in the evening, we’re having dinner together. That’s when back benches can talk to ministers.’ And there was a lot of truth in that; it was just you also pay a high price for it. So that was quite a rude awakening.”

The current standard sitting hours run from 2.30pm to 10pm on Monday, 7pm on Tuesday and Wednesday, and 5pm on a Thursday. At these times, MPs are expected to stay near Westminster in case they need to vote. This part of the job, coupled with the need for most MPs to maintain two homes, is the great barrier for those with caring responsibilities.

Many believe that discussions over sitting hours operate as a veiled rebuke to women who don’t seem to want to be part of the (male) clique. “It’s interesting that very often the criticism of women is that they’re not ‘clubbable’,” says Emily Thornberry, the Labour MP for Islington South. “Theresa May ‘doesn’t have a following’; Yvette Cooper is ‘too reserved’.” Another MP, who is also a mother, echoed this: “If we had an early finish, my priority would be to get back and spend time with my family. Even before I had a child – it’s just a question of personal choice – sometimes I’d just rather read for a couple of hours.”

Labour’s women’s minister, Gloria De Piero, says she does not believe it is possible to “tinker” with the hours any more to make them more family-friendly. But she added, “You’d have to say: ‘If you invented it now, is this what it would look like?’”

However, other aspects of Commons life are improving. There is now a crèche on Parliament Street, used by MPs, civil servants and staff, which takes children from three months upwards. It was created by Speaker John Bercow in 2010 amid a campaign of low-level resistance, because its establishment led to the closure of Bellamy’s, one of the many bars in the Commons.

Bercow has taken reform seriously as Speaker, and he told me by email: “A good number of the old, outdated assumptions about women’s ability to be effective Members of Parliament and hold high office have been consigned, rightly, to the dustbin. However, as with other highly mobile careers, it is a fact that an MP’s job, often splitting time between his or her constituency and Westminster, places a particular strain on family life.” Besides the crèche, he says, “the decision to introduce earlier sitting hours in the last parliament was undertaken partly as a result of colleagues arguing that a modern Commons should take a more family-friendly approach”.

The current sitting hours are, however, in danger, as they were introduced for a ­limited period and some MPs will want them back to their old length. “I don’t think reverting to those hours would send a good signal about modern working practices,” one female MP tells me.

Still, at least you can now take a baby through the division lobby, making it easier for those with small children to attend crucial votes. This milestone was first reached by the Liberal Democrat MP Duncan Hames in 2014 when his wife, Jo Swinson, was the party’s equalities minister. She told me that her family provided a perfect test case for people’s differing responses to mothers and fathers juggling work and childcare.

“Duncan and I had the same job as MPs, and I had ministerial responsibilities, but people still responded differently in terms of expectations of what childcare responsibilities we would have. People just took it for granted that with a small child, there would be times when I, as a woman, couldn’t do something. But they didn’t respond in that automatic way to Duncan at all.”

Swinson argued that childcare affects working fathers in a way that doesn’t get addressed “because they’re not physically going through that change”. She added: “I think fatherhood is much more invisible in politics. The media is part of it – the woman will be introduced with what age they are, ‘mother of X’; or, indeed, if they don’t have children, then it will be remarked upon in a way that it isn’t with men, generally.”

She also highlighted the difficulty of ­taking maternity leave as an MP: her office covered her constituency caseload while her Lib Dem colleague Jenny Willott took on the equalities brief in addition to her own. Swinson believes that Britain should move towards the Scandinavian model, under which a portion of paid parental leave is available only if taken by the father (or same-sex partner). “Because of maternity leave, and the cultural expectation that it’s mums that take the lion’s share of that time,” she said, “it ends up being the women who are taking more of the responsibility once they return to work.” Why is that? “Because they’ve developed the expertise. Parenting is about practice – you don’t innately know how to calm a crying baby.”

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One of the hazards of my job is being invited to summits on “powerful women”, which usually leave me feeling extremely unpowerful, and frankly a bit of a failure at being a woman. Recently at one such occasion, held in the ballroom of a London hotel, the star guest was the former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard. She talked frankly about what has become known as the “misogyny speech” – when she took her main opponent Tony Abbott to task in parliament for 15 searing minutes, opening with the declaration: “I will not be lectured on sexism and misogyny by this man; I will not.”

The denunciation, in October 2012, had been a long time coming. Even judging by the everyday tone in the notoriously brutal arena of Australian politics – its bluntness often makes Prime Minister’s Questions look like a Quaker meeting – the rhetoric used to describe Gillard was exceptionally vicious. “Ditch the witch”, read one set of election placards. After her speech, the sexist abuse did not abate: in 2013 a Liberal Party fundraising dinner promised “Julia Gillard Kentucky Fried Quail – Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box”. (Abbott said the menu was “tacky and scatological” but he did not suspend the candidate involved.)

Through this river of low-grade sexism ran one very strong current: repeated criticism of Gillard for being childless. In 2007, the conservative senator Bill Heffernan called her “deliberately barren”. Another Liberal politician, George Brandis, now attorney general, once criticised her in parliament, asserting that she was a “one-dimensional” person who had “chosen not to be a parent”. Her own party has not spared her: the former Labor leader Mark Latham opined in 2011, “Anyone who chooses a life without children, as Gillard has, cannot have much love in them.” Her fierce rival Kevin Rudd, the former prime minister, is alleged to have described her pejoratively, also in 2011, as a “childless, atheist ex-communist”. In February the following year, the Sydney Morning Herald fretted in its leader column that voters had “largely closed their minds to Gillard. Her media persona does not fit the expectations of some voters: a single woman, childless, whose life is dedicated to her career.”

As often seems to be the case, it was implied that given Gillard’s childlessness, she could not have an opinion on family policy – as if defence ministers always have a military background, or all agriculture ministers can reliably tell one end of a haddock from the other before taking on the brief.

A fortnight after the misogyny speech, Tony Abbott made a pointed remark about Gillard’s government restricting the “baby bonus” for new parents on the assumption that a second child could reuse many items purchased for the first. “Often one child is still in the cot when the second one comes along. One child is still in the pram when the second one comes along,” said the father-of-three. “I think if the government was a bit more experienced in this area they wouldn’t come out with glib lines like that.”

The Conservative children’s minister Tim Loughton took a similar line when criticising his Lib Dem coalition colleague Sarah Teather at the Tory party conference in 2013, claiming that she “didn’t believe in family. She certainly didn’t produce one of her own.” This made the Education Department a “family-free zone”, which he found “disappointing”. (Loughton has three children, although it would be indelicate of me to note that his contribution to “producing” them involved less physical hardship than endured by his wife.)

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Julia Gillard’s experience is that the criticism of her was so explicit and came from such senior political figures. In less plain-spoken cultures, the fear of childless women is usually better camouflaged, disguised as concerns over “life experience” and whether a woman has a “well-rounded personality”. But not always: in June last year, a 35-year-old Tokyo City assembly member called Ayaka Shiomura was heckled during a debate on support for working mothers with cries of “Go and get married” and “Can’t you give birth?”. In 2005, when Angela Merkel first seemed to have a chance of leading Germany’s ruling coalition, the wife of her main rival, Gerhard Schröder, commented acidly that she “does not embody with her biography the experiences of most women”, going on to mention childbirth and school admissions. That Doris Schröder-Köpf’s own husband has no biological children – the couple have adopted two children, and she brought a daughter to the relationship – did not seem to trouble her.

The childless British politicians to whom I spoke confirmed that their status was often used against them by their opponents, by other women as much as men. One pointed me to the leaflet issued by Stella Creasy’s Tory rival for the Walthamstow seat in this year’s general election, Molly Samuel-Leport. Under the headline “The Contenders Head to Head”, it listed Samuel-Leport’s virtues: “Cleaner Mother Shop Assistant Wife Athlete Teacher Champion Understands YOU”. When it came to Creasy, the list was shorter: “Career Politician Understands Ed Miliband”. The implication was clear – Creasy’s childlessness showed that she was not an “ordinary” person, as did her a PhD in social psychology and her background in think tanks.

Similar criticisms were levelled against Theresa May by a Downing Street insider in the Daily Mirror in August 2014 just as she became the front-runner to succeed David Cameron. May has always been reluctant to talk about not having children; the most she has ever said is that it “just didn’t happen” for her and her husband, Philip.

The source said that May’s lack of a family would make her look abnormal and unappealing to the electorate. “Being interested in politics is not normal. It’s not something most people do,” the source told the paper. “There are lots of ways you can look like you are obsessed with politics and not having children is one of them.” (Let’s draw a veil over what her rival Boris Johnson’s ­fertility track record makes it look like he is obsessed with . . .)

Do male politicians feel such criticisms as strongly? Ben Bradshaw, who is also in the race for the Labour deputy leadership, told me he had never been aware of his childlessness being used as a political attack line.

“It’s never been raised with me – that idea that because you don’t have children you don’t understand people’s lives,” the 54-year-old MP said. “We all have families even if we don’t have children. Me and the man I’ve been with for 20 years have an extended family. We have scores of nephews and nieces.”

Nicola Sturgeon has said that she believes there is a double standard. Asked on ITV’s Tonight during the general election campaign about whether she had chosen not to have children, she said: “Alex Salmond doesn’t have children. He might tell you differently, but I’m not aware of reading an interview or seeing an interview with Alex Salmond asking that question.”

Gloria De Piero, who is married but does not have children, says this reflects her experience. “It is mentioned in a lot of interviews with me in a way that it just simply isn’t with my male colleagues who are similar ages,” the 42-year-old told me. “It’s an issue for women who are not mothers in a way that it’s not an issue for men who are not fathers.”

 

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The motherhood trap affects us all, and although some of these issues are specific to MPs, many are not, particularly the scourge of “presenteeism” – rewarding attendance, whether productive work is being done or not – and the valorisation of “unencumbered” workers, who are available to their employers at any time of day or night.

Yet the politicians I interviewed were keen to stress that there are still grounds for optimism. “I don’t want to be too miserable about this,” said De Piero, laughing. “I always worry that people say, ‘It’s so bloody awful in parliament,’ and women go, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want to do that job.’”

Several parliamentarians also had ideas for how working practices could be improved. Emily Thornberry questioned why there was a need for the House to return to sit before the autumn party conferences, even though at this time, little useful work is done on legislation. Instead, she advocates a longer summer recess, during which MPs can have time off with their family, followed by a “constituency month” to catch up on casework. “They talk about ‘MPs have packed their buckets and spades and are off and we won’t see them’. We don’t stand up for ourselves and say: ‘I get 1,000 letters and emails a week.’ I have a lot of work to do in my constituency.”

The president of the Liberal Democrats, Sal Brinton, thinks it is time to talk seriously about job shares for MPs. “[It] frightens parliamentarians, but we think it’s something that would bear looking at. It used to frighten big companies, the idea that you could have a senior manager job-sharing, but it does work. You just have to think out the difficult issues – how do you vote? – but everything else would work.”

Jo Swinson also believes that the lack of maternity cover could be resolved with electoral reform. “It’s difficult with first-past-the-post, but in countries with list systems, people can do cover for certain amounts of time.”

Perhaps as a first step it would be easier to let ministers job-share. Patricia Hewitt says she suggested this in 2001, when Tony Blair appointed her to the cabinet, in a push to get the junior minister she wanted.“The one I had my eye on was doing a fabulous job in a different department. It was very funny, because Tony said, ‘Er, what’s that?’ Jonathan Powell [Blair’s chief of staff] was standing there saying, ‘Two people sharing one job.’ Tony said: ‘Are we allowed to do that?’ and Jonathan said: ‘Well, I don’t know. I’d have to check.’”

Unfortunately, the minister involved got another job and the point was never settled. Hewitt acknowledges that the sharers would have to be compatible – “the nightmare would be . . . a woman with some children and an ambitious man” – but she points out that job-sharing is now common in the public sector and charities.

The final, and most contentious, point is money. During my conversations, the name “Caroline Spelman” frequently crept into the discussion: an example of someone whose childcare arrangements attracted criticism and unwelcome press attention.

In 2009 the former Conservative chair had to repay £9,600 in expenses after Commons authorities ruled that she had been paying her nanny from public funds by employing her as a secretary. Three years later, Spelman lost an attempt to stop the Daily Star Sunday reporting that her 17-year-old son, who played rugby for England under-16s, had taken banned substances after suffering a sports injury. “It’s hard to know you’re putting your children in the public eye like that,” one woman told me. “There’s something about a mother’s hormones.”

Although very few MPs are willing to go on the record, many believe that the reforms to expenses – necessitated by wide-scale fraud and the overclaiming endemic in parliament before 2009 – have made it much harder for those who are not already wealthy to juggle the demands of work with family. The current system makes it far easier for the rich and unencumbered. “You hear that MPs should be treated as ordinary people,” one told me. “That’s nonsense. It’s a unique set of challenges. Ninety per cent of us work in two places. There’s an extraordinary rate of failed marriages.”

The wife of another MPs talks about “eating crisps and crying at home” in the early days of her partner’s career because he was so rarely around to help with the children. Several mentioned that it was a huge advantage to have a seat in London, which allows the MP to get home every night.

By way of a solution, the Conservative backbencher Charles Walker has proposed that MPs’ expenses be abolished and a fixed annual stipend introduced. Their claims for tax-deductible items would then be regulated by HM Revenue & Customs, just like for any other self-employed worker. “You can change the hours but it’s not going to help someone get home to Cumberland,” he added. “And there’s a ridiculous belief that MPs only work when the House is sitting.”

On the other side of the fence, most agree that the big battle for childless MPs is perception – often in the media, rather than among voters. Ben Bradshaw says he believes his constituents “don’t give a hoot” about whether or not he has children. Some worry whether selection panels – which are not allowed to ask directly about candidates’ children – kibosh women for fear that voters won’t like them, or that they won’t have time to do the job properly. “I was asked in 1998 by a woman councillor when I went for selection how my children were going to cope, and could my husband cook the dinner when I was out canvassing?” says Sal Brinton. “Where do people get these ideas from? That’s the bigger problem: perception, rather than the reality.”

Childless women, on the other hand, face greater problems later on in their career when going for leadership roles, as they are deemed to lack the “complete package” that voters want. Several of the women I interviewed said they thought that starting a parliamentary career in your twenties or early thirties made having a family harder. “I think what happens is that women find it difficult to establish themselves in those careers. And to get promoted. So they put off marriage and children and whatever, and often end up running out of time,” says the Labour MEP Mary Honeyball. Another source told me that single women who entered parliament often found it hard to meet a partner prepared to join “the Denis club” – a reference to the sacrifices Denis Thatcher made to support his wife’s ambitions.

In the end, what both mothers and non-mothers need is broader social change. First, there must be an end to a culture that sees childlessness in women as selfish, and their lives as inevitably emotionally stunted and unfulfilling. We need to reset our relationship with work – to resist the pressure of presenteeism and expectations of unpaid overtime, and to fight for better labour rights, as well as employment protection for those with caring responsibilities. As Ben Bradshaw, who looked after his mother in his teens when she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, puts it: “The more insecure people are in work, the more difficult it is for them to make choices around caring.”

Our parliamentarians’ job insecurity is rather different from that of someone on a zero-hours contract, but both would benefit from a reappraisal of what it is reasonable for employers to ask of their employees. Until then, men enjoy a double advantage, whether they have children or not. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Motherhood Trap

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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