Kicking the Behaviourism Habit

imageA habit is something we do without thinking, if we know we are thinking of a behaviour as we do it, then it’s not a habit.

The nature of habits and the human unconscious remains a mystery to the Discipline of Neuroscience. Indeed, simplistic pop psych books like Duhigg’s The Power of Habit and Kahneman’s Fast and Slow miss the ‘wicked’ nature of the human unconscious and the collective unconscious. Both texts come from the ‘fix it’ school of black and white. The agendas in both Kahneman’s Behavioural Economics and Dihigg’s Behaviourism remain hidden to the undiscerning reader but be reassured, the foundation is behaviourism.

Nothing about humans is simple, black and white or fast and slow. If anything, fallible humans are caught in a paradox floating in the middle. Humans as embodied minds simply don’t work according to some behaviourist ‘model’ or ‘formula’. Wouldn’t it be easy if we could just empty our prisons of people with bad habits with just a punishment reward mechanism? That’s what is done now, and it doesn’t work.

There is still so much we do not know about the human mind and unconscious and if someone is speaking certainties about the unconscious retranslate as ‘speculation’ and voodoo salesperson.

The notion of habit is tied to many unpredictable qualities of being a fallible human namely: cognitive bias, social influences, environmental context, semisophere, collective unconscious, gender, culture, implicit knowing, semantics, personality, psyche, habitus, discourse, human mind-embodiment, symbolism and dreaming. If you want to know just how mystical and unknown the unconscious is just delve into dreaming and find out what we don’t know about it. Tackling the human unconscious is a wicked problem. If you want to learn more about habits then start studying and researching in any of these areas mentioned above and for god sake don’t read what Safety says.

Hey, but let’s not let the assumptions of behaviourism get in the way of reality.

It is impossible to be human and not have habits. Habits by nature are not known to us and so are only known to others. The only way one knows a habit is through socialitie. The idea that one can be self-aware of a habit and then change it through some behaviourist mechanism is laughable. It is misleading to talk about ‘cures’ for habits or the ‘neurology of free will’, both terms Duhigg champions are simplistic and not true. The subject-object dialectic and free-will determinism dialectic are unsolvable. When you get to the end of Duhigg’s book its all about behaviours and rewards. The trouble is, habits and change don’t work like that and we know it through our own habits.

Just try to change a smoker, gambler, alcoholic, drug addict or any mental health issue or habit using behaviourism and see how it goes. It’s mostly hit and miss, humans are not machines or objects.

Of course there is one habit that Safety has been addicted to for 30 years and that habit is behaviourism ( If there was ever a habit that needed kicking it is this delusional ideology that treats people as objects. When you define culture as behaviours (what we do around here) you set in place a program of workplace toxicity. Read any newsletter from any safety source and there it is, Safety in love with behaviourism.

Dr Rob Long

Dr Rob Long

Expert in Social Psychology, Principal & Trainer at Human Dymensions
Dr Rob Long

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Dr Rob Long
PhD., MEd., MOH., BEd., BTh., Dip T., Dip Min., Cert IV TAA, MRMIA Rob is the founder of Human Dymensions and has extensive experience, qualifications and expertise across a range of sectors including government, education, corporate, industry and community sectors over 30 years. Rob has worked at all levels of the education and training sector including serving on various post graduate executive, post graduate supervision, post graduate course design and implementation programs.

21 Replies to “Kicking the Behaviourism Habit”

    1. Spot on! I wish I could apologise to all those I was forced to observe with my clipboard many years ago. Now I know that there is a name for what I mostly observed – the Hawthorne effect

  1. There are many schools of psychology Safety could follow but the desire is only for one – the one that masks zero, bullying, policing, PPE loving and myth making: behaviourism. BTW, its only about 60 years out of date in being totally discredited.

  2. I’m a tad confused here as there is a recommendation to delve into cognitive biases (and although not stated I would assume heuristics), yet that would lead one straight to Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky – the very academic attacked in this post. Sure, the System 1/System 2 dichotomy is overly simplistic (as the authors themselves assert) but if it were not for this work we would not have the understanding of biases and heuristics we have today (albeit limited) and would still assume models of the rational man.

    Further, is cognitive bias not by definition predictable? The term itself implies something systematic (not random)?

    I am also quite perplexed as to why Kahnemann is being closely linked to behaviourism (assuming that behaviourism used here is referring to Skinner’s school of operant conditioning).

    I am by no means saying that Kahneman’s work is perfect or complete, and shouldn’t be open to critique, but I feel like this is a little bit of a straw man argument and not aimed at the real limitations of the theories. Definitely open to being corrected though, so would appreciate some elaboration.

    1. As much as I think Kahneman is brilliant I don’t share his Behavioural Economics worldview nor do I find the Fast-Slow binary dichotomy helpful. Attacked? I don’t understand criticism as attack. My criticism simply advocates another view in disagreement. As for biases and heuristics, most of them are not known to us as we enact them unconsciously and so to the extent they are viewed by others they also lack prediction. The evolution of behaviourism has come some way since skinner yet it still views humans as object in systems compared to say Bateson etc who have a completely different worldview. Unfortunately, there is no space in blogs for such complex differentiation and the explorations of philosophies.
      The purpose of the blog was really just to explore the way safety is simplistic about habit.

      1. Ah if the link to behaviourism is the idea that the human mind can be modelled, then I kind of get the association that’s being made (though I wouldn’t necessarily treat behaviourism in such a broad manner). Though interestingly, I have heard also read criticisms that much of the modern day policy work that is done under the banner of “behavioural economics” is actually social psychology shrugs.

        As for the predictability of biases/heuristics, I’m not sure whether our lack of knowing makes them unpredictable (I mean I genuinely don’t know – this seems to be a problem of ontology vs epistemology and I’m not sure we know enough about biases/heuristics to actually know where the problem lies).

        To me the reference to “simplistic pop-psych” seemed a little bit of an unfair “attack” on Kahneman’s work without too much supporting evidence (or more useful critique on why this label is appropriate) – the original papers were definitely not in the popular realm and it would be hard to say that at its first conception it was simplistic (without the benefit we now have of the concepts). Of course if readers of such works themselves turn into pop-psychologists that’s a different matter…

  3. Unfortunately not the best of media for a discussion. The behaviourist takes a mechanistic worldview about humans and so when it views the nature of habit understands habits and humans mechanistically. Similarly, focusing on the brain as an organ-as-computer completely misses the notion of mind.
    The idea that behavioural economics is social psych is crazy, not even close. It’s like saying Ed Psych is Clinical psych.
    I think you idea of knowing and prediction is right and this takes us into the area of the conscious-unconscious dialectic and the nature of the self.
    My pop-psych reference simply draws attention to the genre, its nothing like his academic work and sold accordingly. I have much more evidence in my books along with support by others like Dylan Evans and Claxton etc.
    The purpose of the blog was to draw attention to the naive way Safety approaches concepts like habit and heuristics and the cookie cutter model of simplistic fixing to wicked problems.

    1. Ah the simplistic pop-psych books of Dylan Evans (joking)… which do have substantial sections summarising the work of Kahneman and Tversky. I must say I never read Dylan Evans work as in opposition to that of Kahneman and Tversky; I always read them as taking different angles on the same sorts of observations.

      To clarify, it wasn’t Kahneman/Tversky/Thaler/Sunstein’s work that was described as social psychology, but some of the work of UK Behavioural Insights Team which was being done under a “behavioural economics” banner.

      1. Yes, I think Dylan is quite alternative and has disappeared off the map after his foray into Risk Intelligence. Don’t know of UK Behavioural Insights and their title would explain why. Not too much insight in behaviourism in my book.

  4. Behavioural economics, nudge theory, liberal paternalism or choice architecture is more US snake oil. It is ultimately about control and power and abjures embodiment and personhood.

  5. PS Alexis de Tocqueville once proclaimed……The surface of American society is covered with a layer of democratic paint but from time to time one can see the old aristocratic colours breaking through.

  6. I understand your thoughts on this, but am not sure I fully agree. If it is in fact the case that the way in which questions are asked influences the “choices” made, doesn’t the question-asker always yield some control? And thus isn’t it preferable that question-asker understands this power and tries to use it for “good”? Of course there will always be issues where outcomes are not better for all, or outcomes may be better for an individual vs greater population etc but those issues will remain irrespective of how a question is framed. (Sure we could argue about whether there should be central structures asking the questions in the first place but that would probably be way beyond the scope of the conversation here).

    1. PS – I always find it rather odd when these ideas get labelled as “American” with no mention of “Israeli”… Am really curious as to why this happens? (Obviously I am aware of the link to the Obama government but that is only one piece of the whole story).

    2. Yes you are right, which all the more why there needs to be an ethic of risk. This is something the safety industry is miles away from, absolutely no idea and the thing they trotted out in the BoK is an insult, creating this crazy endorsement of duty, compliance and masculinist discourse to justify itself.
      Yes, the way people frame, prime, pitch, anchor etc does shape the conversation and influences the thinking and decision making, as well as understanding the many social influences of risk. Apart from SPoR noone in the industry is even raising these issues and certainly never speak of the unconscious or many other related matters associated with decision making and consciousness.
      As for habit, the behaviourist stuff fluffing about at present is super dumb and ignorant of what habits are.
      Every time I run a program as I am at the moment with the freebie online noone has a clue or any education in the fundamentals of questioning, semiotic/semantic dynamics, listening or framing etc. Not one, and when they learn just a bit they are amazed at how their safety qualification has taught them to be unprofessional. It’s all about telling and reprogramming robots, all about behaviours behaviours and behaviours without a clue of what is behind behaviours. Then get staggered when nothing works.
      Thanks for the questions and discussion, it’s appreciated. Normally its just insults, name calling but never any questions or seeking clarification as you have done.

    1. Bernard, I don’t you could find any marxist economics, ethics or politics anywhere in the safety industry globally.

    2. Thanks for the book recommendations. With your better knowledge of world politics than mine, though, I think you may have read more into this question that was intended. I was really just curious about the “American” label when so much of the foundational theory behind behavioural economics was developed and used by Israelis (albeit Israelis who eventually lived in America) prior to the collaboration with American economists.

  7. My interpretation of the work of Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky with nudge theory is that it is merely a furtive attempt to disguise and implement the excesses of neoliberal ideology from the Chicago School of Economics (especially the work of George Stigler, Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek).

    It embraces black box psychology with a rather narrow and mechanistic view of behaviourism, which was decried by Bertrand Russell’s in his popular treatise entitled The Scientific Outlook and satirised in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World back in the 1930s.

    It is also most interesting to look at McKinsey & Company, which was founded by a University of Chicago professor back in 1926. Its fingerprints can be found at the scene of some of the most spectacular corporate and financial debacles of recent decades. This includes the Enron scandal at the turn of the millennium and the recent opioid epidemic across the US involving Pardue Pharmaceuticals. In the Enron scandal the cost of running company vehicles was listed as an asset in the company accounts ledger and its auditors, Arthur Andersen, failed to identify the anomaly

    Several McKinsey acolytes in Australia include Greg Hunt, the federal minister for disease and Diane Smith-Gander, the chair of Safe Work Australia.

    1. Whilst Nudge Theory has a little merit, it is again a simplistic construct for a wicked problem. Any method of prediction regarding the human unconscious might make great book sales but when it doesn’t work as Thaler found out, the egg on face looks for new excuses and more behavioural economics to explain failure.

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