Behavior Modification and an Authoritarian Society


What a fascinating thing! Total control of a living organism! —psychologist B.F. Skinner

The corporatization of society requires a population that accepts control by authorities, and so when psychologists and psychiatrists began providing techniques that could control people, the corporatocracy embraced mental health professionals.

In psychologist B.F. Skinner’s best-selling book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), he argued that freedom and dignity are illusions that hinder the science of behavior modification, which he claimed could create a better-organized and happier society.

During the height of Skinner’s fame in the 1970s, it was obvious to anti-authoritarians such as Noam Chomsky (“The Case Against B.F. Skinner”) and Lewis Mumord that Skinner’s worldview—a society ruled by benevolent control freaks—was antithetical to democracy. In Skinner’s novel Walden Two (1948), his behaviorist hero states, “We do not take history seriously”; to which Mumford retorted, “And no wonder: if man knew no history, the Skinners would govern the world, as Skinner himself has modestly proposed in his behaviorist utopia.”

As a psychology student during that era, I remember being embarrassed by the silence of most psychologists about the political ramifications of Skinner and behavior modification.

In the mid-1970s, as an intern on a locked ward in a state psychiatric hospital, I first experienced one of behavior modification’s staple techniques, the “token economy.” And that’s where I also discovered that anti-authoritarians try their best to resist behavior modification. George was a severely depressed anti-authoritarian who refused to talk to staff but, for some reason, chose me to shoot pool with. My boss, a clinical psychologist, spotted my interaction with George, and told me that I should give him a token—a cigarette—to reward his “prosocial behavior.” I fought it, trying to explain that I was 20 and George was 50, and this would be humiliating. But my boss subtly threatened to kick me off the ward. So, I asked George what I should do.

George, fighting the zombifying effects of his heavy medication, grinned and said, “We’ll win. Let me have the cigarette.” In full view of staff, George took the cigarette and then placed it into the shirt pocket of another patient, and then looked at the staff shaking his head in contempt.

Unlike Skinner, George was not “beyond freedom and dignity.” Anti-authoritarians such as George—who don’t take seriously the rewards and punishments of control-freak authorities—deprive authoritarian ideologies such as behavior modification from total domination.

Behavior Modification Techniques Excite Authoritarians

If you have taken introductory psychology, you probably have heard of Ivan Pavlov’s “classical conditioning” and B.F. Skinner’s “operant conditioning.”

An example of Pavlov’s classical conditioning? A dog hears a bell at the same time he receives food; then the bell is sounded without the food and still elicits a salivating dog. Pair a scantily-clad attractive woman with some crappy beer, and condition men to sexually salivate to the sight of the crappy beer and buy it. The advertising industry has been utilizing classical conditioning for quite some time.

Skinner’s operant conditioning? Rewards, like money, are “positive reinforcements”; the removal of rewards are “negative reinforcements”; and punishments, such as electric shocks, are labeled in fact as “punishments.” Operant conditioning pervades the classroom, the workplace, and mental health treatment.

Skinner was heavily influenced by the book Behaviorism (1924) by John B. Watson. Watson achieved some fame in the early 1900s by advocating a mechanical, rigid, affectionless manner in child rearing. He confidently asserted that he could take any healthy infant and, given complete control of the infant’s world, train him for any profession. When Watson was in his early forties, he quit university life and began a new career in advertising at J. Walter Thompson.

Behaviorism and consumerism, two ideologies which achieved tremendous power in the twentieth century, are cut from the same cloth. The shopper, the student, the worker, and the voter are all seen by consumerism and behaviorism the same way: passive, conditionable objects.

Who are Easiest to Manipulate?

The corporatocracy is an authoritarian system requiring unquestioning obedience to authority. Those who rise to power in the corporatocracy are control freaks, addicted to the buzz of power over other human beings, and so it is natural for such authorities to have become excited by behavior modification.

Alfie Kohn, in Punished by Rewards (1993), documents with copious research how behavior modification works best on dependent, powerless, infantilized, bored, and institutionalized people. And so for authorities who get a buzz from controlling others, this creates a terrifying incentive to construct a society that creates dependent, powerless, infantilized, bored, and institutionalized people.

Many of the most successful applications of behavior modification have involved laboratory animals, children, or institutionalized adults. According to management theorists Richard Hackman and Greg Oldham in Work Redesign (1980), “Individuals in each of these groups are necessarily dependent on powerful others for many of the things they most want and need, and their behavior usually can be shaped with relative ease.”

Similarly, researcher Paul Thorne reports in the journal International Management (“Fitting Rewards,” 1990) that in order to get people to behave in a particular way, they must be “needy enough so that rewards reinforce the desired behavior.”

 It is also easiest to condition people who dislike what they are doing. Rewards work best for those who are alienated from their work, according to researcher Morton Deutsch (Distributive Justice, 1985). This helps explain why attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)-labeled kids perform as well as so-called “normals” on boring schoolwork when paid for it (see Thomas Armstrong’s The Myth of the A.D.D. Child, 1995). Correlatively, Kohn offers research showing that rewards are least effective when people are doing something that isn’t boring.

In a review of the literature on the harmful effects of rewards, researcher Kenneth McGraw concluded that rewards will have a detrimental effect on performance under two conditions: “first, when the task is interesting enough for the subjects that the offer of incentives is a superfluous source of motivation; second, when the solution to the task is open-ended enough that the steps leading to a solution are not immediately obvious.”

Kohn also reports that at least ten studies show rewards work best on simplistic and predictable tasks. How about more demanding ones? In research on preschoolers (working for toys), older children (working for grades) and adults (working for money), all avoided challenging tasks. The bigger the reward, the easier the task that is chosen; while without rewards, human beings are more likely to accept a challenge.

So, there is an insidious incentive for control-freaks in society—be they psychologists, teachers, advertisers, managers, or other authorities who use behavior modification. Specifically, for controllers to experience the most control and gain a “power buzz,” their subjects need to be infantilized, dependent, alienated, and bored.

 The Anti-Democratic Nature of Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is fundamentally a means of controlling people and thus for Kohn, “by its nature inimical to democracy, critical questioning, and the free exchange of ideas among equal participants.”

For Skinner, all behavior is externally controlled, and we don’t truly have freedom and choice. Behaviorists see freedom, choice, and intrinsic motivations as illusory, or what Skinner called “phantoms.” Back in the 1970s, Noam Chomsky exposed Skinner’s unscientific view of science, specifically Skinner’s view that science should be prohibited from examining internal states and intrinsic forces.

In democracy, citizens are free to think for themselves and explore, and are motivated by very real—not phantom—intrinsic forces, including curiosity and a desire for justice, community, and solidarity.

What is also scary about behaviorists is that their external controls can destroy intrinsic forces of our humanity that are necessary for a democratic society.

Researcher Mark Lepper was able to diminish young children’s intrinsic joy of drawing with Magic Markers by awarding them personalized certificates for coloring with a Magic Marker. Even a single, one-time reward for doing something enjoyable can kill interest in it for weeks.

Behavior modification can also destroy our intrinsic desire for compassion, which is necessary for a democratic society. Kohn offers several studies showing “children whose parents believe in using rewards to motivate them are less cooperative and generous [children] than their peers.” Children of mothers who relied on tangible rewards were less likely than other children to care and share at home.

How, in a democratic society, do children become ethical and caring adults? They need a history of being cared about, taken seriously, and respected, which they can model and reciprocate.

Today, the mental health profession has gone beyond behavioral technologies of control. It now diagnoses noncompliant toddlers with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, oppositional defiant disorder, and pediatric bipolar disorder and attempts to control them with heavily sedating drugs. While Big Pharma directly profits from drug prescribing, the entire corporatocracy benefits from the mental health profession’s legitimization of conditioning and controlling.

 Bruce E. Levine, a practicing clinical psychologist, writes and speaks about how society, culture, politics and psychology intersect. His latest book is Get Up, Stand Up: Uniting Populists, Energizing the Defeated, and Battling the Corporate Elite. His Web site is




Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.


Mad in America has made some changes to the commenting process. You no longer need to login or create an account on our site to comment. The only information needed is your name, email and comment text. Comments made with an account prior to this change will remain visible on the site.


  1. Thanks Bruce for such a succinct and insightful appraisal of the underlying forces (how consumerism intertwines with behaviorism) which guide our current American climate of using behavioral control methods of drugging little children in the name of “healthcare”.

    Your writing is very digest-able to the layman (like moi) but very edifying. I did take that intro psych class in college where I was introduced to Pavlov and Skinner, and it helps to orient me.

    Skinner’s title alone, “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” itself chills me and explains my experience of psychiatry better than any phrase I could conjure myself.

    Would you consider writing a post explaining the theories of Vygotsky and how that applies to educating our children in a socio-cultural context?

    Thanks again,

    Report comment

  2. The web must have 10,000 links for “Symptoms of Bipolar Disorder in Children” selling big pharmas chemical restraints for kids. Its so sick and discusting its beyond words. At least taking speed for ADHD is “fun” in a way.

    Next “How, in a democratic society, do children become ethical and caring adults? They need a history of being cared about, taken seriously, and respected, which they can model and reciprocate.”

    Having been subjected to institutional child abuse myself and then going to psychiatry for help with the results of that abuse later in life only to be sicked by trusting them and taking there drugs (panic attacks n more) and then abused (injectable form threats) by them for refusing more when I went to the hospital…

    I have learned to channel my dark feelings of hate and contempt for them that will never go away into spreading the word of the truth online. CAICA is a website dedicated to exposing abuse and deaths in residential treatment programs including boot camps, wilderness programs, therapeutic boarding schools…

    The pen is mighter than the sword… well I have a keyboard !

    Report comment

  3. Only one answer.

    dont understand these changes inside
    or how it feels like when worlds collide
    judgmental clik which you’ll never fit
    vacant outsider degenerate
    look you up and down with blinded eyes
    scapegoating you with their ignorant minds
    flip em the V n let it all hang out
    this is wot living lifes all about

    sexuality within, colour of your skin
    body shape or place of origin
    all amunition for the other side
    protecting their own pain deep inside
    social norms and moral codes
    these justifications soon will implode
    Im anti religion and anti state anti greed and anti hate

    Report comment

  4. I’ll also point out that the other early 20th century movement in psychology, psychoanalysis, also was deeply tied to the expansion of Capitalism/marketization at a similar time. Edward Bernays, Freud’s double nephew, is heralded as the the father of political/economic public relations and propaganda.

    I see the dangers of “benevolent” control freaks, but I am also suspicious of those who use people’s desire/belief in freedom or their potential for freedom for their own interests (the way Bernays and the analytically informed marketers worked.)

    As for “token economies,” that’s what we live in now. Money as valued capital/currency that allows different people with different access to its accumulation and flow leads particular kinds of people to make certain political/economic decisions, mostly for the benefit of the people who are configured to accumulate and direct the most capital, “aka ‘not necessarily benevolent control freaks.'”

    Report comment

  5. Bruce

    Another great post. Taking your last two posts together on the subjects of social control and anti-authoritians, especially young people, I would make the following observation:

    Many of the categories of today’s young people most susceptable to being instituionalized and/or drugged up on psych meds (alienated/traumatized/ counter culture/ deliquent/rebellious) are exactly the types of youth who became the core of activists and leaders of the historically powerful movements of the 1960’s. We must ask this vitally important question – Due to the damage done by the drugging of today’s youth are we in danger of losing part of the next generation of activists and potential creative agents of change? A very scary thought and just one more reason to redouble our efforts to defeat Biological Psychiatry.


    Report comment

  6. Hi Bruce,

    Excellent article, as always. I would like to add to Richard’s comment, that the leftover core of activists and leaders of this generation who have managed to escape psychiatric drugging (and therefore not necessarily silenced) will be lost to arrest and thrown into the many acres of new prisons that are purpose built for that reason.

    Report comment

  7. Bruce,

    Unfortunately, B.F. Skinner’s spirit (lack thereof) exists in many mainsteram mental health professionals.

    Re: Anti-authoritarian types

    Thank God some folks stand up and speak out when it comes to people who have no legitimate authority… and mental health professionals of the ‘B.F. Skinner School of Marginalization and Abuse’ have no legitimate authority!


    Report comment

  8. Mr. Levine, I haven’t read the entire essay yet because it’s important that I contact you regarding the highly abusive treatments I’ve been subject to by “mental health professionals.” I have never been institutionalized but I was the subject of an abusive encounter with a mental health professional in Warren, Ohio. Since then, I’ve been stalked and harassed by undercover law enforcement and “mental health professionals” both on line and in person. I am contacting you specifically because it has been indicated to me that what I’ve experienced is, in fact, a “behavior modification program,” something I never consented to. I need a legal advocate on my side. They have made me a social pariah by way of extensive defamation, so I never had witnesses to what they do, but I do have video that is substantial. I’ve contacted several attorneys who never reply. I have a list of names involved. Of course, their goal is to portray me as insane. Please, contact me at 415-601-9632.

    Report comment

  9. Now that I have read the essay, I can say that I am a direct subject of the behavior modification principles you write of. They have alienated me by way of defamation and keep me bored and dependent by preventing me from obtaining employment. They use covert operatives to provide positive and negative reinforcement for my actions which are under constant surveillance. I have been abused very badly by mental health professionals. Because of the alienation, I never have any witnesses and they rely on the fact that anyone I tell will assume I am insane. That’s how it works. I can explain to you further how they use insults and death threats to systematically destroy the subject’s self-esteem and other mind-control aspects of the my experience. For a time, they had me under direct and nearly complete mind-control, all without my consent. I have no privacy at all. Again, it has been suggested that I am the subject of a psychological experiment or study. I need a legal advocate on my side. They have succeeded in isolating me. Please, acknowledge me.

    Report comment