Operant Conditioning: Americans, Iranians, and Russians

Operant conditioning provides one of several explanations of human behavior. Libertarians rightly criticize B.F. Skinner, who did a great deal of scientific work on operant conditioning, when he attempts to extend his behaviorism to a complete explanation of all behavior that disregards the human will, mental states, intuition, freedom, imitation and non-behavioral ways of learning. Nevertheless, within limits his work is sound. For full disclosure, I took a complete course on operant conditioning from Skinner himself.

Operant conditioning may help us understand certain phenomena we observe. Basically, Skinner found that rewards after a behavior reinforce that behavior, increasing its occurrence. Punishments do the opposite. My previous post suggested that many Americans have been conditioned to approve of wars to exterminate what they see as evils. This is not a novel idea. Libertarian criticisms of public education for indoctrinating students, the mass media for spreading propaganda, and the government for creating propaganda, are implicitly criticizing ways in which Americans are conditioned (taught or trained) to be reinforced (rewarded) by various government actions. People can be taught to submit, give up freedom, and stop thinking and exercising their wills. Not only that, they can learn to like it. Orwell’s famous novel depicts such a situation in which Winston Smith is conditioned by using his fear of rats against him.

Operant conditioning changes what economists call a person’s scale of values or utility for various alternatives. Parents use this conditioning to raise children. They use affection, caresses, food, smiles, caring and attention to reinforce behavior. They also use grimaces, disapproval, punishments of various kinds, anger and other behaviors to reduce certain behaviors. Money is used. There are a great many things that become reinforcements by pairing them with other reinforcements that provide utility to people. Human beings learn to respond to verbal reinforcements alone, such as the word “good” after a person does something.

When it comes to American power and warfare, a good many Americans support the military establishment and its wars because they are rewarded by them. Their positive reinforcements cover a wide range. They may enjoy the idea of America being number one in raw power. Even if it doesn’t produce victories, it produces fireworks and displays of might. They may enjoy the idea of smiting some people thought of as evil. They may enjoy taking revenge for perceived wrongs. People have been taught to like security and order. They’ve been taught that self-defense is good, and that attacking evil anywhere is self-defense. There are all sorts of ideas and policies that can be sold to a public if it has been conditioned beforehand through the school systems that have taught allegiance, how to be a good citizen, and how to obey. The conditioning means that people feel good by acting this way and by supporting what their government does. Americans feel good merely by supporting their government, and they feel even better when the government seems to win some sort of victory or accomplish something.

When the government controls communications relating to war and hides the body bags, the funerals, the horrible wounds, the immense tragedies it inflicts, when reporters are embedded in combat units and no longer report the real war and instead glorify its warriors, when people are taught that sacrifice for the common good is a good thing, this is all to prevent negative reinforcement and provide positive reinforcement. Getting rid of the draft and replacing it with a volunteer armed force removed a huge negative reinforcement.

There is a massive apparatus in place that conditions people into American society and its values, which currently include continual war against continual evils.

The failure of Carter’s hostage rescue mission did not function as a powerful negative reinforcement. It didn’t significantly diminish the propensity to fight evils. It caused Americans to see Iran as a bigger evil than ever. The Vietnam War provided lots of negative reinforcement, but it didn’t “take”. Americans who were used to the high of a war “fix” continued to look for ways to gratify it. It is a fact that behavior that has been stamped in by previous positive reinforcement extinguishes very slowly when the reinforcements are removed or replaced by punishments. That is what was going on after Vietnam. Vietnam created public dissatisfaction and unease without significantly altering the basic behavior and desire to fight evils and to be gratified by the fight. That behavior could almost be kept intact by Hollywood’s tendency to produce heroic war films that outnumber the anti-war films. Thus, Iraq may be a big failure but “American Sniper” counteracts it and keeps the war-making behavior intact. War has been taught to be good, and if you support it, you are a good little boy or girl. The Grenada invasion in 1983 provided a positive reinforcement that began to counteract the effects of Vietnam. This was preceded and followed by a steady succession of U.S. military involvements on a small scale. The idea of the military being good was being rehabilitated. The government was providing small but effective positive reinforcements. The end of the Soviet Union provided another big boost.

American leaders have gotten used to conditioning the American public and they have the tools to do it, built right into the structure of American society, including the school system and the media. In their treatment of Iran and Russia with sanctions, these same leaders are attempting to punish these governments and peoples in order to cause them to behave or stop behaving in certain ways. They are applying the punishment side of operant conditioning in these cases. In these cases, the conditioning doesn’t work anywhere near as well or as effectively as with the American public. In the latter case, there is a long history to draw on and a heavy influence on policies and communications. For foreigners who have their own governments doing their own manipulations of their peoples, who have their own traditions, and who can often counteract the sanctions in various ways, they tend to stiffen their wills and bear the punishments or inflict counter-punishments of their own. Still, it’s interesting that American leaders who are so used to a compliant domestic public think that they can seriously impact the behavior of foreign countries with negative reinforcements in the form of sanctions. The behavior of American leaders is likewise conditioned. They gain by introducing sanctions even when the sanctions do not work or are counter-productive; but that is another story.

A reinforced behavior may be called a habit. With Americans, meddling in foreign countries has become a habit. Iraq and Afghanistan produced two large negative reinforcements, and these influenced the public’s aversion to joining in the Syrian war. As in the case of Vietnam, this aversion has not taken root as a generalized aversion to foreign interference. The public is ready to engage IS. Maybe it doesn’t realize that IS cannot be defeated without the introduction of American ground forces, and this has already occurred in Iraq. If some Americans are killed or captured by IS, the American public will easily be led into a much greater war effort against IS. Americans will not reflect on the fact that its leaders have placed American soldiers at risk of such an outcome in Iraq at this very moment. Their operant conditioning will take over.

Last Spring, Americans approved of sanctions on Russia and disapproved of arms for Ukraine. After months of demonizing Russia and/or Putin as an evil, 18% of Americans view Russia as America’s top threat. This is up from 2% in 2012. 70% of Americans have unfavorable views of Russia, the highest in 26 years.

Hate, anger and hostility may bring positive reinforcement in and of themselves for people who like to exhibit them or feel them. It may be a way for people to push fears aside or to displace their resentments and frustrations; this would be a positive reinforcement. America’s leaders supply Americans with a constant stream of enemies. If this is a rational political strategy, the reason for it may be that Americans have come to like having an enemy to hate. The military-industrial complex can sell hate alongside its weapons and services.


10:06 am on February 17, 2015