In activism, a lot of the time we find ourselves bored and standing in the miserable drizzle until we finally go 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
[This is an edited extract from Rats and levers: how to smash capitalism with behavioural psychology by @stavvers]