Skinner on Mark Zuckerberg’s Utopia

Anyone who is famous, and somewhat interesting, has had a cameo on the Simpsons. But only B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) got a permanent character.


How did a psychologist who worked with rats and pigeons make it to prime time animated TV? And more importantly, is he really a dead philosopher?

Admittedly, Skinner was first and foremost a psychologist, but the philosophical underpinnings of his work were made clear in the failed novel few people know he wrote in 1948 (but more on that later).

Skinner’s most important contribution to modern thinking was nothing less than the cementing of an empirical science of behavior.

Skinner’s predecessor, Edward Thorndike (1874–1949) developed the conclusion (known as the “law of effect”) which states that behaviors associated with pleasure and comfort are more likely to be repeated (“Mmmm, chocolate..”), whereas those associated with displeasure are less likely to be repeated (“Brrr, no more sledding in my underwear.”)

Thorndike’s studies formed the groundwork for Skinner’s methods for operant conditioning which famously relied on positive reinforcement (rewards for correct behavior). Of course Skinner didn’t invent the ideas of punishment and reward, but he conceptualized them scientifically and conducted experiments to determine how to use them most effectively (based on various schedules of frequency).

Skinner_box_scheme_01His famed experiments in the Skinner box (a device he designed while at Harvard) required rats or pigeons to press a lever to cause food to dispense from a hole in the wall. “Discriminative stimuli” would include lights or beeping sounds used to school these hapless rodents in things like “if lights are on and you press the lever, you get food”, or “if lights are off and you press lever you get an electro-shock”. Their rate of response would be evidence that they learned. (No research was done on their level of induced anxiety).

Skinner enthusiastically applied his insights to humans in areas like education and health. As you can imagine, he faced plenty of criticism from those suspecting that rat training may not precisely mirror the breadth and complexity of human learning.

Then of course, there are the philosophical implications:

If behaviour is fully determined by external factors and can be manipulated predictably and scientifically, is there really any free will?  If behaviours do not originate in the individual, how do we decide who is responsible for a person’s actions?

This line of philosophical thinking led him to indulge in a bit of fiction writing: Walden Two, a novel of utopian society written in 1948, features the idealistic, Frazier, a behavioral engineer cum benevolent dictator, determined to right the world through behavioral reinforcement.

Frazier intends to introduce psychological “carrots”, rather than punishments, to make Walden a paradise. For example, he designs rewards that make work and school motivating so that people engage by “choice” rather than by force.

“Look at the culture of the average American community! look at the machinery of government! Where among them can you expect to find the inculcators of wisdom? But wait until we’ve developed a science of behavior as powerful as the science of the atom, and you will see the difference” – Frazier in Skinner’s Walden Two

But why is it that behavioral engineering inevitably wreaks of creepy? Is it because the ability to manipulate people will never be protected from misuse? Is it because there is no such thing as “correct” use? In our market economies, behavioral manipulation is commonplace and used daily by “Mad Men” to extract our funds. It’s used by dictators, established and aspiring, to rule countries. And that’s to say nothing of digital technology…

While Skinner’s behaviorism has gone out of fashion among psychologists, it remains the daily bread for technology designers. Look to books like Hooked: How to build habit forming products by Nir Eyal, as guides:

“When the behavior occurs for no conscious purpose–simply as an automatic response to a cue–the habit is in control.”

As many in the technology industry have learned, controlling behavior is, of course, quite lucrative:

“If our programmed behaviors are so influential in guiding our everyday actions, surely harnessing the same power of habits can be a boon for industry. Indeed, for those able to shape them in an effective way, habits can be very good for the bottom line” “Hooked: How to build habit forming products” by Nir Eyal

One who has learned, gained (and more recently, lost some) from the power of habits is Mark Zuckerberg. (Yes, he was also on the Simpsons, but never earned a recurring role). Does the rumor of Zuckerberg’s interest in the presidency mean he sees himself as Skinner’s benevolent dictator, set to bend the world’s will through design?  Will the digital environment, and our psychological experience, always primarily be shaped by the bottom line?

How do we preserve human agency in a digital world increasingly defined by its ability to control our behavior?

We’d love your thoughts…


Walden Two (Hackett Classics)

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products


  1. You can see the real D.F. Skinner teach here, and learn about Principal Skinner here
  2. You can see Zuckerberg tell Lisa how education doesn’t lead to success here.
  3. Many media outlets reported on the speculation that Zuckerberg would run for president, which he denied. See the insightful Guardian article on the topic.

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