Monday, January 18, 2016

Behavior Modification

“The Happiness Industry – How the Government and Big Business Sold Us on Well-Being,” by William Davies, 2015

How can anyone be against ‘happiness’?  Davies, a British sociologist, carefully explains that actual happiness is not the issue – it is the form of capitalist ‘happiness’ engineered through corporate HR departments, large Internet companies, government surveillance or programs and academic research projects.  In essence much of the present ‘happiness’ industry is a behavior modification program and pseudo-science designed to get people to better adapt to present circumstances, no matter what those circumstances may be.  Its real purpose is to produce more productive workers and better shoppers and actually inhibits actual happiness. 

Early quote posted on Athenian slave quarters.
Capital early on began to understand that workers could be worn out by work. (Duh!) Burnout and fatigue are obvious results of especially intense work, and they realized they had to manage their employee’s psychology to maintain productivity.  As the profit economy in advanced capitalist countries relied more and more on direct exploitation of labor in the ‘service’ and intellectual property parts of the economy, the emotional and psychological state of workers became even more important.  An alienated, distant worker became a profit problem. Enter the Happiness Industry!  Does your firm have a ‘happiness officer’ yet?

While this may hint at another form of socialized and democratic functioning at work, instead it is taken in the other direction.  To Davies, the methods that developed are essentially false solutions to a social problem. As he says, “In many ways, happiness science is ‘critique turned inwards,’ despite all the appeals by positive psychologists to ‘notice’ the world around us.”

If you were expecting a more current look at this issue, similar to Barbara Ehrenreich’s book “Bright Sided,” this is not it.  A third of the book is a description and critique of the history of utilitarianism, psychology and the origins of behaviorism which led up to the present moment.  He also spends time looking at the development of the neo-conservative Chicago School and its’ all encompassing ‘price theory’ and hatred of any government policy.  All of these are essentially ideological products coming out of the development of capitalist society, from Jeremy Bentham in 1766 to the present.  Out of this perspective came the neo-liberal terms ‘human capital’ and ‘cultural capital’ – as if our character and knowledge are now quantifiable commodities. 

Figures covered by Davies are Bentham, the utilitarian who first postulated that ‘pleasure’ and the avoidance of ‘pain’ were the goals of human beings;  William Jevons, whose understanding of the mind was as a mechanical balancing act rationally weighing value; John Watson, who thought the mind was nothing but observable behavior; Frederick Winslow Taylor, who made the work flow more efficient, but did not touch psychology; Hans Selye, who thought all emotions had a discoverable biological form in the body and Jacob Moreno, who developed the method of social and power linkages through socio-metrics. 

Many of the buzz words floating around today come up.  Like the ubiquitous corporate ‘wellness’ programs that seek to get employees to stop smoking, loose weight, eat healthy, limit drinking or drug use.  They are designed to push themselves into the private and social life of workers.  The goal is to produce better workers for higher profit of course, but infractions are already being monetarized – such as higher rates for smokers. Some workers are being threatened with termination for not cooperating with wellness programs.  Some businesses want to submit workers to a gene test before hiring, to confirm 'wellness.' 

Davies takes direct pokes at ‘Davos Buddhism,’ mindfulness programs directed at getting more productivity out of top executives and relieving stress.  Or its equivalent for ordinary people – mindfulness, yoga and meditation that require a position of semi-mystical individualist quietism in the face of social and economic turbulence.  He describes how the present data mining through Facebook, Twitter, Fitbit, Google and many other programs are attempts to gain ‘scientific’ data to be used by powerful corporations or academics to manipulate behavior – to peer inside the population.  Or the academics working with the military or corporations who seek to better quantify an elusive thing like ‘happiness.’  They think if you can scientifically measure it through various forms of data, especially bypassing input from the subject, you can understand it and use that knowledge.  A housing and shopping complex in New York is now being built in which all the residents will be monitored on many levels – a ‘smart town’ and ultimate lab-rat cage. 

The industry thinks happiness can be monitored through purchases and so Davies looks at advertising’s interest in customer surveys as they were originally undertaken by the J. Walter Thompson agency.  He shows how ‘brain’ science is now a multi-billion dollar government project, attempting to locate all ideas and emotions in one location in the brain – a location that can then be stimulated.  Or ‘social entrepreneurship,’ which hints at another relation to profit, but is then distorted in this economy into a ‘hip’ sales gimmick. 

Davies takes issue with the various forms of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Medical Disorders”(DSM) – the dictionary of psychological ailments.  The DSM has over-medicalized nearly every single emotional issue.  One version, #3, was dominated by behaviorists from St. Louis who came up with many new diagnoses for which private health plans and drug manufacturers could then use to market products.  Depression, which has been shown to have a direct connection to social issues in a person’s life like poverty, unemployment, bad workplaces and ethnic oppression - is instead treated by expensive drugs like Prozac.  Prozac is like the ‘Soma’ of our Brave New America.

The worst form of psychological abuse is the recommendations by some happiness gurus that people with ‘negative’ thoughts be shunned or fired from firms.   What is ‘negative’ is a matter of debate.  Davies sees that classifying all forms of negativity as depression or unhappiness “is the most pernicious of the political consequences of utilitarianism.”

Later quote posted on U.S. work bulletin boards.
Davies is not a Marxist, but is somewhat anti-capitalist and supports efforts at improving the work place through cooperatives, where workers make decisions in their own work lives.  Cooperatives (and non-profits) have actually been shown to have better ‘happiness’ levels than other kinds of businesses because workers are not as alienated.  Alienation was a topic Marx highlighted because he understood that most workers had no control over the products, business or methods of work at their workplaces due to the basically dictatorial control of the capitalist. 

Davies thinks a society that believes in cooperation, altruism and potlatch is the cure for unhappiness, not the various attempts to control human behavior that are coming out of the corporate interest in ‘happiness.’  As the ‘community psychology’ movement has discovered, humanity has survived and been psychologically healthy not because of individualism and war, but because of cooperation.  And that seems to be his message too. 

Davies does not address the existential question of whether ‘happiness’ is even possible or desirable at all times.  Ultimately, the human condition does not argue so.  Evidently that is for the philosophers, not the sociologists, to discuss.

Prior books on similar topics: “Bright Sided,” by Barbara Ehrenreich; “The University in Chains,” “Propaganda,” about the start of modern advertising; and “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.”

MLK died for our sins...

Craig made me buy this at Mayday Books!
Red Frog
January 18, 2016

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