The grim barbarity of punish and reward
Severance and “Skinnerism”
In addition to obsessing about Severance, I’m reading Alfie Kohn’s Punished By Rewards, the 1993 classic on (I can’t top the subtitle): “the trouble with gold stars, incentive plans, A’s, praise, and other bribes.”
The book is a refutation of what Kohn calls throughout the book “pop behaviorism” and which he also calls “Skinnerian” practices — and, fair enough: BF Skinner was not the first behaviorist and not the best behaviorist, but he was the behaviorist most committed to popularizing behaviorism. Skinner was the behaviorist who wrote and published a utopian novel (Walden Two) about a society behaviorally-engineered to its members’ universal contentment (a book whose initial readers took it for a dystopia), and who argued that only behaviorism could modify mankind’s behavior in the nick of time to save us from extinction, by helping us eat less meat, burn less carbon, and live in peace with one another.
If you read the above sympathetic to these ends and perhaps even open to whatever methods it might take to get there, please also know that Skinner never thoughtfully addressed those who objected to the mass conditioning of mankind. Instead, he dismissed those who objected as having been indoctrinated by the “literature of” freedom and dignity. He wrote a whole book about it (Beyond Freedom and Dignity), in which he describes a possible utopia vexingly thwarted by these perverse phantoms of the mind, freedom and dignity, irrelevant nonsense, to him, yet treasured by so many, blast!
In his novel, Walden Two, the clever behaviorist who’s created the successful utopia says this of mid-20th-Century America:
“Our civilization is running away like a frightened horse, her flanks flashing with sweat, her nostrils breathing a frothy mist; and as she runs, her speed and her panic increase together. As for your politicians, your professors, your writers—let them wave their arms and shout as wildly as they will. They can’t bring the frantic beast under control.”
“What do you do with a runaway?” said Castle.
“Let her run till she drops from exhaustion,” said Frazier flatly. “Meanwhile let’s see what we can do with her lovely colt.”
The listeners in the novel are impressed by this metaphor and spend a moment admiring it, feeling unable to say anything up to the level of following it — they do not seem aware of how creepy-threatening-mad-scientist it sounds: let her die, yes, and then, bring me the children!
Later in the novel this character, Frazier, even laments that he is himself unable to fully benefit from his own utopia, not having been raised in it from childhood, not having been trained against egotism and jealousy, for example. You can maybe teach an old dog a few new tricks, but you can’t remake his soul.
In Severance, the characters who undergo the procedure which divides their work selves from their home selves are in a sense re-born: they have the opportunity that Skinner’s Frazier never had. But instead of opening their eyes to a bucolic environmentally conscious farming and textiles collective, they’re born on a boardroom table to imprint like a baby duck on the mid-century styled speaker with camera and microphone, which emits a disembodied voice that asks, “who are you?” The only correct answer is “I don’t know.”
Without any memory of their lives — no memory of a mother, a home, beliefs, experiences — the severed employees are then trained into the corporate culture, a system of punishments, rewards, and mysterious purposes. The three characters, the “innies,” who work in “Macrodata Refinement,” at the start of the series, are susceptible to all three “motivators” but each is primarily driven by a different one: Mark S is driven by fear of punishment; Dylan G chases rewards, from finger-traps to waffle parties; and Irving B is devoted to order, to justice, and to the “chain of command.”
Reading Skinner, both his novel and his nonfiction, I repeatedly found myself thinking, yes… but. Yes, these powerful behavioral tools in the hands of someone with “good” intentions might have positive results, but they will inevitably end up in the hands of someone whose intentions are otherwise. In the real world, the training of humans is primarily taken on by schools and businesses. Schools are in a position to do a lot of damage, because their students are the young “lovely colts” the behaviorist wants to get his schedules of reinforcement on. Businesses work primarily with adults, but they are practically legally bound to see human workers as means-to-ends.
Among Severance’s many fascinations is this: it imagines a corporate wish fulfilled! Workers as tools, without homes or histories (that they know of), empty vessels so desperate to contain something, anything!, that they will absorb completely your corporate propaganda — or new-age nonsense if it luckily lands in their laps — and they are disarmed of their experiences, against cruelty and against specious reward. Like children. Who already know about Delaware.
Punished By Rewards is most certainly a part of the “literature of freedom and dignity” Skinner reviled. Kohn’s book is written in opposition to any methods that seek to assert control over others. Rather than “getting people to do” things by different means, he proposes we stop trying to get people to do things they don’t want to do!
It’s a complete reframing of the “management” question. He argues that most things we need done are intrinsically interesting and/or rewarding, if we don’t suck the life out of them with incentive schemes. He speaks of classrooms and workspaces cultivating creativity, responsibility, self-possession, and most definitely freedom and dignity, instead of transactional spaces where tasks are completed for treats.
Not long ago, I heard a teacher in Missouri justify the practice of handing out stickers to her young students on the grounds that the children had “earned” them. This claim struck me as an attempt to deflect attention away from—perhaps to escape responsibility for—the decision she had made to frame learning as something one does in exchange for a prize rather than as something intrinsically valuable.
And that is the core of Kohn’s arguments: life and learning and working and making and creating and achieving are all inherently and intrinsically rewarding and even joyful things, and when we use bribes to get people to do them, we claim instead, with actions more potent than any words, that instead of life and learning and working and making and creating and achieving being awesome on their own, they are instead just turdy ol’ means to something else, and that something else, that’s the thing you actually care about, while the things we are really doing, which make up the largest part of our, you know, LIVES, don’t matter and, at some level, just plain suck.
Bribes tell us our lives aren’t worth living. A culture of bribes is a hell space indeed.
But Kohn also describes and documents how people often work hard not because there’s a reward dangled in front of them but because they love the work. There are the volunteers doing dirty work for free. There are the underpaid teachers and social workers who do it because they care. And even among those well-remunerated workers who think they work harder because of incentives, studies show that incentives have little to no positive effect on their productivity and negative effects on their sense of themselves as free, competent people. Incentive systems make the workplace a hostile and unpleasant place full of judgment, competition, back-biting, system-gaming, and general treachery.
The company in Severance, Lumen, is clearly Pure Grade-A Evil, so I’m not about to suggest that Ms. Cobel read Alfie Kohn to develop better management techniques. Within this fictional world, from Lumen’s point of view, treating “innies” as equals defeats their purpose; the whole point of severing workers from their outside lives and memories is to make them unequal, to strip them of their dignity and other psychological defenses against manipulation — so that they can be maximally manipulated. They are unable to quit, unable to get help, unable to fight back, and even their outside-selves, the “outties,” the co-possessors of the bodies they live in, are likely to tell them, as Helly R’s did, “I am a person; you are not.”
It’s interesting to me (as it was to Kohn) that social scientists have been documenting the failure of punishment and reward to achieve stated ends for a very long time and yet not much has changed in corporate (or school) culture. Employees are still asked to vie for competitive awards and students grub for grades even though we know better. Why? Perhaps because, schools and companies are not run rationally to achieve the claimed, discernible end-goals of education and profit, but instead are run by people who need or want to feel powerful, and so controlling other humans is actually an unstated priority that makes the abandoning of control methods unthinkable.
Severance makes this hidden corporate agenda vivid through fiction. Lumen, the corporation in the show, is not rational, it is practically a religion; its employee handbook is a series of exhortations and koans; its goals are not mere profit, but something more akin to bringing order to the world by “curing humans of their humanity” — freeing their useful hands from their pesky human lives, so that they may better serve the company’s founders.
In other popular stories, similar goals have been sought by, for example, the Borg (Star Trek) or the Cybermen (Doctor Who), but these are clear science fiction series enacting a fear of a complete takeover of humanity. Severance barely registers as “science fiction” to most viewers. Its world feels realistic, and instead of being visibly transformed by metal bodies or cybernetic implants, the severed employees look entirely normal, they just have a little chip in the brain that enables the severing of work from out-of-work memories and consciousness, and that’s the only thing that pushes outside the boundaries of the world we know — and it’s not by much.
This brings us to the conundrum of our present day. We are not, sad to say, living in Alfie Kohn’s world. We’re living in BF Skinner’s world, but, as we feared, people with less-than-benevolent intent have the keys to the reinforcement machine. The corporations we work for, or merely interact with, see us as tools, and if they can’t replace us with robots, making us more programmable would be their second choice. Of course you don’t have to actually be a documented employee to be utilized — you can be an “end user.” You can also be a customer. Or a gig worker. But in any case, if you are participating in society, your behavior is being nudged with rewards and punishments.
Everything we do is now quantified and rated. We get gold-stars for our thoughts on Twitter, and stickers for our aesthetic perfection on Instagram. Our work hours are timed down to the second and our pay adjusted to the market-moment. The dollar-price of us is always being determined by someone or something outside of us and shoved in our faces. The intrinsic value of us as human beings gets lost unless we’re really good at looking the other way.
Kohn describes three possible outcomes of a controlling environment: “instructional dependency,” “helplessness and anxiety,” and “defiance, defensiveness, and rage.”
They are by no means exclusive to one another, and Severance shows us all of them in a way that’s especially sympathetic because the employees are practically children in adult bodies. While in the short term the employees do their work, quote the founders, enjoy their prizes, and fear their punishments, in the long run they’re just a bucking, driving, hiding, colliding mess of conflicting emotions, terrorized souls trapped in a too-real kind of hell.