The main bone of contention was that they wished me to modify my research in order that it became focused on behaviorism. To put it plainly, they wanted me to conduct some research that would assist dieters adherence to dieting, something that is particularly useful in an industry founded on guided starvation. I have never been a fan of either starvation or behaviourism, in fact the words of John B. Watson haunted me from the moment I started in this industry.
“Give me a baby and I can make any kind of man.” - John B. Watson, the founder of Behaviorism. (1)
Watson’s belief was that an organisms behavior is predictable, and therefore controllable. He investigated this at John Hopkins University in 1920 when he experimented on babies ranging from three months to a year old. During numerous experiments he would show the infants lit candles to assess their reaction to fire, and bring in animals in to see if they were frightened by them.
One subject became synonymous with Watsons work, known as Little Albert, he initially found delight in touching a rabbit. However, when Watson elicited loud noises behind the infants head (using a steel rod and a claw hammer) whenever he touched the rabbit, his reaction naturally switched from delight to terror. It then became apparent that even the mere sight of the rabbit would leave the child in a state of fear, even without any loud noise. Watson reached a rather radical conclusion that has defined political, industrial and social engineering in the 20th century. His belief was that fear is the driving force within society.
Ivan Pavlov a man most people are aware of, begun his work on the “conditioned reflex” in dogs, realising that a dog would salivate when it began to associate a stimulus such as a ringing bell with food. While most are aware of this research, maybe even finding it mildly amusing during our school days, not many of us are aware that we are as conditioned as Pavlov’s dog.
We are all bought, sold, conned, shared and used everyday to make other people money. We are owned yet we believe, mainly because that is what we are told, that we live in a free society. We are continually told that we can escape our obesity by signing up to the latest fad diet that is usually nothing more than a repackaged version of the previous semi starvation fad. When these products come to market it is critical that they utilise various behavioural strategies to alter your behaviour and make you adhere. You may think Joe Wicks (star of Mean in 15) is the latest lifestyle guru, in reality he is well versed in behaviour modification. Shaming your fat self on instagrim with the hashtag #fitfam is just a way of trying to modify your behaviour and stop your “weak willpower” taking hold when your hunger kicks in.
Behaviourism relies upon the principles of operant conditioning, the principles of which have more recently become known as behaviour modification. Whilst it is a fascinating area of study that allows us to analyse behaviours and their effects upon both health and wellness, it is also frequently utilised as a scheme to shape the behaviours of other, often without their fully conscious awareness.
Behaviourism relies upon the notion that behaviour rather than the physiological and thought processes driving these behaviours are more important. Thus the use of various kinds of techniques to modify behaviours trains you and makes you compliant. Take the diet industry, the philosophy of dieting is deceptively simple. It works upon the notion that we are mechanistic flesh and blood machines. That we require fuel, that if we are over fuelled we simply need to be restricted and put to work for a specific cause, namely burn some calories, yet this never seems to work as planned. As is well documented, humans struggle to achieve this goal of semi starvation (eat less - move more) due to a thing we call “weak willpower”, and the obesity epidemic rages on.
My area of study is that weak willpower does not exist, that compensatory health behaviours are just that, a compensation for a physiological action. Hold your breath and you will hyperventilate for a while when you restart breathing. The same goes for dieting, it drives a physiological compensation, namely you “overeat” because you have been starved. Naturally in response to our gluttony, guilt will rise and you're likely to feel compelled to restrict or starve oneself again….and so the struggle continues.
Luckily for those of us that are weak willed, behaviourism considers that we can be repaired, redesigned or conditioned with new and superior behaviours. It helps to think back to the breathing example to consider how ludicrous this is, if you're struggling to limit your breathing, behaviourism would seek to adapt your behaviours to help you achieve your goals. This may take the form of an app for your iPhone that reminds you to hold your breath, a breath watchers club where you receive the support of your leader and the rest of the group, maybe receiving a sticker or similar when you achieve specify breath hold targets. Maybe you’d sign up to instagrim and hashtag shame yourself when you over breathed #o2syn or patted yourself on the back #turningblue
This and only this (unless they just don’t like me, which is plausible) seems to be the reason for my academic knock backs. If this was educational tinder they are continually swiping left once they see my research interests. Do I want work on developing strategies to create dietary adherence? Do I want to compel people to perform like monkeys at the circus because I helped develop an app for a global diet cult? If I wanted money and to climb the corporate career ladder then maybe, if I want to maintain integrity and fulfil my legacy then nope. Do I want to starve people and teach them to ignore physiological signals indicating that energy is needed? No, what we need is a scientific explanation that is understandable within the general population, yet not one that ignores the complex needs of the human organism.
Whilst human behaviour has long been intriguing, the era of capitalist industrialisation at the turn of the 19th century (2) was when we really began to consider that we could control living organisms (in particular humans) in the same way they that we control machines. Admittedly industrialisation brought many advantages, but the disadvantages were equal if not greater, where there is a light side there is usually a dark side in the deal.
Watson was indeed an interesting character and his influence on social science and the boom in advertising is significant, and on the face of it seemingly innocent and beneficial to society. However, his real manifesto for behaviourism, and the belief that human beings can be shaped in any way that a scientist desired is showed for what it is in his writings at the end of his life
"I sometimes think I regret that I could not have a group of infant farms where I could have brought up 30 pure-blooded Negroes on one, 30 pure blooded Anglo-Saxons on another, and 30 Chinese on a third all under similar conditions.” (3)
Behaviourism is the mechanism of control, you dictate to people what their behaviours should be. This may be glossed over as giving the individual control, for instance some diet groups sell the premise that you can regain control your life and be happy if only you limit your syns and attend group penance. Yet the entire task of starving oneself is broken down into specific aspects of the whole task rather than allowing a skilled person to decide how the entire task should be done, so theirs a very much control involved. Good foods and syns are labelled, and you are told how many times may syn. Poor behaviours are identified and weak willpower is treated by attempts to modify behaviours.
To the degree that this is involved your control is lost, and any skills/knowledge are no longer needed. Granted many diet club members become diet club leaders, but any attributable skills are simply the ability to repeat parrot like what the capitalist management dictate. And this removal of power makes dieters less likely to be rebellious, less likely to join or form a movement that operates against the system.
From a business perspective this is great idea, and mainstream science also believes it is good idea for dieters because the problem, “obesity” has been viewed from a reductionist stance. That it is purely a mechanistic problem, that fat people just need reprogramming. Henry Ford stated that he was too smart to have these kind of rational principles imposed upon him, but that he needed to impose those principles on the workers because they wouldn't know what to do if he didn’t. (4)
You may think the diet industry is not like Ford and his desire to increase productivity and profit, but business is business and a diet company really isn’t that interested in your goal, more ensuring you remain a client and supportive customer. Rationalism is embodied by Fordism, McDonaldisation, and Dietism. The principe is that those at the top want to impose on the bottom, but something they don't want to upset is profit. As Ford and Ronald McDonald wanted mindless workers working in a robot like fashion, so do WeightWatchers, they are reliant on members that put faith in the principles that are imposed on them by the industry and all that profiteer from it.
Stay tuned for part two.
1. Watson, J., B. (1930). Behaviorism (revised edition). University of Chicago Press.
2. Burnham, P. (2003). Capitalism, the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Politics. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
3. Watson, J. B. (1936). John Broadus Watson. In C. Murchison (Ed), A history of psychology in autobiography (Vol. 3, pp. 271–281). New York: Russell & Russell.
4. Ford, H., and Crowther, S. (1922). My life and work. Garden City, N.Y., Doubleday, Page & Co.