Yesterday I sent an e-mail to Carl Levin praising his bravery and integrity for voting "Aye" in the Ohio electors challenge. Sadly, the report was mistaken. He voted "No".
But it made me wonder . . .
B.F. Skinner questioned "not whether machines think, but whether men do". He believed that behaviours could be shaped by response stimulus in reaction to observed behaviours.
What if we sent our politicos messages praising them for taking principled stands, whether they actually did or not?
Over time could we shape their behaviours through our consistent praise of whatever meagre good they might do toward doing more good more consistently?
The key concepts for behaviour modification are shaping and chaining. They are related. With shaping you reward any behaviour which approximates the target behaviour. For example, if we all send praise e-mails to everyone who made a good speech during the debate yesterday, regardless of how they voted, we would reinforce our principle that the debate was important.
Chaining breaks the target behaviour down into simple, modular components. For example, a particularly good question from a senator to Gonzales could be rewarded regardless of how the senator votes on confirmation. In this way, we condition the senator to take confirmation questioning seriously, even if he ultimately panders to the Repub power structure on the vote.
Since complaining and voting have failed, we might as well try Skinnerian behavioural theory as bitch and moan at each other.
During the mid-1900's, the American behavioural psychologist B. F. Skinner became known for his studies of how rewards and punishments can influence behaviour. He believed that rewards, or positive reinforcements, cause behaviour to be repeated. Positive reinforcements might include praise, food, or simply a person's satisfaction with his or her own skill. Punishments discourage the behaviour they follow. But punishment also encourages people to avoid situations in which they might be punished. Skinner concluded that positive reinforcement is more effective in teaching new and better behaviour. His work led to the development of teaching machines, which are based on positive reinforcement.
In procedures called behaviour modifications, therapists use positive reinforcers to shape behaviour in desired ways. For example, behaviour modification has been used to help retarded children learn basic school subjects. The children may receive rewards such as smiles, hugs, or food for doing their schoolwork and behaving properly. In other behaviour modification programmes, children work for tokens or points. Later, they can exchange the tokens for sweets, toys, or other rewards. Such programmes have also proved effective in shaping the behaviour of children with normal intelligence and of juvenile delinquents.
If it works for "retarded children" (a phrase I haven't read in 15 years of living in Britain) and for juvenile delinquents, then it might even work with our Democratic leadership and elected representatives.