Saturday, February 11, 2006

Ethics of Engineering the Illusion of Choice In life and In Applied Behavior Analysis

What if we had no free will? What if our actions were determined by a combination of genetic and environmental factors. What if, the environment in our lives interacted with our cognition and other biological systems to produce outcomes that give us the illusion of choice, but with no choice is truly present.

If this is true are we “hoist by our own petard”? Have we usurped humanity? Are we automatons by default? Is there reason to still exist? Are these just some silly questions that no one besides young college students ask? Is this just one of those “Yeah it is good to think about it, but you can’t take these things too seriously or you will end up huddled on a mountain in a small wooden shack frantically writing an obscure philosophy manifesto, or worse, become a University professor” type of thing?

So, who cares? Well, I care. I care because, these things affect in large or small way, real people. It is way beyond the scope of this University student to write about these things in depth, but I will talk about one instance where this applies and rather directly affects real people. In this post I will look at an issue from the perspective that free will does not exist.

Behavior analysts have found a strange effect where people will prefer to use slot machines that have buttons to stop the wheels. The wheels are moving way too fast for the people to have any chance of actually influencing where the wheels stop, their odds of winning are no better than chance. Folks seem to prefer this over the simple crank handle slot machines. I think I would too, to be honest. The research on this is still ongoing, so I am unable to provide a specific citation.

The implications for this are huge. Based on this, it seems people would prefer the image of control rather than the image of no control. Is this true in other parts of life? It matches with my experiences; I will leave the reader to assess whether this matches with their own.

Now here is the catch; if this is what people prefer and we are dealing with an disagreeable system, is the solution to engineer the environment so that the image of choice is present? I will argue in brief, that the answer is “no” and explain why.

The reason is that this is a form of dishonesty. In this case the dishonesty removes from the relevant person the opportunity to make a more informed selection, it nullifies consent. I argue that such a removal is unethical. I also, note that this does not imply choice is real, but it does imply that the way people experience things are important, and that these experiences are partially used to define ethics.

In present mental health, informed consent is required of caregivers of minors or of adults who are institutionalized. They have no consent to give in this case. The ethics of this merit their own discussion. In this case, they are relevant because, it makes these persons most vulnerable to abuse from this technique.


Blogger Estee Klar-Wolfond said...

Very interesting approach to this argument. I hope you will expand...this post deserves a paper. Is the ABA a mere reflection of choice? An image, and therefore unreal? What about Platos cave? You've got me thinking...


6:46 AM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Estee,

Thank you for reading my post.

This post is about something that is not a problem in ABA yet, but could be in the semi-distant future.

"Free will" can not be disproven, neither can "no free will". They are not scientific for this reason; but they are important as they affect our view of "choice", and also how we act toward others.

Plato's cave is in full effect here. The issues that underline this topic are very much shadows on the wall.

This post is the first in a series on behavior analysis and autism. They are loosely connected, although the topics are different. You might find them partially relevant to some of the questions you pose. The next one should be up within 24 hours and is about removing punishment in our environments.

11:07 AM  
Blogger Alyric said...

Sorry I missed this. Just a question - have you been reading Skinner's 'Beyond Freedom and Dignity' recently? (Wonder if i have that title right) His philosophy sure aint my philosophy and though I'm not at all fond of Ayn Rand, she does a stirling job of exposing the skeletal bones of Skinner's arguments

10:23 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Alyric,

Beyond Freedom and Dignity is an amazing book in some ways, but is terribly misunderstood and misquoted. It also reflects Skinner's humor in its title. He is kind of saying "Double dog dare you to read this one". He came to regret the title after some time. I regret it too. It affected a the way a book about getting rid of punishment is seen as a book about taking over the world.

That book was not about why dignity and freedom were unimportant, but rather, about how we understand those things.

I really dislike Ayn Rands critique of it, (I read it elsewhere on the net just after I read the book a few years ago) and this was pre my behavior analytic days. It wwas pretty clear that she flubbed it start to finish.
This is true for her other critiques of Skinner's work as well.

I always advise people to read the book for themself. Two things things should be immediately clear, 1. Skinner isn't advising us to give up freedom and dignity, 2. He is not trying to take anything away from us except punishment.

To be honest I donlt like that net site
at all. They offer incorrect information about Skinner and the baby box that 30 thirty seconds on searching the internet can prove totally wrong.

I see this as dishonest, they have no excuse to still promote this.

Hope that helps a little.

7:24 AM  
Blogger Alyric said...

Hi IV (and no you're not a drip:)

This needs a bit of thinking, but I can't help noting that your defence of 'Beyond Freedom and Dignity' seems to parallel McCorquodale's (?sp) defence of 'Verbal Behaviour'. On the face of it when the criticism runs high you get this 'aw shucks, we didn't really mean it - we wuz misunderstood. Reading Malott, I also get the idea really strongly that a la behaviorism, things like freedom, volition and dignity are illusory and that is totally consistent with the ethos of behaviorism.

BTW, what baby box?

3:50 PM  
Blogger Interverbal said...

Hi Alyric,

I won’t apologize too much for Skinner. He was being “exhibitionistic” (his words) with his title. He has to (or rather had to) deal with the fallout. However, this isn’t a case of Skinner implying that he didn’t really mean it. His title is technically correct; he was arguing beyond what is usually discussed as dignity and freedom. He was pointing out what things constituted dignity and freedom.

Dr. Malott, like Skinner, is very polarizing. However, to me (I was a student of Dr. Malott’s) Skinner and Malott seem as different as night and day. Malott advocates for aversives in the performance management world. Things like paying a fine if you don’t successfully work-out everyday.

I am a behavior analyst as well as a radical behaviorist. I would never state/act as if, dignity and freedom were useless things.

Like Skinner I am skeptical of whether we truly have free will. Also like Skinner, I do not see this as an invitation to engineer environments in a way that offers stress, pain, or sadness. That was the point in Skinner’s book and I think is a deeply ethical one.

The baby box was a crib that Skinner made out of glass and that heated and moisturized the air as it entered the box. The logic being that Skinner’s daughter could sleep and play in it, for the same amount of time any baby would spend in a crib, except this one is much more pleasant.

Skinner being the creator of the rat box, people went berserk about this and there were wild accusations that Skinner was experimenting on his daughter(s).

The rumor went on that the younger one went crazy and killed herself. In fact she lives in London and is an artist and has a family. Her older sibling is a famous behavior analyst in her own right (she is a prof of mainstream education).

9:47 PM  
Blogger Alyric said...

Thanks for the explanation re the baby box - very interesting and not too surprising given what folks 'want' to believe. I'm having a great big think about all things behaviorist right now because it dawned on me that though ABA and therefore behaviorism (philosophically identical) are not relevant to my situation - that's no excuse for ignorance and it's relevant anyway since I'm a member of homo sapiens and this remnant of logical positivism applies to anyone. Not btw that I plan anytime soon on adopting the philosophies of Pinker Sagan or Chomsky.

10:17 PM  

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