Rats and levers: how to smash capitalism with behavioural psychology

Almost eighty years ago, rats in boxes led to a new paradigm in our understanding of human learning. The famous Skinner trained rats to pull a lever to receive food. Later, with the same methodology, he taught pigeons to play table tennis.

The phenomenon is called “operant conditioning”, and it is pervasive. It is the ability to connect a behaviour with a stimulus: press a lever, receive food; press a lever, avoid pain. It is one of our primal impulses: behaviour leads to an effect. Without that ability, we would get very little indeed done.

For operant conditioning to happen, we need to feel pleasure when we receive a good stimulus and an unpleasant feeling when we receive a bad stimulus. We can see this from when the brain goes wrong: when the ability to feel a sweet little dopamine kick at a pleasurable stimulus is impaired, learning too is impaired. To learn to associate our behaviour with something pleasant, we need to be able to feel good.

It is hardly surprising, then, that the system which we have in place taps into this basic system so well. We spend money, we receive something nice, we feel very good about that. It’s nice to have nice things, and so it’s nice to spend money. We learn to become consumers, because ultimately the stimulus-response effect is positive. Spending money is all too simple. We walk into the shop, bung our money down, and in return we get our nice new handbag or book or delicious burrito. A sweet little dopamine kick tickles our mesolimbic pathways. The response gets carved in deeper.

It goes slightly deeper than this, though. Money is an interesting reinforcer: on its own it has no value whatsoever. It is purely symbolic. You can’t eat a fiver; you can’t play with it much beyond folding it in a way to give the Queen an amusing sadface; a fiver is not entertaining or useful in any tangible way. It is only by exchanging that fiver for the real reward that it has value. This is called a secondary reinforcer. It can be compared to when someone trains a pet using a clicker: the animal will respond to the clicker because it associates the clicker with rewards.

We perform all sorts of actions which are reinforced with this essentially valueless stimulus: we sell our labour, we exchange goods for money, we fill in forms. Some of the money is spent on actual rewards: that shiny new handbag, that book, that telly, all wrapped up with the bow of a sweet little dopamine kick.

The thing with Skinner, though, is that the rats weren’t always working for nice things. Sometimes those rats were starving and they were stuck in a box, pressing that lever so they could eat. This is, usually, how we exchange our tokens: basic food to keep going, shelter, warmth and even water. We are sitting in that box frantically pressing that lever just to stay alive.

This is how the system feeds. We need the money, so we perform the actions. Every so often, we’re rewarded with something to makes us feel good. It’s smart. It’s instant. It taps into a basic learning system: even a rat can do it.

And that’s why it’s so hard to dismantle. Alternatives to the system do not always tap into that instantaneous stimulus-response system. Working against the whole shitty system often does not tap into that instantaneous stimulus-response system. We press the lever and nothing happens. Perhaps ten minutes after the lever press, the pellet of food drops down, but by this point the association is not there. The adage “good things come to those who wait” applies here: those who can build associations and put off an immediate reward in favour of a bigger one in the future tend to do better out of life. For most of us, though, this ability involves a cognitive struggle. And sometimes it’s easier to just play on the immediate stimulus-response reactions.

In activism, a lot of the time we find ourselves bored and standing in the miserable drizzle until we finally fuck off to the pub. Nothing is achieved. In part, this is because our goals are too vast: we will hardly dismantle capitalism by standing in the rain feeling cross and handing out leaflets. What if, though, our goals were smaller? That for each action, we set a simple goal: to change one mind, to block a road for an hour, to disrupt a bank so it will lose a certain amount of business that day? These goals are achievable, and the trip to the pub with comrades suddenly feels like a little treat, combined with a fizz of dopamine. This method is called mastery, an offshoot of operant learning: measurable behaviours, measurable and achievable goals, slowly building.

Satisfaction can come from other sources than buying, as many in the left wing community will know. I take more joy from a scarf I have knitted than one I have bought. I feel happier sharing a meal cooked with friends than something pricier in a restaurant. Gratification is possible, and consumerism is not the only way to get that sweet little dopamine kick. It is simply the most salient way of being.

While this works for activists, it is preaching to the converted. How can this rat and lever response be used to help those who are currently buying wholesale into the system? What we want is for people to know about the problems and act to become part of the solution. The bad news is, those leaflets we hand out in the rain are only useful for awareness-raising. Providing information does not tend to lead to magical change of behaviour. For people to act, we need to be ready.

One way is to negate the reinforcing value of money and the things bought with money. There are few legal ways of achieving this, and it is not necessarily a feasible course of action–and for our own morale, pursuit of the feasible is important. The other option is gradual: starting with helping people to do simple tasks which are rewarding, things that make them feel good. Simplicity, at first is crucial: start off with an e-petition, perhaps. E-petitions are largely pointless, but the signers tend to feel good about themselves afterwards. From the petition, progress to a slightly larger task–such as writing to an MP. Escalate slowly and gently, facilitating people to move to increasingly larger tasks until eventually they, too, are ready for revolution.

This is, essentially, why movements such as UK Uncut have been so successful, with mass appeal. UK Uncut actions involve performing a simple behaviour (sitting down in a shop) with measurable results (the shop loses business). It is hardly surprising that this movement has been a gateway for many into activism: it taps into that simple stimulus-response system.

Awareness of this basic response can help us shape the world. It can help us achieve the ultimate reward: liberation.

8 thoughts on “Rats and levers: how to smash capitalism with behavioural psychology”

  1. I feel ready! But I never have anywhere to leave the kids – I brought them to a couple a demos, it felt a bit weird. I don’t feel like I have the freedom to be involved – any advice?

    1. You make a very good point, and one I didn’t touch on in this post but it’s very relevant to behaviour change: social and environmental factors. As Nat says above, bringing kids is almost always accepted, and there is still a lot that can be done. Also, increasing activist groups are sorting out creches, but there is a sort of vicious circle here: at the moment there aren’t enough creches because the people who would use creches aren’t using them because there aren’t enough creches.

      See you and the little ‘uns on the barricades!

  2. Beckie, speaking as someone who was taken on her first national demo aged 3 on my mum’s shoulders, my initial reaction is to say “just bring them!” – I’ve never seen anyone begrudge having children on an action and indeed, it’s their future we’re fighting for. That said though, I appreciate the difficulty and why you might not want to bring them along. Well, there’s plenty of other things you can do. Go to planning meetings and help organise events, sign and circulate petitions, spread the word of actions, write about how the cuts will affect you and them, write to MPs, to Lords, to councils, to newspapers. Above all, just keep shouting. You don’t always have to be kettled in the rain to do that 🙂

  3. Thank you both for replying. When I said it felt weird it isn’t because I feel unwelcome, it is because getting there & back is a mission (puking on the tube) and they find it really boring and a bit frightening. The thing about going to the pub afterwards is what really struck a chord because I end up missing out on that bit and having to take them swimming or something to make up for their shit day. All the planning meetings are at bathtime/bedtime, it is embarrassing how many times I have been out after 6pm in the last 4 years. It makes it all a bit depressing and lonely, but maybe that just sums up having children generally.

  4. I’m writing a short piece on this using Skinner’s theory to investigate the implication capitalism has on our society and culture! Thanks for this, super useful and soooooo well articulated!

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