Conditioning and Instinct.

Sigmund Freud

To home page.

Science Fiction dystopias.

H G Wells, the 'constructive socialist' made the attempt to renew the world in A Modern Utopia. It is almost the most boring book he ever wrote. As a critic pointed out, Wells protested against a static conception of society but his own social plan has no dynamism or sense of going any where. And I say that as one who found Wells' works, in all genres, consistently intelligent and enjoyable.

Wells did write dystopias, too. Like Huxley, his name is indissolubly linked to at least one of them,The Time Machine. The term, dystopia, was used by the Russian author, Yevgeny Zamyatin. We (1920) is his crucial contribution to the genre. Its collectivist prophecy and all its author's writings were banned in the young Communist state. Zamyatin's influence was Wells' science fictions. He was even known by his country-men as 'The English-man'.

We was the direct influence on Huxley's Brave New World, as well as George Orwell's 1984. Orwell picked up Zamyatin's message of total control and conformity and dwelled on what a dreary uncreative business it would be. But Zamyatin's book had a further message, which is the one that Huxley picked-up. Human society may not need to be forced to conform like a hive, because a hive may be made honey sweet. That is to say, a ruling class may sanction pleasures as inducements to conformity.

A striking difference between We and 1984 is the two dystopias' attitude to sex. In the former, sex is a recreation, provided-for in the couples' hive-like cells. In the latter, sex is a stolen pleasure, sought away from the all-seeing television eyes of Big Brother. A shabby puritanism, and the seeking to deny it, seemed so much a part of Orwell's own character. This is testified by writings on his forays into the lower middle class (Keep The Aspidistra Flying), working class (The Road To Wigan Pier), or unemployed and drifters (Down And Out In Paris And London).

Brave New World (1932) develops Zamyatin's theme of hedonism as an instrument of social control. Freud's stress on the importance of child sexuality becomes a pretext for the open encouragement of its expression in play.
The movies have been super-ceded by 'the feelies', which anticipate virtual reality. This gives a fantasy, rather than a reality, of control. Even self-control is lost, when the hedonist society ensures the habit is formed of never being able to deny pleasure.

The basic purpose of society is perverted. Instead of individuals benefiting by co-operation, which makes society worthwhile, individuality is subverted. People are cloned like spare parts for a social machine, according to an elite's preconceptions of the good society. Huxley didnt just say people were cloned to fit into higher or lower stations of life, as it pleased our Lord to call them to. (In the brave new world, Our Lord has become 'Our Ford', god of a mass production that includes human beings.)
Aldous Huxley gives a savvy account of genetics. But for his poor eyesight, he would have been a biologist, like other famed scientists in his family. In fact, about sixty years after Brave New World, cloning of a mammal was achieved.

The tone of the satire is rather bumptious. Coming from an intellectual aristocracy, Aldous Huxley perhaps didnt appreciate the benefits to the masses of mass production, pioneered by Henry Ford. And the movies were a bright spot in the lives of millions in the Great Depression. Huxley reviewed the first big 'talkie', The Jazz Singer (1927). He shows-off his knowledge of the development, or rather degeneration, as he would have it, of opera into popular music.

This is surely wrong. No one period of composing is made up solely of master-pieces. The aristocratic patronage of the arts surely had its full complement of derivative work, no longer around to hold up to ridicule. America has its own twentieth century classical repertoire of popular music. The younger Huxley was a creature of the blasť twenties, determined not to be impressed by this entertainment revolution. Yet his review betrays a suppressed excitement from seeing his first talkie.

Pioneering American popular culture and technology deserves a good word. But Brave New World remains prophetic against Western hedonist society and its addictions, destructive of self-control and the entire well-being of the planet. Huxley was among the first to bemoan the heedless plunder of natural resources. And it features in the plot of Island.

I am tempted into a digression, here. When the year 1984 arrived, the British Prime Minister, of the time, Margaret Thatcher announced Orwell was wrong. Yet in the last days, leading up to the 2001 election, she, of all people, warned of an 'elective dictatorship', if Labour won the landslide that the polls were predicting.

I'm not saying she was wrong. 'The price of liberty is eternal vigilance.' Early in the campaign, Labour leader Tony Blair said, in an interview with David Frost: If he had to choose, he would rather be called a dictator than weak.
Of course, Orwell didnt mean his warning against the power of the party to apply to any one year in particular. He said the only reason, he called his novel 1984, was that it was 1948, when he wrote it, and he just changed round the four and the eight.

And 1984 is like 1948, in bombed-out, run-down and austere Britain, still not recovered from world war two. Eastern Europe also endured that war and its dictatorial one-party states took much longer to emerge from its trauma and end the Cold War. So, 1984 seemed prophetic against war dictatorship, because portraying its bleak inception.

Totalitarian and hedonist conditioning.

Back to top of page.

Zamyatin's SF classic is not just a warning against collectivism, as the title would suggest. Orwell only picked-up half its message to elaborate on. In behaviorist psychology, there are two types of conditioning. One is Pavlovian or classical conditioning. This is the one that straps a dog so it cannot move and is only the passive receptor of stimuli, that it has to learn to discriminate. The dog learns a conditioned response, such as to salivate at just the signal that dinner is about to be served.

If the psychological tests of discrimination become too hard or fine, the helpless animal eventually suffers a nervous break-down. This can occur by excess inhibition, like the trade union 'go-slow' in protest at management's treatment. Britain, with its lack of industrial democracy or worker participation, was a fertile source of this type of response. The other possibility is excess excitation or revolt. The poor dog can only go barking mad, to show how impossibly it has been treated.

Obviously, this is an extreme model of totalitarianism and might be called totalitarian conditioning. But there is another kind of conditioning, called Skinnerian conditioning or operant or instrumental conditioning. This originated not in Pavlov's Russia but Skinner's America. The watch-words of these two types of conditioning might be 'obedience' and 'pleasure'. It is said that Russia's current president, Vladimir Putin wants to instill obedience.

Conditioning, American style, has its prototype in the laboratory rat in a box, who learns by chance that if a lever is pressed, food will be released. Frequently, this leads to obsessive behavior. The wee beast keeps frantically pressing for more food. This (like sex) offers the maximum of pleasure for the minimum of effort. Our rat has been conditioned to become a hedonist: we have hedonist conditioning, as it might be called.

Unlike Pavlov's dogs, Skinner's rats and pigeons are free to move about but only in the narrow confines of a box or the laboratory. They are free only to pursue their pleasures. Like totalitarian conditioning, hedonist conditioning has its frustrations. If the lever doesnt produce any more food rewards, chimpanzees behave like people who kick a vending machine, when it doesnt supply the food or drink for their coin. They keep kicking, more out of rage than with any hope left of results.


Back to top of page.

Some psychologists themselves revolted from the frustrations of the laboratory conditioning of animals, with its restriction on learning their behavior in the wild. Hence, the science of ethology was founded to study animals in their natural habitat. A founding father was Konrad Lorenz. He was an Austrian, held as a prisoner of war after the second world war. In his cell, he, the psychologist found himself observed by rats.

Zoologist and former zoo custodian (I almost said inmate) Desmond Morris gave a good survey of the subject in his run-away best-seller, which he had the sense to call The Naked Ape. I dont think he mentioned the name, ethology.

Skinner certainly believed in his own psychology, writing a book 'Beyond Freedom and Dignity' to propose it not only for laboratory rats but for human society. I admit I have not read this book ( nor have I read the speeches of Mr Putin, it is fair to say ). Also, I have foregone Skinner's popular fiction of the good society, 'Waldo 2'. Our college tutor said it wasnt much good. And I'm sure Ralph Waldo Emerson would have disapproved of his name being taken in vain.

Nevertheless, I regret shunning the opportunity to see B F Skinner's traveling circus. Yes, I know this student did the politically correct thing, by staying away, and I dont deride that. But sometimes a man is better than his philosophy. (This was true of our own college Behaviorist.) And I might have learned something -- and not by conditioning!

During the Cold War between the super-powers, the rivalry of the USSR and the USA extended to their respective Pavlovian and Skinnerian psychologists. When a summit was held, the Soviets and the Americans each had their own commemorative monuments. Doves, being symbolic of peace, were trained Pavlov-style onto the Soviet statue and Skinner-style onto the American statue.

Someone in the Soviet camp had the idea of conditioning all the American pigeons onto the Soviet monolith, as if they had a monopoly of peacefulness. But that also gave the American monument a monopoly of cleanliness.

Totalitarian and hedonist forms of Behavioral conditioning were like satires on their respective societies. But the ethologists found cause to reflect on the super-power rivalry, from their studies of the ways animals deal with their conflicts. Niko Tinbergen's herring gulls, caught between fight and flight, have to spend their nervous energy on seemingly irrelevant activities, like simulated nest-building. This involves violent activity such as pulling at grass or violent pecking the ground. The agitated gull would even pull at the guy rope of Tinbergen's hide. 'The result was rather like an earthquake.' Tinbergen also comments:

Man, who keeps himself "under control" (or at any rate prides himself that he does) can suspend action more or less, though only with considerable strain.

Lorenz deemed the space race a displacement activity, whereby aggressive rivalry was re-directed into hopefully harmless channels. Werner von Braun said his rockets were aimed in the wrong direction. He meant they should have been aimed for journeys into space. (They aim for the stars -- but hit London, as was sarcastically said of the biopic of the German V1 and V2 rocket inventor.)

Lorenz, On Aggression, said that animals which have grown powerful weapons, in their claws or beaks, also have powerful inhibitions against using them damagingly against their own kind. Human beings are not powerfully armed creatures, so they have not evolved these inhibitions. Their sudden ability, to use tools as weapons, has not given human evolution time enough to develop correspondingly strong hereditary restraints against their use. Face to face relations are something of a restraint but weapons have become long-range and impersonal, so that using them is not impeded so effectively as seeing closely the effect of one's aggression on another person.

The revival of instinct psychology.

Back to top of page.

Rivalry extended into the life sciences themselves. Besides the super-power rivalries between behaviorists, the behaviorists dismissed the ethologists, for not working under laboratory-controlled conditions -- the same argument they used against psycho-analysis. But, of course, some of the oldest science, including astronomy, is not conducted in a laboratory. Ethology, like astronomy, is essentially observational. A fore-runner of ethology was instinct psychology.

Sigmund Freud was a contemporary of the instinct school. He emphasised sex as an instinct, observing its influence, especially on family behavior from early childhood. His treatment of mental disorders is to make patients aware that their behavior is governed by instinctive or primeval sexual motives. Their civilized values may forbid such animality. Patients, who dont want to relinquish tabued wishes may merely forbid themselves to recognise them in themselves.

Hence, the conflict has not been removed and the forbidden desires remain active for mischief, manifesting themselves in neurotic behavior.
Such personality disorders are personal rituals, which symbolically go thru the motions of the repressed wishes, as an emotional release. The psycho-analyst's experience may interpret these emotional expressions and tactfully try to get the patient to come to terms with their real meaning.

These ritual neuroses compare to the 'displacement activities' observed by ethologists. Indeed, Lorenz was influenced by Freud's thought, such as on the basis of aggression in sexual competition.

Instinct psychology went out of fashion because pioneering psychologists tended to compile arbitrary lists of instincts.
Never the less, Ive noticed a shock reaction, in myself, when a piece of hose has twisted like a live snake or something tumble-out like an attacking insect or spider. There was no time to think what these things might be and there was no past experience of poisonous spiders or snakes to condition me to such instant reactions. So, it seems reasonable to suppose that there is an inherited fear of these dangerous creatures, that programs an instant and possibly life-saving response. Such a genetic program could have been subject to natural selection.

Likewise, dogs chase after someone running, which activates their instinct for the chase. Men and women seem to have a hunting instinct. If you are running in the street, you may notice passers-by automatically make a move to block your way. They instinctively react to prey to be caught. This obviously would have survival value, that might be naturally selected. Those with good manners check themselves from causing an obstruction.

Those who are a prey to their instincts may not realise the real reason they cause trouble. The urbanised hunter may rationalise his behavior as justified against someone he sees as an enemy or moral inferior. Altho women do appear to share the obstructive reaction to a runner, a hunting instinct appears to be far less strong in them, judging by how much less warring they are. Their admiration, of the martial qualities in their men-folk, is another matter.

Behaviorism was a perhaps excessive reaction against instinct psychology, believing most behavior traits could be explained as conditioning by the environment. An exception is Hans Eysenck, a Pavlovian behaviorist, who believes heredity a much more important determinant than environment.
The traditional behaviorist believed the difference in human beings is merely that some take longer than others to learn. This was taken to ridiculous extremes in the idea of chimps producing chance master-pieces on type-writers, given the time. It is reminiscent of Dean Swift's satire on scientists in Gulliver's Travels.

Swift's influence can be traced on Wells' early scientific romances. And Huxley's SF novel, After Many A Summer, follows-up Swift's portrayal of longevity, in one of the later stories of the Travels.

Noam Chomsky criticised the behaviorist theory of language that infants were conditioned to learn language. Children do make random sounds that happen to be the phonemes of certain languages. R G Collingwood once remarked he had heard a baby, that couldnt talk, trying out a sound peculiar to Arabic. The behaviorists pointed out that the parents are likely to reward a baby with attention, when it happens to make sounds meaningful to their particular language.

Moreover, children dont learn language by being tutored in the finer points of syntax. The learning is largely unconscious. Nevertheless, the wild boy, found in the woods, who has never heard human speech, cannot learn to talk. So it seems that there is an in-born language-learning program that is part of human development, and must be activated in childhood or it will not operate. The implication is that there are universal rules of language, somehow coded in the genes, which enable every child to pick up any human language they are exposed to.

Richard Lung.

Back to top of page.

Back to home page.