BF Skinner, Kids, and Politics

I’m looking forward to seeing my kids go to school someday. They have graduated from peanut to toddler and preschooler. It is at once a wonder and a little teary for me. I remember how cute they were as babies and how I used to walk around the house in the dark with their head on my shoulder to help them fall asleep with motion. Drool on my shoulder was a badge of honor for me. Now I see that school is on the far horizon for them and I want them to have a good experience there, too.

So I did some checking to see if corporal punishment is allowed in schools in the fair state of Utah. Happily, it is not. The literature suggests that schools did not give it up so willingly. Most states gave it up to avoid litigation that tends to empty their coffers for things that would be better spent somewhere else. Yet there are still 19 states that permit corporal punishment in our schools. Studies have shown there is a clear bias in meting out this punishment. People of color are far more likely to be paddled in school than anyone else, a trend that continues well into adulthood.

While digging around for this information, I happened upon this article from the Daily Herald in Utah. It’s a guest editorial by Julian Mercer, published astonishingly enough, in February of 2015. In his article, Mr. Mercer expresses his fondness for the good ol’ days when spanking was still cool and kids were under control. He likes to think that kids behave better when force is in the wings, waiting to strike should a kid cry, whine or complain in church. To wit:

I believe in spanking and I wish schools today would return to using the paddle. When I say spanking or paddle, I know many people jump to the erroneous conclusions of child abuse or battered children and want to report such activities, and so do I. I’m not advocating abuse but discipline.

I probably spanked my kids once or twice total, and that was all they needed, because it sent the message. After that, when they saw that look on my face, they settled right down. At church, they always had several choices: Being quiet was first and paramount, and to help with that process, they had quiet books, pencils, crayons and paper for drawing and snacks to eat. If nothing worked, then it was out for a spanking. For some reason they never chose the latter. They were able to amuse themselves.

I suspect Mr. Mercer is a bit optimistic about how often he has spanked his kids, but here is where it gets really interesting:

The behavioral psychologists B.F. Skinner learned what behavioral psychology really meant, by placing some chickens in a box with a red dot on the wall. As the chickens pecked the wall and hit the red dot, food would drop down.

Guess what happened.

The chickens continued pecking the red dot and nowhere else.

Like those chickens, people always go for the reward. Children soon learn this at a very early age, so that’s when negative reinforcement comes into play.

This is from a newspaper in Utah, a Red State no doubt. But these same people will tell you that they believe in America, the land of the free. On the other hand, they believe that people behave better if they know that physical punishment just a few steps away. Training kids to behave on the threat of force is not the way to teach kids about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I know this first hand.

Here we have a man advocating the same tactics used by BF Skinner to raise his kids in modern-day America. Be nice and you get the reward, for the alternative is pretty grim. Get out of line and we can talk about it quietly in the car or the restroom after a few good whacks. Notice that for this man, spanking is not something to be done in public, so I guess he might have a bit of shame about that. Or maybe not.

After I read that article, I was reminded of someone else who talks about BF Skinner: Harvard Professor, Larry Lessig. I know, I know. Some of you might not be pleased that Lessig offered pro bono legal counsel to get enough unfaithful electors in the Electoral College to vote for someone other than Trump in two days. That’s not likely to happen, but if it does, maybe they’ll have the good sense to elect Bernie Sanders instead.

Anyway, Lessig has been fond of pointing out how many members of our Congress are stuck in a sort of Skinner Box, a metaphor to describe the pickle that most members of Congress are in:

…members of Congress spend 30–70 percent of their time fundraising, Lessig noted, adding that they behave like animals in a “Skinner Box,” a device that doles out rewards (food) for animals that push the right buttons.

Gosh. That sounds a lot like the description that Mr. Mercer gave earlier about using reward and punishment for raising “good kids”. Now we see how that plays out in politics. Our politicians have become more interested in rewards than policy. Once a politician gets into that Skinner Box, they have no choice but to let that reward influence how they write and vote for public policy.

The results we see today are consistent with the Skinner Box metaphor described by Mr. Lessig. In this study, Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens, we discover that we reap what we sow. From the summary:

Each of four theoretical traditions in the study of American politics — which can be characterized as theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy, Economic-Elite Domination, and two types of interest-group pluralism, Majoritarian Pluralism and Biased Pluralism — offers different predictions about which sets of actors have how much influence over public policy: average citizens; economic elites; and organized interest groups, mass-based or business-oriented.

A great deal of empirical research speaks to the policy influence of one or another set of actors, but until recently it has not been possible to test these contrasting theoretical predictions against each other within a single statistical model. We report on an effort to do so, using a unique data set that includes measures of the key variables for 1,779 policy issues.

Multivariate analysis indicates that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy, while average citizens and mass-based interest groups have little or no independent influence. The results provide substantial support for theories of Economic-Elite Domination and for theories of Biased Pluralism, but not for theories of Majoritarian Electoral Democracy or Majoritarian Pluralism. (emphasis mine)

To rephrase what is said above in simple language: the average citizen has near-zero influence on the men and women who write public policy. The Skinner Box is the perfect metaphor to describe just how dependent our elected officials are on big money in politics.

Larry Lessig has created the SuperPAC to end all SuperPACs which can be found at He has advocated for strong anti-corruption laws with teeth that send people to prison for corruption. Unfortunately, there are too many people in positions of power to prevent that from happening nationwide. They just can’t bear to get off the gravy train.

It is also worth noting here that Bernie Sanders is not in the Skinner Box. He does not dial for dollars from members of the wealthy donor class. He has advocated for publicly funded elections and himself only takes small donations from average citizens. He has won at 14 elections on small donations. His focus is on policies that work for all of us, not rewards from people who want something else in return.

The behavior of our politicians is the signal, not the problem. The problem starts in the home and works up to politics that all of us have to deal with. Generations of kids have been raised on the reward and punishment pedagogy. These same kids grow up to get into positions of power and it shows. This is the end result of using reward and punishment to raise kids. You get a government that is more interested in rewards and punishments than in actually solving problems.

How do we stop this cycle and get off? We change our theories of how people behave. We make the assumption that kids would do better if they could. We assume that challenging behavior is the signal, not the problem and we investigate to find out what the real problems are.

How do we do all that? It won’t be easy, but life gets easier if we make some changes. Dr. Ross W. Greene is all over it in two books: The Explosive Child and Raising Human Beings. He’s got many more, but I’ve read these two, and they have completely changed my perspective on humanity. I believe that a change from reward and punishment to collaborative problem solving for kids will help to create a generation of kids that know how to avoid the Skinner Box. Such a change would create a generation of kids that understand that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot happen under duress.

Note that the principles taught in both of Dr. Greene’s books can be applied to adult relationships, too. This isn’t just about kids for me, this is about humanity.

Real change starts from the bottom up, and it starts with our kids.

Write on.

Originally published on Saturday, December 17, 2016, on my blog, The Digital Firehose. Published again on, July 25th, 2017. Updated for clarity, grammar and a few minor insights that appeared during editing.

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Husband, father, worker, philosopher, and observer. Plumbing the depths of consciousness to find the spring of happiness. Write on.

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