Control and countercontrol
Extract from B. F. Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity from 1971,
chapter The Design of a culture
..The archetypal pattern of control for the good of the controllee is the benevolent dictator, but it is no explanation to say that he acts benevolently because he feels benevolent, and we naturally remain suspicious until we can point to contingencies which generate benevolent behavior. Feelings of benevolence or compassion may accompany that behavior, but they may also arise from irrelevant conditions. They are therefore no guarantee that a controller will necessarily control well with respect to either himself or others because he feels compassionate. It is said that Ramakrishna, walking with a wealthy friend, was shocked by the poverty of some villagers. He exclaimed to his friend, "Give these people one piece of cloth and one good meal each, and some oil for their heads." When his friend at first refused, Ramakrishna shed tears, "You wretch," he cried, "...I'm staying with these people. They have no one to care for them. I won't leave them." We note that Ramakrishna was concerned not with the spiritual condition of the villagers but with clothing, food, and protection against the sun. But his feelings were not a by-product of effective action; with all the power of his samadhi he had nothing to offer but compassion. Although cultures are improved by people whose wisdom and compassion may supply clues to what they do or will do, the ultimate improvement comes from the environment which makes them wise and compassionate. The great problem is to arrange effective countercontrol and hence to bring some important consequences to bear on the behavior of the controller. Some classical examples of a lack of balance between control and countercontrol arise when control is delegated and countercontrol then becomes ineffective. Hospitals for psychotics and homes for retardates, orphans, and old people are noted for weak countercontrol, because those who are concerned for the welfare of such people often do not know what is happening. Prisons offer little opportunity for countercontrol, as the commonest controlling measures indicate. Control and countercontrol tend to become dislocated when control is taken over by organized agencies. Informal contingencies are subject to quick adjustments as their effects change, but the contingencies which organizations leave to specialists may be untouched by many of the consequences. Those who pay for education, for example, may lose touch with what is taught and with the methods used. The teacher is subject only to the countercontrol exerted by the student. As a result, a school may become wholly autocratic or wholly anarchistic, and what is taught may go out of date as the world changes or be reduced to the things students will consent to study.
(skipping a few pages)
Attacking controlling practices is, of course, a form
of countercontrol. It may have immeasurable benefits
if better controlling practices are thereby selected.
But the literatures of freedom and dignity have made
the mistake of supposing that they are suppressing
control rather than correcting it. The reciprocal control
through which a culture evolves is then disturbed.
To refuse to exercise available control because in
some sense all control is wrong is to whithhold possibly
important forms of countercontrol. We have seen some
of the consequences. Punitive measures, which the
literatures of freedom and dignity have otherwise
helped to eliminate, are instead promoted. A preference
for methods which make control inconspicuous
or allow it to be disguised has condemned those
who are in a position to exert constructive countercontrol
to the use of weak measures.
This could be a lethal cultural mutation. Our culture
has produced the science and technology it needs
to save itself. It has the wealth needed for effective
action. It has, to a considerable, a concern for
its own future. But if it continues to take freedom or
dignity, rather than its own survival, as its principal
value, then it is possible that some other culture will
make a greater contribution to the future. The defender
of freedom and dignity may then, like Milton's
Satan, continue to tell himself that he has "a mind
not to be changed by place or time" and an allsufficient
personal identity ("What matter where, if
I be still the same?"), but he will nevertheless find
himself in hell with no other consolation than the illusion that
"here at least we shall be free."
Acknowledgements Preparation of this book was supported by the National Institutes of Mental Health, Grant number K6-MH-21, 775-01. Earlier discussions of som points will be found in "Freedom and the Control of Men," The American Scholar (winter 1955-56); "The Control of Human Behavior" (with Carl R. Rogers), Science, 1956,124,1057-1066; "The Desaign of Cultures," Daedalus (161 summer issue); and Section VI of Science anmd Human Behavior. The Mead-Swing Lectures given at Oberlin College in October 1959 were on the same theme. For editorial and other help in the preparation of the manuscript I am much indebted to Carole L. Smith, and for a critical reading to Georg C. Homans. ABOUT THE AUTHOR A pioneer in the field of operant psychology, Dr. B. F. SKINNER bases his challenging arguments on the results of research that led to the invention of his teaching machine, the Air Crib (a mechanical baby tender), and to trace changes in animal behavior). Since 1948, Dr. Skinner has taught at Harvard, where he is now Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology. Text on front cover: A stunning new plan to alter human behavior.