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.
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?
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.
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.
AHP readers may be interested in a recent book on the history of addiction. The Age of Addiction: How Bad Habits Became Big Business by David T. Courtwright. Courtwright was also just interviewed by Lucas Richert on a recent episode of the New Books Network podcast series.
The book is described as follows:
We live in an age of addiction, from compulsive gaming and shopping to binge eating and opioid abuse. Sugar can be as habit-forming as cocaine, researchers tell us, and social media apps are hooking our kids. But what can we do to resist temptations that insidiously and deliberately rewire our brains? Nothing, David Courtwright says, unless we understand the history and character of the global enterprises that create and cater to our bad habits.
The Age of Addiction chronicles the triumph of what Courtwright calls “limbic capitalism,” the growing network of competitive businesses targeting the brain pathways responsible for feeling, motivation, and long-term memory. We see its success in Purdue Pharma’s pain pills, in McDonald’s engineered burgers, and in Tencent video games from China. All capitalize on the ancient quest to discover, cultivate, and refine new and habituating pleasures. The business of satisfying desire assumed a more sinister aspect with the rise of long-distance trade, plantation slavery, anonymous cities, large corporations, and sophisticated marketing. Multinational industries, often with the help of complicit governments and criminal organizations, have multiplied and cheapened seductive forms of brain reward, from junk food to pornography. The internet has brought new addictions: in 2018, the World Health Organization added “gaming disorder” to its International Classification of Diseases.
Courtwright holds out hope that limbic capitalism can be contained by organized opposition from across the political spectrum. Progressives, nationalists, and traditionalists have made common cause against the purveyors of addiction before. They could do it again.
The Hidden Persuaders project has posted a series of six podcasts from their recent symposium on Child Psychoanalysis, Observation and Visual Culture. As they describe it,
We were interested to consider, from a historical perspective, how ideas about close observation, child development, and the nature/nurture debate have evolved since 1945. Our focus was largely on clinical and theoretical developments in the post-war decades, including the fields of baby observation, cinematic microanalysis, play technique and the therapeutic use of children’s art.
More generally, this symposium explored a new strand of research within the Hidden Persuaders group, which focuses on how notions of thought control, autonomy and influence change when we consider not only the psychology of adults, but also of children and adolescents. We examine how questions of nurture rather than nature became vitally important after 1945, as societies began to construct a moral vision for a new generation of Cold War babies. We also explore the legacies of these debates for visions of the self, and for child psychiatry and psychotherapy today. This work aims to provoke debate and reflection on historical and contemporary attitudes to the shaping of the mind during childhood and adolescence, opening up a space for discussion about the origins of both psychological harm and mental health.
Episodes can be found online here.
AHP readers may be interested in comedian Rob Newman’s Total Eclipse of Descartes which tackles, among other things, Cyril Burt’s twin research.