The new behavioralism


We live mythically, even the most rational among us. In the middle of a bromidic Q&A session on Facebook last month, Mark Zuckerberg fielded a question from the cosmologist Stephen Hawking:

I would like to know a unified theory of gravity and the other forces. Which of the big questions in science would you like to know the answer to and why?

Zuckerberg replied that he was “most interested in questions about people,” and he gave some examples of the questions about people that he found most interesting. “What will enable us to live forever?” was one. “How can we empower humans to learn a million times more?” was another.

He then divulged something interesting, if not unexpected, about his perception of the social world:

I’m also curious about whether there is a fundamental mathematical law underlying human social relationships that governs the balance of who and what we all care about. I bet there is.

Call it the Unified Theory of Love.

Zuckerberg’s answer underscores, yet again, what an odd choice we made when we picked a person to oversee the world’s predominant social network. We’ve placed our social lives in the hands of a maladroit young man who believes that human relations and affiliations can be reduced to equations.

The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.

What Brutus saw in stars, Zuckerberg sees in data. Both believe that human affairs are governed by fate.

It’s not hard to understand the source of Zuckerberg’s misperception. Human beings, like ants or chickens, share a certain bundle of tendencies, a certain nature, and if you analyze our behavior statistically that nature will evidence itself in mathematical regularities. Zuckerberg is hardly the first to confuse the measurement of a phenomenon with the cause of the phenomenon. If some amount of data reveals a pattern, then, surely, more data will reveal “a fundamental mathematical law.”

Zuckerberg’s belief that social relations are the output of a cosmic computer running a cosmic algorithm is more than just the self-serving fantasy of a man who has made a fortune by seeing people as nodes in a mathematical graph. It’s an expression, however extreme, of a new form of behavioralism that has recently come into vogue, pulled along in the slipstream of the excitement over “big data.”

From the mid-1950s to the mid-1960s, sociological thinking in the United States was dominated by the behavioralist school. Heirs of the earlier positivists, behavioralists believed that social structures and dynamics could only be understood through the rigorous, scientific analysis of hard data.* David Easton, a prominent University of Chicago political scientist, laid out the tenets of the movement in his 1962 article “The Current Meaning of ‘Behavioralism’ in Political Science”:

There are discoverable uniformities in political behavior. These can be expressed in generalizations or theories with explanatory and predictive value. … The validity of such generalizations must be testable in principle, by reference to relevant behavior. … Precision in recording of data and the statement of findings requires measurement and quantification.

The rise of behavioralism reflected a frustration with the perceived subjectivity of traditional modes of sociological and political inquiry, particularly historical analysis and philosophical speculation. History and philosophy, behavioralists believed, led only to ideological bickering, not to unbiased knowledge or reliable solutions to problems. But behavioralism also had technological origins. It was spurred by the post-war arrival of digital computers, machines that promised to open new horizons in the collection and analysis of data on human behavior. Objectivity would replace subjectivity. Technology would replace ideology.

Today’s neobehavioralism has also been inspired by advances in computer technology, particularly the establishment of vast databases of information on people’s behavior and the development of automated statistical techniques to parse the information. The MIT data scientist Alex Pentland, in his revealingly titled 2014 book Social Physics, offered something of a manifesto for the new behavioralism, using terms that, consciously or not, echoed what was heard in the early 60s:

We need to move beyond merely describing social structure to building a causal theory of social structure. Progress in developing this represents steps toward what [neuroscientist] David Marr called a computational theory of behavior: a mathematical explanation of why society reacts as it does and how these reactions may (or may not) solve human problems. … Such a theory could tie together mechanisms of social interactions with our newly acquired massive amounts of behavior data in order to engineer better social systems.

As with their predecessors, today’s neobehavioralists also view the scientific analysis of “big data” as a means of escaping subjective modes of sociological inquiry and the ideological baggage those modes often carry. “The importance of a science of social physics,” Pentland suggested, goes beyond “its utility in providing accurate, useful mathematical predictions.” It promises to provide “a language that is better than the old vocabulary of markets and classes, capital and production”:

Words such as “markets,” “political classes,” and “social movements” shape our thinking about the world. They are useful, of course, but they also represent overly simplistic thinking; they therefore limit our ability to think clearly and effectively. [Big data offers] a new set of concepts with which I believe we can more accurately discuss our world and plan the future.

Zuckerberg will lose his bet, and Pentland and the other neobehavioralists will not discover “a causal theory of social structure” that can be expressed in the pristine language of mathematics. Neobehavioralism will, like behavioralism before it, fall short of its lofty goals, even if it does provide valuable insights into social dynamics. Despite, or because of, their subjective messiness, history and philosophy will continue to play central roles in the exploration of what makes all of us tick. The end of ideology is not nigh.

But there is something that sets neobehavioralism apart from behavioralism. The collection of behavioral data today generates great commercial value along with its value in social research, and there’s an inevitable tension between the data’s scientific and commercial exploitation. That tension will shadow any attempt to, as Pentland put it, “engineer better social systems.” Better for whom, and by what measure? Even if no fundamental mathematical law of social relationships is in the offing, the ability to closely monitor and influence those relationships will continue to provide rich profit potential. One suspects that Zuckerberg’s dream of a Unified Theory of Love is inspired less by cupid than by cupidity.



*Though the two are related, behavioralism shouldn’t be confused with behaviorism, the psychological movement popular earlier in the twentieth century.

Image: Detail of Sodoma’s “Cupid in the Landscape.”

18 thoughts on “The new behavioralism

  1. Thomas Parker

    350 years ago Montaigne said this, which the technocratic gods (small g now, but aspiring to the upper case) who run our lives might pause to consider:

    “There are secret aspects, beyond divining, in all we do – in the makeup of humans above all; aspects mute and invisible, unknown to their own possessors, brought forth only under the incitement of circumstance.”

  2. Daniel B le Roux

    Zuckerberg’s thinking is reflective of a trend among the “big data optimists” to confuse highly complicated systems and complex systems (the writings of South African philosopher Paul Cilliers clarifies this distinction particularly well). This is typical among technologists who spend years in the safe haven of reductionism – over time they start to believe that all phenomena are susceptible to this method. Cilliers argues that, while we can and should model complex systems using big data and computation, we should never confuse the model and the real thing – complex systems are, in his words, “uncompressable”.

  3. Brutus

    I’m not that Brutus, BTW. I merely adopted the name as an online identity. First, Nick Carr sez, We’ve placed our social lives in the hands of a maladroit young man who believes that human relations and affiliations can be reduced to equations. None of us chose Zuckerberg except in the nominal sense that his platform won out in the social media marketplace. Further, I’ve never had a FB account and never will, but I recognize that I’m still somewhat subject to its influence because I’m not participating and thus left out. Going on:

    Zuckerberg replied that he was “most interested in questions about people,” and he gave some examples of the questions about people that he found most interesting. “What will enable us to live forever?” was one. “How can we empower humans to learn a million times more?” was another.

    It is significant that these are not really questions about people; they are instead questions about computers. Specifically, like many others, Zuckerberg is greedy for unlimited time and knowledge and wonders, in effect, how he (and we) can become a computer. The behaviorism slant on things is a useful perspective, but acting upon people as though they are puppets to be manipulated, while awful enough, is only a preliminary step toward the Transhumanist fever dream of transcending one’s humanity and being Pure Thought ™, free of the messiness of fleshy embodiment. Then we will all be clean and fully manageable.

  4. diane

    Thank you Brutus (above comment). The usage of the word “we” on the internet should instigate an entire site dedicated to it. I’m another, and I’m sure there are millions in the US alone, who have never ever supported; had (or wanted); or even viewed, outside of blindly clicking a link (which I’ve since taken much more care to note the url before clicking) a facebook page. The name “facebook” itself strikes me as ghastly, particularly when one has any clue of the frat boy software which was its inception.

    Loved this, Nick:

    …the hands of a maladroit young man who believes that human relations and affiliations can be reduced to equations.

    although, I highly doubt he believes in reducing his own personal frat boy relations to equations.

    Speaking of the zuck, it was disappointing not to see a piece about frat boy zuck bragging of trophy hunting that bison, around the time of that horrid ipo, added to the commentary about the lion who was recently butchered, simply for the sake of some pathetic megalomaniac with proclaimed Science[!] credentials.

    12/19/11 The Bison Mark Zuckerberg Killed Is Now Mounted in Facebook’s New Offices [Mrs. Lean-Ins Office, to be exact]

  5. Bobby B. Herbrand

    If you accept materialism is true, and man is not something apart from nature, then relations between humans must be completely explicable in materialist terms, and so completely mathematically explicable. Nothing controversial there; it is the converse humanistic clap-trap that is outrageous.
    How can man be a part of a material universe and yet human relationships be incapable of mathematical explication? The burden of proof lies on those who say human relationships cannot be mathematically explicated, the proponents are already working at implementing such explanatory models so they’re being at least epistemically proactive on that count. Whereas the opponents are merely special pleading for the uniqueness of human snowflakes.
    To call the materialist mathematical hypothesis about human social/ relational behaviour behaviourism is completely bonkers. The physicist predicting the behaviour of particles using mathematical models is not a behaviorist about particles on that account, and human social relational behaviour is mathematically isomorphic with the behaviour of particles if the mathematical hypothesis is right. So, whether or not human behaviour’s successfully predicted by mathematical models the attempt to do so cannot be called a behaviorism.

  6. diane

    Stunningly fascist and horrid, yesterday, Zuck’s face book was:

    granted a patent for authorizing and authenticating a user based on their social network.
    When an individual applies for a loan, the lender examines the credit ratings of members of the individual’s social network who are connected to the individual through authorized nodes. If the average credit rating of these members is at least a minimum credit score, the lender continues to process the loan application. Otherwise, the loan application is rejected.
    [ source: ..]
    I guess this will apply for Billionaires (such as Mark Zuckerberg) and Millionaires who, along with their offspring, are the very ultimate of credit offenders, …. and tax dodgers? … NOT.
    (Not to even mention all that (apparently non interest bearing, surprise!) credit afforded entirely Frat Boy High Tech! Megalomaniacs via DC/DOD backdoors which came, unreimbursed, without no informed consent, from the public’s pocket.)
    pure math? my ass. pure math might be a major earthquake, or the next devastating solar storm. pure math is not what Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook is built upon. It is built on Fascism, for lack of a more current, and agreed upon, definition.

  7. diane

    for the next person who comments: ending this comment, is a bit of four teeny dotted, mostly blank space, soze a reader can differentiate, from my comment, to your comment (sorry Nick, but the new format tends to make commenters look like they have no regard for spacing and readability. Since you likely rely on commenter’s comments for your books you may want to find a work around? …so that their feelings are not utterly crunshed so as to be unrecognizable … when they took so very much “free time” … and care … in writing them out?)

  8. adam

    Thanks. I always enjoy reading your posts.

    I think human cognition and social relations will become more fully understood by science and, yes, that will make people and their social relations more predictable and subject to being shaped in more and more diabolical ways.

    The risk is not that neo-behaviouralism will fail, but that it will succeed.

    You get things right in the last paragraph: elite capital uses these techniques to shape behaviour, beliefs, etc. in such a way that advances their interests (and they are pathetically self-deluded about their own motives – like everyone, they are compelled to act in their own interest, and they have the power to impose that interest on the rest of us). The result of all this will be drastically more socioeconomic inequality.

    Try Crypto-Anarchy – let’s go to Comey’s “very, very dark place”. If they can’t collect the data in the first place, then all the predictive science and algorithms derived from it are useless.

  9. diane

    I’m hoping you will be commenting on the ghastly Windows 10 UPDATE[!] soon (like yesterday), Nicholas.
    What a The Cloud [! Techno GOD! ] violation of species it is; especially since 99.9999999999 of the earth’s inhabitants are not ‘coders’ and therefore have no clue how utterly violating (as in subjugation and penalizing, with no explainable reason to subjugate, or penalize), it is.
    … let alone, those billions plus who have no internet connections, nor computer, …. yet some online asshole ‘shares’ their (those disconnected) intimate life experience, along with detailed identifying information , in the sole voice of that Online Asshole: utterly overriding/overwriting/mowing over/utterly disregarding …. the actual voice, of those disconnected.
    (I guess we can now assume one cannot buy a computer and expect to be able to use it utterly off line? …despite billions likely using it for just that, because there are no more typewriters …(to be continued, here, or elsewhere, …I somewhat look forward to that solar storm .)

  10. diane

    following the above wish, I’m hoping that you might comment on the name switch from Google, to Alphabet. The megalomanical – certain, sort of ‘elite ivy white male – hubris’ is gut wrenching.

    I see Evgeny has not made a twit today (at this moment in time, his last twit was on August 7th) regarding our newly proclaimed Alphabet; then again Evgeny also uses a Gmail address, which I found rather horrifying, upon discovery, also.

    I would never email someone knowing that the email provider they use loudly proclaimed the need and the right to scan my personal communication. It is horrifying how many presumed ‘go to’ critics (all of whose writings I once admired) of stunningly privacy violating technology, use Gmail as a main contact. At last count: Evgeny Morozov; Dale Carrico, David Golumbia; Frank Pasquale; Evan Sellinger; and Jacob Silverman.


  11. David Golumbia

    it’s an interesting point about Gmail. i’ll mention that I am required by my employer to use Gmail (as I suspect are the other people you mention who are employed at universities, most of which have contacts with Google at this point). I also need the full archive of my email to be able to access old communications and I don’t know of an email provider that (a) promises to be in business for any length of time and (b) does not do something very similar to what Google does. I have come out, as I know Frank and Siva Vaidayanthan have as well, strongly in favor of regulations that would prohibit Google and others from the kinds of private data collection they do, across the board. I’m not sure what alternatives I and others have.

  12. David Golumbia

    as for Alphabet, yes, it’s horrifying, but I already found Google horrifying & I’m not sure exactly what the Alphabet announcement changes about Google’s manifest destiny. I will say that the projects being shunted out of Google and onto Alphabet from what I can tell (life-extension & other “medical” stuff in particular) are among the most horrifying & Scientology-like endeavors Google has been engaged in.

  13. diane

    Thank you very, very much for responding David. I don’t want to knee jerk response, and as most, I have other issues going on which don’t allow me to concentrate fully on a reply at this moment. I hope the comments aren’t closed when I am able to fully respond.

    (And yes, Google has been horrifying for at least over a decade now, particularly as to that revolving DOD/via Stanford Door from the get go. Interesting no one ever mentions that GOOG quietly, and rapidly, received a Utilities license (2012? was it). Further, as a cancer patient, I am utterly horrified by the unquestioned, unregulated welcoming of Google, Apple, Microsoft, etcetera into: Medical Records ‘Maintenance’; ‘Medical Determinations,’ and worst, a horridly maniacal and insane 24/7 Surveillance Of Bodily Systems as if everyone is horridly diseased from the get go.)

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