Aour, the psychologist B F Skinner was a sinister fellow, hellbent on manipulating others. The worst story was that he raised his own daughter in a dark box, like the ones he trained rats in, rendering her psychotic; years later, she shot herself in the head in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana.

This tale was popularised in a 2004 book, but it lost credibility when Deborah Skinner Buzan – neither psychotic nor dead, but understandably cross – surfaced to explain that the “box” was just a homemade crib, warm and open-topped. She’d never even been to Billings, Montana, much less shot herself there. (It’s the sort of thing you’d remember.)

The truth about Skinner, whose 110th anniversary is this year, is that he was a skilled manipulator of himself. And in a world where we’re ever more subject to manipulation by commercial forces, we could stand to learn some of his tricks, since if anyone’s going to manipulate us, it might as well be us.

In a paper entitled Skinner As Self-Manager, his colleague Robert Epstein explains Skinner’s singular ability to see his own life as one big mass of variables, some of which could be altered by tweaking others. As a child, he kept forgetting to hang up his pyjamas, so he rigged up a system whereby a sign on a string – “Hang up your pyjamas!” – blocked his bedroom doorway.

Once he complied, the garments tugged on the string, pulling the sign out of the way. As an adult, he wired his desk lamp to a clock, to record his work hours. “When I was a child and came down to talk to him,” his other daughter recalled, he’d “click off the desk light, spin around on his swivel chair and, with a big smile, say, ‘Hello! What can I do for you?’ When I left, he would turn on the light, starting the clock again.” He ripped foam from his chair to reshape it to his bottom, to discourage fidgeting. Epstein writes: “He always spent a few minutes each day… searching for and analysing variables of which his behaviour seemed to be a function.”

Skinner’s ethos thrives today in the “quantified self” movement, whose members use smartphones and sensors to track everything from sleep to posture to eating. Arguably, they go too far: can you really live a life you’re monitoring so closely? But the basic insight is powerful. Your behaviour’s already being influenced by other behaviours, or your surroundings: opening the fridge for a snack, you take what’s easiest to reach; picking up your phone to make a call, you’re led astray by e-mail alerts. Seen this way, spurning self-management doesn’t make you wonderfully spontaneous – just an unwitting puppet.

And if we’re not seizing control of our variables, someone else will. Especially today: the Internet makes it absurdly easy for marketers to harness the tiniest twinges of boredom or loneliness or desire, channelling them into sales via “variable rewards” – so much more addictive, as Skinner discovered, than predictable ones.

A fascinating new book, Hooked, by Nir Eyal, presents itself as a guidebook for companies who want to create “habit-forming products”. But it’s also a cautionary manual for resisting them. Eyal urges businesses to think ethically. (Creating addictive products you wouldn’t use yourself, he says, “is called exploitation”.) Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile, it’s a case of self-manage or be managed. – Guardian News and Media



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