A Problem of Tragic Proportions

A Problem of Tragic Proportions

It is a problem of tragic proportions that our modern cultural designers, at all levels, make decisions that will shape the behavior patterns of hundreds of millions of us, yet they know very little, if anything, about the psychological laws and principles that control human behavior.

This is an amazing problem. Just consider what would happen if our physicians were trained in much about physiology, but never learned about the causes and cures of sickness. These physicians would be incompetent and unable to follow their own well-known caveat: “Above all, do no harm”.

Our politicians may know the mechanics of government, but they do not know the true causes and cures of our sociocultural psychological/behavioral “sicknesses”. Unfortunately, this lack of modern knowledge is also true of the rest of our intelligent general electorate.

Some may read the above as disrespect for the genius of America’s Founding Fathers. Nothing could be further from the truth. Based upon the vast majority of our historical cultural outcomes, they miraculously got it right! Regrettably however, we are the ones that have made many of the American Post-Modern cultural design changes (mistakes) that are clearly failing.

B. F. Skinner (1971) has remarked about the lethal cultural problems that we now face when he observed: “Twenty-five hundred years ago man understood himself as well as any other part of his world. Today he is the thing he understands least”(Beyond Freedom and Dignity, P.5).

Skinner had great hope that education would lead us to a better future and that scientists who studied the effects of environmental experiences upon human behavior had learned a great deal that could benefit human-kind. I, too , am convinced that we already know enough to correct many of our recent cultural design mistakes, which have lead to dramatically increasing behavior problems within our population.

From this perspective: America’s greatest contemporary problem is our general  population and our electorate’s lack of understanding of the hard-earned scientific principles of behavior change that we Americans have predominantly discovered.

There are many reasons for this lack of learning and lack of use of our own discovered human behavior principles to improve our lives. I suspect that one central problem is that these behavior principles applied at the sociocultural level do not quickly create material wealth, as did the technology gained from our space program (microwave cookers, computers, new metals, etc.). With the skilled use of a behavior technology in cultural design and planning, many rewards will certainly come, but they may be delayed by at least a generation of time, if not more.

Humans do not learn well when the consequences for their actions involve delayed rewards or delayed pain. Fortunately, however, many people will learn to do things that they believe can avoid very large , very likely (or certain) painful consequences that are delayed. For example, individuals get inoculations against killer diseases of the past (small pox, measles, polio, etc.), they lock their doors, install smoke detectors, buy health insurance, and fasten their seat belts.

Of course the culture assists its citizens to do these smart things through education, standardizing practices, and imposing legal sanctions. Similarly, cultures behave in other ways to protect themselves against very large, very likely (or certain) delayed painful consequences. For example, America retains stores of food, medicine and fuel in case of catastrophe. We also maintain a strong military to defend ourselves in the event of war, or to counter certain other threats that may be gathering in the future.

There is good reason to hope that if we citizens can see the reality of a lethal threat to our existence, we and our government will be motivated to learn and to do whatever is necessary to save ourselves and our loved ones from disaster. For decades America’s population has been suffering from increasing rates of severe psychological/behavior problems. I will argued that if these behavioral trends are allowed to continue they will destroy our civilization.

About this, there is both bad news and good news. The Bad news is that these trends are very real. The good news is that these problems could not appear at a better time in our history.

Behavioral scientists are in considerable agreement about how certain environmental experiences can affect our behavior for the better and for the worse. In spite of this good news, there remains a great and threatening paradox: The more our scientists know about the causes of troubled or abnormal human behavior, the more troubled and abnormal our behavior has become.

The great irony is that our behavioral scientists have learned a great deal about improving human behavior within the last 100 years—but this knowledge has gone pitifully unused by us to improve America.

Stay tuned, there is much more to come.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D., 9/27/09

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