1187326 – McGraw-Hill Higher Education (US) ©


Like Erich Fromm, each of us is controlled by a variety of social forces and techniques, but all these can begrouped under the following headings: (1) operant conditioning, (2) describing contingencies, (3) deprivation andsatiation, and (4) physical restraint (Skinner, 1953).

Society exercises control over its members through the four principal methods of operant conditioning:positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and the two techniques of punishment (adding an aversivestimulus and removing a positive one).

A second technique of social control is to describe to a person the contingencies of reinforcement.Describing contingencies involves language, usually verbal, to inform people of the consequences of their not-yet-emitted behavior. Many examples of describing contingencies are available, especially threats and promises.A more subtle means of social control is advertising, designed to manipulate people to purchase certainproducts. In none of these examples will the attempt at control be perfectly successful, yet each of themincreases the likelihood that the desired response will be emitted.

Third, behavior can be controlled either by depriving people or by satiating them with reinforcers. Again, eventhough deprivation and satiation are internal states, the control originates with the environment. People deprivedof food are more likely to eat; those satiated are less likely to eat even when delicious food is available.

Finally, people can be controlled through physical restraints, such as holding children back from a deep ravineor putting lawbreakers in prison. Physical restraint acts to counter the effects of conditioning, and it results inbehavior contrary to that which would have been emitted had the person not been restrained.

Some people might say that physical restraint is a means of denying an individual’s freedom. However,Skinner (1971) held that behavior has nothing to do with personal freedom but is shaped by the contingencies ofsurvival, the effects of reinforcement, and the contingencies of the social environment. Therefore, the act ofphysically restraining a person does no more to negate freedom than does any other technique of control,including self-control.

Physical restraint is one means of social control.Thinkstock Images/Getty Images


1187326 – McGraw-Hill Higher Education (US) ©

If personal freedom is a fiction, then how can a person exercise self-control? Skinner would say that, just aspeople can alter the variables in another person’s environment, so they can manipulate the variables within theirown environment and thus exercise some measure of self-control. The contingencies of self-control, however,do not reside within the individual and cannot be freely chosen. When people control their own behavior, they doso by manipulating the same variables that they would use

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