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> Excerpt from Walden Two

Excerpt from Walden Two

The following excerpt from Walden Two is a perfect example of how the meme Don't Fight Your Mind can be applied to a particular fact about the mind, the principle Out of Sight, Out of Mind.

“We found a few suggestions worth following in the practices of the clinical psychologist. We undertook to build a tolerance for annoying experiences. The sunshine of midday is extremely painful if you come from a dark room, but take it in easy stages and you can avoid pain altogether. The analogy can be misleading, but in much the same way it's possible to build a tolerance to painful or distasteful stimuli, or to frustration, or to situations which arouse fear, anger, or rage. Society and nature throw these annoyances at the individual with no regard for the development of tolerances. Some achieve tolerances, most fail. Where would the science of immunization be if it followed a schedule of accidental dosages?

“Take the principle of ‘Get thee behind me, Satan,’ for example,” Frazier continued. “It's a special case of self-control by altering the environment. Subclass A 3, I believe. We give each child a lollipop which has been dipped in powdered sugar so that a single touch of the tongue can be detected. We tell him he may eat the lollipop later in the day, provided it hasn't already been licked. Since the child is only three or four, it is a fairly diff—”

“Three or four!” Castle exclaimed.

“All our ethical training is completed by the age of six,” said Frazier quietly. “A simple principle like putting temptation out of sight would be acquired before four. But at such an early age the problem of not licking the lollipop isn't easy. Now, what would you do, Mr. Castle, in a similar situation?”

“Put the lollipop out of sight as quickly as possible.”

“Exactly. I can see you've been well trained. Or perhaps you discovered the principle for yourself. … ”


“ … Concealing a tempting but forbidden object is a crude solution. For one thing, it's not always feasible. We want a sort of psychological concealment—covering up the candy by paying no attention. … ”

It should be clear that the story is didactic, not fictional, and that's how I chose to rate it. Skinner himself describes it as such in the introduction.

… an account of how I thought a group of, say, a thousand people might have solved the problems of their daily lives with the help of behavioral engineering.

Skinner is famous as a behaviorist; I'm not one, myself, but that doesn't stop me from learning from him. (I'd say “from detaching his ideas”, but I don't get the feeling they were strongly attached in the first place.) For reference, here's what my dictionary had to say about behaviorism:

The psychological school holding that objectively observable organismic behavior constitutes the essential or exclusive scientific basis of psychological data and investigation and stressing the role of environment as a determinant of human and animal behavior.

According to this definition, there are two points to behaviorism, the use of objective observation and the environment as a determinant; I think both are valid but overstated. I think there are useful things to be learned from subjective observation, i.e., introspection, but I'm not sure I'd want to try and build a science on top of the results. What gets me about the second point is the word “determinant”, which suggests determinism, and determinism, even though demolished by the randomness in quantum mechanics, still sounds like a lack of free will … and until we really, completely understand consciousness, I'm sticking with the subjectively plausible assumption that I have free will. Stressing the environment as the determinant also bugs me. The exact balance point between nature and nurture can be debated, but I don't think I'd emphasize one over the other. (There are some related thoughts in The Mind.)

The thing I like about Skinner's book, as you can probably tell, is his interest in the practical application of facts about the mind. In my cosmology, this is an aspect of memetic engineering.


  See Also

  Don't Resist Temptation?
  Out of Sight, Out of Mind

@ June (2000)