Chapter 8: The Purpose Behind Behavioral Conditioning
from the book "RootEd: How Trauma Impacts Learning and Society" by S.R. Zelenz
“The institutional role of the schools for the most part is just to train people for obedience and conformity, and to make them controllable and indoctrinated—and as long as the schools fulfill that role, they’ll be supported.” —Noam Chomsky, Understanding Power: The Indispensable Chomsky, 2002
If one were to ask a schoolteacher or principal what the primary focus area of their time at work is, they would tell you that much of their time is spent on “classroom management” or behavior control. Most teachers tell you that they spend more time on behavior management than they do in lessons. Those who say they have great classroom management utilize tactics that often include removal of disruptive students or encouraging parents to medicate the child so that they can behave in class. Removal of students takes many forms. This frequently begins as a time out, detention, or being sent to the principal’s office. More recently, new tactics such as isolation chambers are used to ensure that no one has to deal with the child (Richards, Cohen, & Chavis, 2019). Students are basically sentenced to what would be the equivalent of solitary confinement in any prison. Solitary confinement has been found by many psychologists to be detrimental to the mental health of prisoners (Smith, 2006). However, teachers are encouraged to do what they need to do in order to ensure that classroom management remains strictly controlled.
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A famous study by social psychologist, Stanley Milgram, titled, “Obedience to Authority,” demonstrated alarming results as to how willing people are to obey authority (Milgram, 1974). One could easily associate the behavioral conditioning performed in schools as the precursor to adults who will obey unwittingly despite the dangers posed. However, it isn’t isolated to the educational institutions themselves.
Schools reinforce this behavioral conditioning with the parents to ensure that it is continuous throughout the child’s life. If the child only grew up with the consequences of disobeying authority, it would seem quite likely their tendency to defy authority would be greatly minimized. “As soon as the child emerges from the cocoon of family, he is transferred to an institutional system of authority, the school,” where the student learns that “deference is the only appropriate and comfortable response to authority” (Milgram, 1973). Milgram states, “the modern industrial world forces individuals to submit to impersonal authorities, so that responses are made to abstract rank, indicated by an insignia, uniform or title” (Milgram, 1973). With this in mind, the ordering of compliance to authority regardless of legitimacy is reinforced within our education systems. This also increases the propensity for illegitimate authority to find itself in positions of government and employment leadership. A workforce and population of a nation can be easily manipulated if they have been conditioned to accept whatever authority has chosen to demand upon them.
Milgram was an active psychology professor at Yale University when he performed this experiment in 1963. His primary interest was in understanding why whole societies would comply with acts of genocide. Since his research, there have been countless demonstrations in numerous nations where the same behavior has been identified. In every instance, participants always stated that they were following orders (Milgram, 1963). In his research, the evidence supported that very few were willing to go against the orders of the authority figure. Most were willing to do the unthinkable even when it was clear that they were uncomfortable with it. Some did so without any acknowledgment of what they were doing. The basic result, people were very likely to inflict harm upon another if they felt they were being watched and demanded upon by an authority figure. This did not even require aggressive demanding. No threats were issued. Basic statements to do the job were the extent of the orders given. Participants had also been told that they would be paid for their participation, but not told that their participation required obedience. Some were told they would still be paid if they left early when they hit their limit.
What were they asked to do? They were asked to give a test to someone in another room who was connected to electrical shock gear. The participant (called teacher) would ask the learner a question. If they answered incorrectly, they were given a shock. The shock voltage increased with each wrong answer. Teachers were also able to read the voltage warnings on the machine that they were to administer the voltage shocks from. The learner had also told them that he had heart issues, which set the stage for the teacher to feel compassion and concern for their well-being. The teacher could audibly hear screams by the learner as the electric shock voltage increased, although the learner was not actually being shocked.
A modern version of this test has been given by many different cultures and all have arrived at the same conclusion. This includes a recent version performed by ABC Television (USA) in 2007. Although the results were consistent across all versions of the experiment, there were factors that could have impacted the results. These include the fact that participants were volunteers, so potentially eager to please by nature. Smith and Bond (1998) point out that with the exception of Jordan (Shanab & Yahya, 1978), most studies were performed in industrialized Western cultures. What this demonstrates is the consistency with compulsory education and willingness to obey authority since cultures with lack of education are less likely to be as conditioned to obey authority without questioning.
Although compelling, there were many variables that were not properly controlled in this experiment. Due to the volunteer nature of the study, there were no sufficient checks in place to generate an equal representation of different members of society. Although Milgram’s sample was biased (all male), the newer examples of the same study did seem to identify these factors when attempting to perform more recent experiments of the same study.
There were additional limitations for the newer study due to changes in how experimentation on live human subjects are allowed to be performed. The end result was still the same. One volunteer, a public-school teacher who administered the test as the teacher role, proved to be the least likely to hesitate to administer additional voltage. She was the least bothered by the idea out of most of the participants as long as she could put responsibility on the authority for her actions (Borge, 2007). The results from this experiment are as follows:
18 men tested. 65% willingly administered increased painful electric shocks when ordered by an authority figure.
22 women tested. 73% willingly administered increased painful electric shocks when ordered by an authority figure.
30 were tested with an accomplice to guide them. 63% of them willingly administered painful electric shocks when ordered by an authority figure even when their accomplice urged them to stop.
Subjects were educated as follows: 22.9% had some college; 40% had a bachelor’s degree; and 20% had a master’s degree.
Milgram’s original experiment had fewer controls, but a larger sampling of 636 participants (Milgram, 1963). He also conducted 18 separate experiments across one region (New Haven) which he generalized as representative of an average American town (McLeod, 2007).
The ethical issues with this experiment involved deception, however Milgram insisted that illusion is used to obtain natural responses to certain conditions otherwise difficult to obtain (Milgram, 1974). He included interviews of the participants following the experiment to gather the effects of the deception on their psychological experience. 83.7% said they were happy to participate and only 1.3% wish they had never participated (Milgram, 1963).
Participants were exposed to extremely stressful scenarios. This is not something that is allowed in a lot of research performed today. The implications of psychological damage to participants is high. The distress of the participants was visibly noticeable (Milgram, 1963). Symptoms also included trembling, stuttering, laughing, sweating, biting lips nervously, and digging fingernails into the palms of their hands (Milgram, 1963). Three participants had uncontrollable seizures (Milgram, 1963). Several pleaded to be dismissed during the experiment (Milgram, 1963). Milgram argues that these issues were short-term (Milgram, 1963). He also noted that their distress subsided when they were made aware that the person they thought they were harming was OK (Milgram, 1963). He did follow up with participants one year later to check if there was any long-term harm (Milgram, 1974).
Another ethical question was the right to withdrawal. Participants are to be made clear that they have the right to withdraw at any time during the experiment. In Milgram’s experiment, they were encouraged to continue on numerous occasions. One could also say the same is true with students in the classroom. They are never given the choice to opt out. Commands given by the authority in the Milgram experiment said things like,
“The experiment requires that you continue”
“It is absolutely essential that you continue”
“You have no other choice; you must go on”
Milgram’s argument for these commands was to demonstrate obedience to authority (Milgram, 1974). In his defense, it seems rather clear that if the participants had been made aware they have a choice, they would have been more likely to think independently. Classrooms across America do not encourage independent behavior. So, in this case, the correlation between Milgram’s commands and what we see in our classrooms across America are valid demonstrations of conditioning to obey authority.
The legal and philosophic aspects of obedience are of enormous import, but they say very little about how most people behave in concrete situations. I set up a simple experiment at Yale University to test how much pain an ordinary citizen would inflict on another person simply because he was ordered to by an experimental scientist. Stark authority was pitted against the subjects’ [participants’] strongest moral imperatives against hurting others, and, with the subjects’ [participants’] ears ringing with the screams of the victims, authority won more often than not. The extreme willingness of adults to go to almost any lengths on the command of an authority constitutes the chief finding of the study and the fact most urgently demanding explanation. (Milgram, 1973, p. 62)
Milgram’s Agency Theory (1974) explained the two states of behavior in which people will revert to in social situations. The first is the autonomous state. This is where people are in charge of directing their own actions, thus taking responsibility for their actions. The agentic state, which is where people allow others to direct their actions by passing off responsibility for the results of the actions. This enables them to do things they wouldn’t do because it isn’t their fault. In order for a person to enter the agentic state, they need to believe that the authority is qualified or legitimate and that the authority will accept responsibility for the results (Milgram, 1974). When Milgram told participants they were responsible for their actions, the majority of them did not obey. Most refused to continue unless the authority was willing to take responsibility.
We can see similar behavior in the way that schools are now holding teachers responsible for the test results of their students. In turn, teachers are not only holding students responsible for learning the material, but they are also holding parents responsible for ensuring the students continue to learn outside of the classroom. The teachers were never given the option to not be responsible for the results of these tests. As a reaction, there have been many instances of illegal behaviors where teachers have helped students, or entire schools have falsified tests in order to pass strict demands that threaten to cut school funding and jobs (Thompson, 2018).
Attitudes About School
Some children thrive in a school environment. They enjoy the educational challenges presented to them. This can be a result of the teachers in the classroom, but often it is not. For myself, I was always reading. I began reading prior to entering kindergarten and teachers would have me help the other students who were learning to read when I was in first grade. By second grade, I wanted to read big books. My teacher would tell me I couldn’t read such things, so I would check them out and read them anyway. This continued throughout my entire educational career. I was frequently challenged by teachers for reading things they didn’t believe I could read. Some would mock me. Some would look at me incredulously. I read anyway. This is how I passed the time when I was finished with my exam or classwork. I would read at any opportunity that I had. This was not derived from any motivation within the school walls, nor was it derived from home. Although, it was an escape.
For many children who are bright, reading is an escape from their environment. It affords them the opportunity to experience life from another’s perspective. It is a window of information that may be severely limited in their immediate surroundings. Today, we have even more information available at our fingertips through the Internet. Book banning and Internet blocking are frequent challenges faced by students. In theory, it is to protect them from material that the adults deem inappropriate. However, not all of that material is truly harmful and sometimes this level of blocking also inhibits actual learning of material unrelated to the unrelenting block. So, in essence, it really isn’t much different than my experience with teachers who would roll their eyes or tell me I couldn’t read something. When someone wants to learn, they will learn no matter what obstacles are put in their way. I know those teachers did not stop me.
There are various other attitudes about school which are commonly found in classrooms across America and likely in many other countries. Students are bored. Students are fearful. Students have anxiety. Students feel stress. School often represents something that many students dread going to everyday because they feel inadequate, they feel bullied, they are abused, or they do not feel challenged adequately. It is limiting from every angle. School is not a one size fits all scenario and it is not constructive for the majority of students who attend.
Bruce E. Levine (2018) wrote in his book, “Resisting Illegitimate Authority,” his own analysis in which conventional education systems punish impulses that are considered anti-authoritarian (independent thought) and reinforces obedience and conformity. Much like what Milgram also noted in his study on obedience. Levine’s experience expressed his concern with why he had to raise his hand to go to the bathroom. How humiliating it was for some of the students with the way the teachers treated students who requested permission to go to the bathroom. He surmised that if a child had been shy, it would be quite likely they may simply wet themselves than to make a public acknowledgment of their need to use the restroom. That he felt some teachers were perverse in requiring a child to denote by finger what type of bathroom movement they needed to make (in front of the class). Then he commented on how disturbing many things in schools are, and that there are so many that we can’t possibly even think about all of them.
Victor and Mildred Geortzel (1962), a psychologist and educator, wrote Cradles of Eminence, a book that analyzed childhood experiences of 400 famous people. In this book, they surmised that the majority of them despised their school experience. This included the experience of Albert Einstein who went so far as asking a school doctor to give him a certificate stating that he had a nervous breakdown and must be dismissed from all class attendance. Einstein also purported that he believes that education through coercion and duty destroys the internal desire to see and search for answers. He felt that many of his teachers behaved more in alignment with military leaders than people encouraging learning. He was also noted to have failed his college entrance examinations on more than one occasion. He was told by a professor that he was impossible to teach because no one could tell him anything. Although I may have experienced similar treatment, I was actually talked down to about the way I wrote my own name by one professor. He proclaimed that I would not obtain a degree if I couldn’t write my own name. I was actually working on a master’s degree in another program while simultaneously working on a second bachelors in computer information systems (his area). Needless to say, I only bothered to learn the things I needed to learn about computers and didn’t worry about that degree. Degrees are trivial. If you have the skills, nobody cares if you have a piece of paper. I also have a name that even when typed, people somehow can’t read. They are unable to see the name as what it is, they can only see a name that is familiar to them. His inability to read my name had much less to do with the way I wrote it than the fact that it went against what his mind wanted to see.
A recent nationwide study by Moeller, Brackett, Ivcevic, and White (2020) surveyed 21,678 U.S. high school students. These researchers, from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and the Yale Child Study Center, noted a near 75% self-reporting of students surveyed experiencing negative feelings relating to school. They also noted that many of these students felt this way 60% of their entire day in school. Brackett noted that students looked at school as a place where they knew they would have a negative experience (Moeller et. al, 2020).
Modes of Coercion
Coercion is utilized in parenting, schooling, employment, and government agencies. This wasn’t always the case. As discussed in previous chapters, children worked to help provide for the family before the compulsory education system was established, and for quite some time thereafter. Parents were not luring their children with trinkets, awards, or special treats if they would go to work to help provide for the family. Employers did not offer awards, trinkets, or special treats to motivate employees. What was most common at that time was abuse. Physical violence and psychological abuse. The most frequently used were threats to harm the person or their family. Employers went so far as to lock in the child employees to make sure they couldn’t escape.
Physical violence has been utilized for centuries. Hitting or beating a child or slave was common practice to ensure that they obeyed or did what they were told. The fear of repeated physical violence was the motivation to not misbehave. It was an easy method because it didn’t require any kind of psychological understanding in order to correct the reason why the behavior was occurring to begin with. Sometimes the behavior was in direct response to the person feeling as if they were being taken advantage of or violated in some way. As such, abuse was used to quell the voice of the victim and prevent future outbursts or rebellion.
This is convenient for those who don’t care about the experience of the person they are using to fulfill their needs. It is a means of control and domination. The other person is inconsequential, a means to an end. Some think they are protecting their child by abusing them to inflict fear in their mind for future memory recollection. Although it is a very powerful way to trigger memory recollection, what it really does is create a trauma bond. After numerous instances or experience of trauma (either intentional or corrective) the responses developed ultimately render the victim disengaged from survival skills they need in order to survive future threats. What it does is create people who repeat the cycle of abuse either by perpetuation of victimhood to other abusers or by becoming abusers themselves.
Modern schools continue to use corporal punishment in some areas. Questionable controlling efforts were mentioned in the previous chapters. However, modern schools also offer a different approach. They utilize “rewards” to counter the punishments. This can be done through good grades. Other examples are rewards for recognition, special privileges, trinkets, or big prizes. The idea is that it is theoretically a positive motivation for the student to strive for something they want. On the surface, this appears preferable to threats.
There are numerous dangers to utilizing this type of coercion as well. Coercion through good grades encourages students to stop asking their own questions and to learn to obey and repeat what they are told. This method does quite the opposite of creating critical thinking skills to encourage a free and democratic society. It is creating a generation of people who won’t question what they are told and future employees who will do as they are asked with menial tasks and not question the long-term implications of what they are being asked to do. This is probably one of the more dangerous facets of ‘positive’ motivation and coercion.
Another negative result from ‘positive’ coercion is competition to obtain the trinket. In theory, this would make the students strive to be their best in order to obtain the coveted prize. What competition often does is increase narcissistic tendencies to undercut, harm, or create a false scenario in order to win. This is the message many students receive, and it can be seen in our workplaces today. Narcissism is a significant problem in today’s modern workplace and society as a whole. Even in our most recent modern historical event, we see people competing for toilet paper when there is literally no reason to panic shop. The mere suggestion of a threat prompts people to unthinkingly respond through illogical behavior that even resulted in a stabbing over something as menial as toilet paper. I was going to cite this, but after a quick search, I found pages and pages of incidents all from the same week across the globe, but especially in the United States, the United Kingdom, China, and Australia of this very behavior. It is truly shocking how widespread this really is. Google “stabbing over toilet paper” and find out more. What this tells me is that people are trained to respond dramatically to fear, and competition stirs their programmed motivation.
The area that has been clearly ignored in their educational experience is that of responsibility to others. Nowhere in our education system is that ever addressed. Instead, children are controlled to behave in a certain way without ever being taught on how their actions impact others and how they have a responsibility to others. Not to the tune of sacrificing themselves for others, which ironically is exactly what narcissistic training teaches. Responsibility to others includes responsibility to self. This requires consideration of one’s impact on others and themselves in making decisions. This is not something that is taught through coercion. Coercion is external, not internal motivation. So, when left on their own, they will not have the capacity for responsible internal motivation. I will get into this more later on.
Another challenge with these motivations is that children (or adults) only memorize long enough to pass the exam, but they do not retain the information. It is stored in their short-term memory. External coercion does not bring internalization of information. It triggers behavior, not motivation. It triggers reaction, not response. It trains people to respond to abuse favorably. Those who learn this well, become star trauma response fawners. They will do anything to avoid retaliation or to be humiliated or shamed. So they will please anyone who they feel will impact their lives, regardless of how safe or healthy the situation is. Many will find themselves in abusive employment or personal relationships in direct response to this programming.
Sales are easy.
Educating is difficult.
Sales involves telling people what they want to hear.
Educating means exposing them
to things they don't know,
and helping them get over themselves in order to grow.
Educators confuse sales with education.
If you have to sell information and lure their intrinsic narcissism in order to achieve what the educator thinks is the goal, then you have created a monster.
Education is not something that one is told.
Education is something that one experiences.
In order for them to learn deeply,
they have to internalize it.
Parents and teachers in the past have often thought internalizing information was done
through threats and rewards.
Play with their emotions to force memories.
This is trauma training. ~S.R. Zelenz
Other areas where this type of external coercion is harmful include one of the basic skills that schools, since their inception, have deemed a core requirement: reading. The National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) found that 64% of 4th grade and 66% of 8th grade students were reading at or below proficiency (NAEP, 2015). “These statistics are very troubling, particularly because reading below grade level in third grade is among the strongest predictors of later school dropout (Alexander, Entwisle, & Kabbini, 2001). Why would coercion in reading create such low scores? Shouldn’t reinforced regular reading expectations improve scores? What key ingredient is missing to create such abysmal results?
Learning happens at various stages of life for everyone and not at the same time. Puberty doesn’t happen to every person at the exact same age. Babies don’t learn to walk or crawl at the exact same age. People don’t die at the exact same age. Humans are biological creatures. Reading is a skill learned by biological creatures. Humans are not machines, thus not capable of developing skills at the exact same age. Pair this with external pressure, and for many, their motivation drops significantly. It feels stressful. It is unpleasant. If the child is not ready or slower than others, they become resentful and ashamed. The emotional factor involved with coerced reading takes a much larger toll on the results than any researcher has truly considered. For some, it becomes a traumatic experience, which will then trigger behavior patterns in relation to reading for most, if not the rest, of their lives.
The same could be said for learning maths. It is well known how many people will loudly protest at the mere suggestion of knowing maths and their experience learning it. Many have dismissed it as something too complicated or complex, so only a few really grasp it. Is that really true? Perhaps for some, but it would seem much more likely that a broader percentage of those who studied maths without coercion would likely retain it better having had the opportunity to study at their own pace and by choosing the method of learning that works best for their learning style or preference.
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