Understanding Control, and Hope for a Better Future

“The danger of the misuse of power is possibly greater than ever. It is not allayed by disguising the facts. We cannot make wise decisions if we continue to pretend that human behavior is not controlled, or if we refuse to engage in control when valuable results might be forthcoming. Such measures weaken only ourselves, leaving the strength of science to others. The first step in a defense against tyranny is the fullest possible exposure of controlling techniques. A second step has already been taken successfully in restricting the use of physical force. Slowly, and as yet imperfectly, strong man is not allowed to use the power deriving from his strength to control his fellow men. He is restrained by a superior force created for that purpose- the ethical pressure of the group, or more explicit religious and governmental measures. We tend to distrust superior forces, as we currently hesitate to relinquish sovereignty in order to set up an international police force. But it is only through such counter-control that we have achieved what we call peace- a condition in which men are not permitted to control each other through force. In other words, control itself must be controlled.” -B.F Skinner, “Freedom and the Control of Men”

This quote taken from B.F Skinner’s “Freedom and the Control of Men” stood out strongly to me more recently than it has before. It is both a warning, and in a sense, an optimism for the future to reign in force and better understand science. “Freedom and the Control of Men” is a title that, at first, comes across as very antiquated and a little tone deaf in the word usage, but was very much written as both a critique of its time, and also geared to the readers of the future. “Men”, in this usage, refers to humankind, and not a particular sex. In it, Skinner carefully takes into account the period of time in which it was written in the United States in 1955, but an optimistic view of the future- and speaks to the reader about the topic of control, and how “tyranny” can hide in an atmosphere of democracy. He speaks to future readers directly. Coercion, violence, and disproportionate uses of these were very much alive in 1955 as forms of control, and unfortunately for us readers of today, are apparent still. Force and violence to control a population were spoken of as something to be left in the past, something to overcome as a society. Control that needed to be controlled itself. It is one of B.F Skinner’s lesser known works, but hold points that still underpin very much of the behaviorist views of a better world through science, not violence or ignorance. He did not shy away from the idea that there is a purpose in aiming for perfection, perfection is not impossible, but is not easy to attain either even in democracy. A message of humanitarianism driven by science. It is not ingrained, it is taught, shaped, and practiced. The painful realization for modern readers is that we have not come far at all from 1955.

In this piece, Skinner speaks to us in “Footnotes for the reader of the future”, which I found to be helpful and an insightful way to see that this was a piece of its time, but was also intended not to stagnate back there. It was meant to give a grounding in the period which this early behavioral science came from. B.F Skinner believed in the improvement of the future through behavioral science; a belief that I think most people who study psychology or are interested in it, believe too. Things can be better if we just strive to understand them. “Freedom and the Control of Men” was not meant as a guidebook in stamping out freedom, or forcing people to follow a path, but rather to help understand that control exists outside of the connotations of coercion. There are good forms of control that help bring order, and progress and “designing a new cultural pattern”, but also to understand that there are forms of control that can hold all of that back and grasp at power for selfishness, or indoctrination. If we do not understand both how good control, and the more selfish forms control work, designing a better future is a very difficult task. Only through science can an understanding of control be explored which is not skewed by propaganda or ideological misuse. Skinner poses a question that stands out, and serves as the underlying point to his piece:

“The question is this: Are we to be controlled by accident, by tyrants, or by ourselves in effective cultural design?”

Effective cultural design is something that B.F Skinner explores in many of his works, even in the fiction of Walden Two, but always has an equitable and positive aim for humanity. Behavior change that leads to a better world where the malevolent, violent, or selfish forms of control are not used on the populous for behavior change. Misuse of power, which is described in the quote at the start of this essay, is something Skinner warns us repeatedly about, and something I believe many of us may still see in abundance around us today. As Skinner puts it, it takes an ethical and well thought out process to effect this change through science. But even in 1955 there were opponents to the idea of science as the means to work out change. In “Freedom and the Control of Man” Skinner references two works revolving around this point: Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Notes from the Underground”, and Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” to describe the general ideas of human “cussedness”, or the idea that people would reject control, even an ethically guided and scientific implementation of it through effective cultural design. At the time of its writing, Skinner references an idea of a human innate refusal of control, and a new forming fear of scientific dystopian futures arising from even the most basic forms of behavioral conditioning. Skinner poses that control exists, either by accident, by tyranny, or by a more scientific and ethical cultural process regardless.

I recommend to everyone to read “Freedom and the Control of Men”, “Notes from the Underground”, and “Brave New World”. Skinner’s ideas truly tie together nicely here with the referenced works understood as he intended. For brevity, I will put the “Piano keys” reference of Dostoevsky below, which Skinner uses to relate the common idea that humans would innately refuse all control, which would stand in the way all efforts to improve human behavior:

“…out of sheer ingratitude, sheer spite, man would play you some nasty trick. He would even risk his cakes and would deliberately desire the most fatal rubbish, the most uneconomical absurdity, simply to introduce into all this positive good sense his fatal fantastic element. It is just his fantastic dreams, his vulgar folly that he will desire to retain, simply in order to prove to himself–as though that were so necessary– that men still are men and not the keys of a piano, which the laws of nature threaten to control so completely that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then he would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain his point. And if he does not find means he will contrive destruction and chaos, will contrive sufferings of all sorts, only to gain his point! He will launch a curse upon the world, and as only man can curse (it is his privilege, the primary distinction between him and other animals), may be by his curse alone he will attain his object–that is, convince himself that he is a man and not a piano-key! If you say that all this, too, can be calculated and tabulated–chaos and darkness and curses, so that the mere possibility of calculating it all beforehand would stop it all, and reason would reassert itself, then man would purposely go mad in order to be rid of reason and gain his point!”- Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes from the Underground

We see this all the time. Rebellion against any hint of new regulation or advice, no matter what the intent as noble or admirable. This belief still remains popular in culture today as much as it was when Skinner referenced it in 1955. There is still a belief that no matter how ethical the goal; be it wearing a face mask to reduce the risk of disease transmission, or taking advice to better oneself, there is an innate need to rebel no matter what the cost and damage it wreaks- and that the rebellion is the natural and right thing to do. Or, taking Aldous Huxley’s “Brave New World” wherein social and environmental engineering only lead to a world where people serve as cogs in a machine with very little imagination or will of their own. It was not ethical, it was tyrannical. Rebellion, in a sense, glorified as right no matter the cost. Behavioral science, and any control itself, was bad. Skinner believed that there was more to science than that. Science was a tool, and could be used for negative ends just as positive ends, but it could be used positively.

Skinner believed that behavioral science could be used to understand control, not as a form of “brain washing” or “fooling with the machinery in the human head”, but as a way to step forward and away from the very real and existing systems of the past that hold people back today. “Freedom and the Control of Men” was written with hope that the democratic philosophy that many of us know could either use science as a strength to move forward to a better future, or risk falling back into the very tyranny and violence that it was meant to overcome. In Skinner’s words:

“If Western democracy does not lose sight of the aims of humanitarian action, it will welcome the almost fabulous support of its own science of man and will strengthen itself and play and important role in the building of a better world for everyone. But if it cannot put its “democratic philosophy” into proper historical perspective- if, under the control of attitudes and emotions which it generated for other purposes, it now rejects the help of science- then it must be prepared for defeat. For if we continue to insist that science has nothing to offer but a new and more horrible form of tyranny, we may produce just such a result by allowing the strength of science to fall into the hands of despots.” – B.F Skinner “Freedom and the Control of Men”.

In 1955, these words came a decade after World War II ended, a rise of cultural and governmental attitudes towards communism, and at the very spark of the civil rights movement. There is certainly historical context that needs to be applied when reading it too, and the meaning behind this piece holds enduring hope and truth, in my opinion, about what science, especially behavioral science can bring to the world. Ignorance of control, praising the use of violence as a form of control, or holding too tightly to the notion that rebelling against even the safest forms of control, is human nature may only lead to a repeat of history in which no one benefits.

I hope you have a chance to read the works above, and take as much enjoyment and reflection as I had.


  1. Huxley, A. (1998). Brave new world: Aldous Huxley. New York, NY: Spark Publishing.

2) Dostoyevsky, F. (1993). Notes from the underground. New York, NY: Vintage Classics.

3) Skinner, B. F. (1999). Cumulative record. Place of publication not identified: Copley Pub. Excerpt: “Freedom and the Control of Men”

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