The Stakes Podcast: A History of Persuasion

AHP readers may be interested in a recent three-part series from the podcast The Stakes: “A History of Persuasion.” The series tackles the work of James McConnell and B.F. Skinner, and features interviews with, amongst others, historians of the human sciences Larry Stern (parts one and two) and Alexandra Rutherford (part three). Full details below.

Part One:

Infinite scrolling. Push notifications. Autoplay. Our devices and apps were designed to keep us engaged and looking for as long as possible. Now, we’ve woken up from years on social media and our phones to discover we’ve been manipulated by unaccountable powers using persuasive psychological tricks. But this isn’t the first time.

In this three-part series of The Stakes, we look at the winding story of the science of persuasion — and our collective reaction to it. In this episode: A once-famous psychologist who became embroiled in controversy, and how the Unabomber tried to kill him. Already heard this one?

Part Two:

Ted Kaczynski had been a boy genius. Then he became the Unabomber. After years of searching for him, the FBI finally caught him in his remote Montana cabin, along with thousands of pages of his writing. Those pages revealed Kaczynski’s hatred towards a field of psychology called “behaviorism,” the key to the link between him and James McConnell.

Part Three:

Silicon Valley’s so-called “millionaire maker” is a behavioral scientist who foresaw the power of putting persuasion at the heart of the tech world’s business model. But pull back the curtain that surrounds the industry’s behemoths, and you’ll find a cadre of engineers and executives that’s small enough to rein in. This is the final installment of our three-part series.

Between Shell Shock and PTSD? ‘Accident Neurosis’ and Its Sequelae in Post-War Britain

The August issue of Social History of Medicine includes a piece that may interest AHP readers:

Between Shell Shock and PTSD? ‘Accident Neurosis’ and Its Sequelae in Post-War Britain,” by Ryan Ross. Abstract:

This article focuses on the concept of ‘accident neurosis’, popularised by neurologist Henry Miller in studies published in 1961. It aims to realise two goals. First, it introduces Miller’s concept of accident neurosis to the broader history of trauma—to a field, that is, more preoccupied with military traumata and clear-cut psychiatric aetiologies. Secondly, I use Miller’s studies, and the considerable legacy they created, to reflect on how historians of trauma construct historical narratives, asking whether there is sufficient appreciation of the ways in which events seem to leak into or retroactively animate one another.

New History of the Human Sciences: Child Experts in the Swedish Press, Historiography of Brain and Mind Sciences

The July 2019 issue of History of the Human Sciences is now online. A number of articles in this issue may interest AHP readers, particularly Peter Skagius’s piece on the presence of child psychology and psychiatry experts in Swedish newspapers and Alfred Freeborn’s review article on the recent historiography on the brain and mind sciences. Full issue contents are detailed below.

“Social types and sociological analysis,” by Charles Turner. Abstract:

Social types, or types of persons, occupy a curious place in the history of sociology. There has never been any agreement on how they should be used, or what their import is. Yet the problems surrounding their use are instructive, symptomatic of key ambivalences at the heart of the sociological enterprise. These include a tension between theories of social order that privilege the division of labour and those that focus on large-scale cultural complexes; a tension between the analysis of society in terms of social groups and an acknowledgement of modern individualism; sociology’s location somewhere between literature and science; and sociology’s awkward response to the claim – made by both Catholic conservatives and Marxists – that modern industrial and post-industrial society cannot be a society of estates. These ambivalences may help to explain why the attempts to use social types for the purpose of cultural diagnosis – from the interesting portrait of arbitrarily selected positions in the division of labour to more ambitious guesswork about modern culture’s dominant ‘characters’ – have been unconvincing.

“‘That they will be capable of governing themselves’: Knowledge of Amerindian Difference and early modern arts of governance in the Spanish Colonial Antilles,” by Timothy Bowers Vasko. Abstract:

Contrary to conventional accounts, critical knowledge of the cultural differences of Amerindian peoples was not absent in the early Conquest of the Americas. It was indeed a constitutive element of that process. The knowledge, strategies, and institutions of early Conquest relied on, and reproduced, Amerindian difference within the Spanish Empire as an essential element of that empire’s continued claims to legitimate authority. I demonstrate this through a focus on three parallel and sometimes overlapping texts: Ramón Pané’s Indian Antiquities; Peter Martyr d’Anghierra’s First Decade; and the first systematic attempt to govern colonized populations in the Americas, the Laws of Burgos. Not only did each text furnish the necessary material upon which the claims to intellectual, and so civilizational, superiority that were central to the justification of empire could be sustained. What is more, they transformed Amerindian difference from an object of knowledge into a subject of governance.

“‘Mere chips from his workshop’: Gotthard Deutsch’s monumental card index of Jewish history,” by Jason Lustig. Abstract:

Gotthard Deutsch (1859–1921) taught at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati from 1891 until his death, where he produced a card index of 70,000 ‘facts’ of Jewish history. This article explores the biography of this artefact of research and poses the following question: Does Deutsch’s index constitute a great unwritten work of history, as some have claimed, or are the cards ultimately useless ‘chips from his workshop’? It may seem a curious relic of positivistic history, but closer examination allows us to interrogate the materiality of scholarly labor. The catalogue constitutes a total archive and highlights memory’s multiple registers, as both a prosthesis for personal recall and a symbol of a ‘human encyclopedia’. The article argues that this mostly forgotten scholar’s work had surprising repercussions: Deutsch’s student Jacob Rader Marcus (1896–1995) brought his teacher’s emphasis on facticity to the field of American Jewish history that he pioneered, catapulting a 19th-century positivism to the threshold of the 21st century. Deutsch’s index was at an inflection point of knowledge production, created as historians were shifting away from ‘facts’ but just before new technologies (also based on cards) enabled ‘big data’ on a larger scale. The article thus excavates a vision of monumentality but proposes we look past these objects as monuments to ‘heroic’ scholarship. Indeed, Deutsch’s index is massive but middling, especially when placed alongside those of Niklas Luhmann, Paul Otlet, or Gershom Scholem. It thus presents a necessary corrective to anointing such indexes as predecessors to the Internet and big data because we must keep their problematic positivism in perspective.

“Brains and psyches: Child psychological and psychiatric expertise in a Swedish newspaper, 1980–2008,” Peter Skagius. Abstract:

Most children and families have not had direct contact with child psychological and psychiatric experts. Instead they encounter developmental theories, etiological explanations and depictions of childhood disorders through indirect channels such as newspapers. Drawing on actor–network theory, this article explores two child psychological and psychiatric modes of ordering children’s mental health discernible in Sweden’s largest morning newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, during the years 1980 to 2008: a psychodynamic mode and a neuro-centered mode. In the article I show how these two relatively contemporaneous modes greatly differed in how they enacted children’s mental health. The psychodynamic mode stressed the parents’ role in structuring and affecting the child’s unconscious and saw them as the primary cause of any mental illness. In contrast, the neuro-centered mode highlighted that mental issues were related to the child’s brain and proposed different solutions depending on whether the child’s brain functioned in a ‘normal’ or ‘atypical’ manner. Each mode moreover suggested differing contexts to their discussions, with the psychodynamic mode solely discussing the parental milieu while the neuro-centered mode mainly focused on how society affected children with ‘atypical’ brains. The two modes thus had significantly diverging implications for the reader on how to understand and manage children and their psychological well-being. I further argue in the article for the relevance of actor–network theory in historical studies of psychology and psychiatry.

“The many lives of state capitalism: From classical Marxism to free-market advocacy,” by Nathan Sperber. Abstract:

State capitalism has recently come to the fore as a transversal research object in the social sciences. Renewed interest in the notion is evident across several disciplines, in scholarship addressing government interventionism in economic life in major developing countries. This emergent field of study on state capitalism, however, consistently bypasses the remarkable conceptual trajectory of the notion from the end of the 19th century to the present. This article proposes an intellectual-historical survey of state capitalism’s many lives across different ensembles of writing: early Marxist pronouncements on state capitalism at the time of the Second International; theories of state capitalism evolved in the first half of the 20th century in response to the European experience of war and fascism; dissident portrayals of the Soviet Union as state-capitalist; post-Second World War theories of state-monopoly capitalism in the Western Bloc; examinations of state capitalism as a development strategy in ‘Third World’ nations in the 1970s and 1980s; and finally, today’s scholarship on new patterns of state capitalism in emerging economies. Having contextualized each of these strands of writing, the article goes on to interrogate definitional and conceptual boundaries of state capitalism. It then maps out essential institutional features of state-capitalist configurations as construed in the literature. In sharp contrast to 20th-century theories of state capitalism, present-day scholarship on the topic tends to retreat from the integrated critique of political economy, shifting its problematics of state-market relations to meso- and micro-levels of analysis.

“Hannah Arendt, evil, and political resistance,” by Gavin Rae. Abstract:

While Hannah Arendt claimed to have abandoned her early conception of radical evil for a banal one, recent scholarship has questioned that conclusion. This article contributes to the debate by arguing that her conceptual alteration is best understood by engaging with the structure of norms subtending each conception. From this, I develop a compatibilist understanding that accounts for Arendt’s movement from a radical to a banal conception of evil, by claiming that it was because she came to reject the foundationalism of the former for the non-foundationalism of the latter, where norms are located from an ineffable ‘source’ diffusely spread throughout the society. While it might be thought that this means that such norms are all-encompassing to the extent that they determine individual action, I appeal to her notions of plurality, action, and natality, to argue that she defends the weaker claim that moral norms merely condition action. This demonstrates how Arendt’s conceptions of evil complement one another, highlights her understanding of the action–norms relation, and identifies that there is built into Arendt’s conception(s) of evil a resource for resisting totalitarian domination.

Review article: “The history of the brain and mind sciences,” by Alfred Freeborn. Abstract:

This review article critically surveys the following literature by placing it under the historiographical banner of ‘the history of the brain and mind sciences’: Fernando Vidal and Francisco Ortega, Being Brains: Making the Cerebral Subject (New York: Fordham University Press, 2017); Katja Guenther, Localization and its Discontents: A Genealogy of Psychoanalysis & the Neuro Disciplines (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); Stephen Casper and Delia Gavrus (eds), The History of the Brain and Mind Sciences: Technique, Technology, Therapy (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2017); Jonna Brenninkmeijer, Neurotechnologies of the Self: Mind, Brain and Subjectivity (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016). This framework highlights contemporary attempts to historicize the integrative project of neuroscience and set the correct limits to interdisciplinary collaboration. While attempts to critically engage with the ‘neuro’ rhetoric of contemporary neuroscientists can seem at odds with historians seeking to write the history of neuroscience from the margins, it is argued that together these two projects represent a positive historiographical direction for the history of the neurosciences after the decade of the brain.

How the Brain Lost Its Mind: Sex, Hysteria, and the Riddle of Mental Illness

AHP readers may be interested in a new book, How the Brain Lost Its Mind: Sex, Hysteria, and the Riddle of Mental Illness, written by neurologist Allan H. Ropper and mathematician Brian David Burrell. As the publisher describes:

How the Brain Lost Its Mind tells the rich and compelling story of two confounding ailments, syphilis and hysteria, and the extraordinary efforts to confront their effects on mental life. How does the mind work? Where does madness lie, in the brain or in the mind? How should it be treated?

Throughout the nineteenth century, syphilis–a disease of mad poets, musicians, and artists–swept through the highest and lowest rungs of European society like a plague. Known as “the Great Imitator,” it could produce almost any form of mental or physical illness, and it would bring down a host of famous and infamous characters–among them Guy de Maupassant, Vincent van Gogh, the Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Al Capone. It was the first truly psychiatric disease and it filled asylums to overflowing. At the same time, an outbreak of bizarre behaviors resembling epilepsy, but with no identifiable source in the body, strained the diagnostic skills of the great neurologists. It was referred to as hysteria.

For more than a century, neurosyphilis stood out as the archetype of a brain-based mental illness, fully understood but largely forgotten, and today far from gone. Hysteria, under many different names, remains unexplained and epidemic. These two conditions stand at opposite poles of the current debate over the role of the brain in mental illness. Hysteria led Freud to insert sex into psychology. Neurosyphilis led to the proliferation of mental institutions. The problem of managing the inmates led to the abuse of lobotomy and electroshock therapy, and ultimately the overuse of psychotropic drugs.

Today we know that syphilitic madness was a destructive disease of the brain while hysteria and, more broadly, many varieties of mental illness reside solely in the mind. Or do they? Afflictions once written off as “hysterical” continue to elude explanation. Addiction, alcoholism, autism, ADHD, Tourette syndrome, depression, and sociopathy, though regarded as brain-based, have not been proven to be so.

In these pages, the authors raise a host of philosophical and practical questions. What is the difference between a sick mind and a sick brain? If we understood everything about the brain, would we understand ourselves? By delving into an overlooked history, this book shows how neuroscience and brain scans alone cannot account for a robust mental life, or a deeply disturbed one.

Eysenck Controversy Continues

A recent review article and accompanying editorial in the Journal of Health Psychology, and a subsequent editorial in the British Medical Journal, may interest AHP readers. The pieces address Hans Eysenck and his colleague Ronald Grossarth-Maticek’s work on health topics and the call for an inquiry into the ethically and scientifically problematic findings reported in numerous publications. Full details below.

Personality and fatal diseases: Revisiting a scientific scandal,” by Anthony J Pelosi. Abstract:

During the 1980s and 1990s, Hans J Eysenck conducted a programme of research into the causes, prevention and treatment of fatal diseases in collaboration with one of his protégés, Ronald Grossarth-Maticek. This led to what must be the most astonishing series of findings ever published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature with effect sizes that have never otherwise been encounterered in biomedical research. This article outlines just some of these reported findings and signposts readers to extremely serious scientific and ethical criticisms that were published almost three decades ago. Confidential internal documents that have become available as a result of litigation against tobacco companies provide additional insights into this work. It is suggested that this research programme has led to one of the worst scientific scandals of all time. A call is made for a long overdue formal inquiry.

The Hans Eysenck affair: Time to correct the scientific record,” by David F Marks. Abstract:

The Journal of Health Psychology publishes here Dr Anthony Pelosi’s analysis of questionable science by one of the world’s best-known psychologists, the late Professor Hans J Eysenck. The provenance of a huge body of data produced by Eysenck and Ronald Grossarth-Maticek is highly controversial. In Open letters to King’s College London and the British Psychological Society, this editor is requesting a thorough investigation of the facts together with retraction or correction of 61 publications. Academic institutions have a conflict of interest concerning allegations of misconduct, which is why I believe that the only way forward is to have a National Research Integrity Ombudsperson to investigate allegations.

Hans Eysenck: controversialist or worse?,” by Richard Smith. No abstract.