Behavior Modification Lesson

Manipulative techniques push us to buy, vote, or behave in certain ways



Decades ago I took a community college class in basic psychology. Other than the 40-something teacher, I was the oldest one there at age 30, sitting among younger adults in their late teens and early twenties. Here I was about to learn a painful lesson in human manipulation.

The topic that term was behavior modification (BM), especially the proven ideas of B.F. Skinner regarding positive and negative reinforcements to change animal behavior. Both are used by pet trainers who give treats when a desired action is performed, or none (or punishment) if the dog’s behavior is bad.

With a class of 30 students, the room was full. I usually sat way back in the rear corner, diagonally distant from the exit door. I’ve always been a responsive student, given to asking frequent questions — never more so than in this class. Psychology is a fascinating topic, and I was motivated beyond simply getting basic course credit. Soon, this was obvious to all present.

As the weeks went by, I found myself choosing to sit ever nearer the exit door. Our teacher would obviously avoid my raised hand and choose other students, or if she did choose me, she and the students challenged my question’s relevance and laughed at me. I was baffled. I thought perhaps I was asking too many stupid questions.

In the final week of class, I found myself sitting by the exit door, eager to leave. That’s when Miss Jackson divulged she was using me to demonstrate BM. The one day I came late, she had instructed the class to negatively respond to my questions, so that I would gradually seat myself closer and closer to the exit. It worked too well. Right after she’d explained why and what she did, offering her half-hearted apology, they all laughed. I tried to appear nonchalant, but I was angry.

That painful lesson, however, was well worth it. As I scan the news media these days, I can see manipulative techniques employed to get me to vote or behave a certain way in politics and commerce. Today’s social media apps exhibit a diabolical level of negative reinforcement, with the “canceling” of professors, Christian sports celebrities, even presidents. Our fellow citizens apparently love to wallow in the muck.

Besides overt positive and negative reinforcement, subliminal conditioning is even more powerful. It usually comes in visual form, to prod the herd. We buy unneeded items and behave in unthinking ways. Garages these days serve to store our useless stuff, not just cars. Just think about the effect of slogans: “Think Different,” “The Real Thing,” “Because You’re Worth it,” “A Diamond is Forever,” and “Breakfast of Champions.” Political slogans like “MAGA” and “BLM” even provide a group identity. Subliminal reinforcement works because we respond without much forethought. Such tactics aim for a hasty decision, for a feeling that time is short.

Beware predators who take advantage of gullible, naïve youth and feeble seniors. Whether it be in politics, science, commerce, or religion, see that no one leads you astray (cf. Matt 24:4).


Richard M. DellOrfano spent ten years on a cross-country pilgrimage following Christ’s instruction to minister without possessions. He is completing his autobiography: Path Perilous, My Search for God and the Miraculous.

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