Saturday, December 20, 2014

Odysseus and the Rise of Behaviorist Gadgets


William Etty, 1837

Saw an interesting feature on the Newshour last week about new gadgets that help us to get the better of certain counterproductive evolutionary inheritances, or, as we laymen might put it, our propensity toward bad habits. One example featured a jar that has a lid that you set to be able to open at given times. The jar was filled with Hershey's Kisses that could only be dispensed one at a time at something like ten minute intervals. What this does is neutralize the immediate impulse to have another -- and another and another in quick succession. After the impulse passes, one might choose to just pass on more of the goodies.

The behaviorist psychology of B. F. Skinner used to irk me because it seemed to deny free will. But what I think is going on is that we don't have free will when we act out of habit or instinct but we do have moments of reason or clarity (if not free will in an absolute sense) when we can choose to create conditions that will help us to better and healthier behavior. A big example would be when someone checks themselves into rehab.

This is what Odysseus was up to when he had his crew tie him to the mast so that the song of the sirens, which he desperately wanted to hear, would not tempt him to steer his boat to ruin on the rocky shore. The crew's ears were plugged, unlike the boss's, though if Odysseus's orders to untie him broke through the wax, they were to ignore him. When you set that candy dispenser at 10 minutes you are tying yourself to the mast.

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