Let’s Talk About Behaviorism

 

Social media and the power of the oligarchs who control and censor what is published on their platforms has become a topic of debate and controversy at home and abroad. On the one hand, social media is touted as a great tool for communication, the life’s blood of societal intercourse. On the other, it is denounced as a corruptor of youth and a purveyor of lies. It is used by the Cancel Culture to cancel anyone who does not follow the official line. It has become the backdoor approach to annulling the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

This should not surprise us. Ivan Pavlov, in the late 1800’s, taught his dog to salivate when offered food and, at the same time, ringing a bell. Then salivate at the ringing of the bell without the food. For more than a century and a half, psychologist have studied how this can be achieved in humans. They have become very good at it.

Take the advertising industry. How are they able to convince us that we need their product even though we never knew we needed it? Why are certain colors, backgrounds, and logos utilized to catch the eye and produce the desired reaction, i.e., to buy their product? Why do politicians seek the right photo op, use the same phrases, etc.? Like Thorndike’s Puzzle Box, we are merely cats seeking a way out of the box to get the prize.

In my book published over twenty years ago, I warned of the power of Behaviorism and its destructiveness to human relationships. The book is published in toto on my website (see). Here is a sampling:

HOW WE VIEW BEHAVIOR DIVIDES US

THE GAME: THE DEVIL MADE ME DO IT

Perhaps the most baffling question lingering from the shooting at Columbine High in Littleton, Colorado, is why these boys chose to do what they did, killing and maiming so many people. Some blame the Internet, some the entertainment industry, some the video games, some the National Rifle Association, some the parents of the shooters, and on and on. Under the surface of the blame game is the basic philosophy that the shooters were products of their environment. If we could somehow change the environment, we would do away with these acts of violence.

I call this game “The Devil made me do it,” not because people believe in a real devil and blame him, but because they are simply seeking a scapegoat. Another name for this game is Behaviorism. It is a belief system that places much of the blame for the destructive behavior today on the environment or on genetic makeup.

Behaviorism as a philosophy divides us because it teaches that individuals are not morally responsible for their behavior. Yet accepting responsibility for one’s actions is the very thing needed for healthy relationships in society.

Behaviorism is “a movement in psychology that advocates the use of strict experimental procedures to study observable behavior (or responses) in relation to the environment (or stimuli).”[i] Behaviorism seeks to discover why people behave the way they do. In its simplest form it seeks to examine through observation the cause and effect of behavior and then to draw conclusions that can be used to alter that behavior.

I call it a game because, on the one hand, behaviorists have become adept at controlling human behavior. To see how effective Behaviorism is, we need to consider the advertising industry today and its ability to sell almost anything. This ability comes from conclusions drawn by behaviorist who study human behavior. On the other hand, behaviorists are quick to deny that they are to blame for the destructive behavior stemming from the products sold using methods devised by the techniques they have developed. Behaviorism is more than mere scientific study of human behavior. It has become a philosophy because it is based upon some basic presuppositions that do not belong in the field of scientific investigation, presuppositions such as morality that cannot be put into a test tube and measured.

Also consider the recent revelations regarding how Facebook has been using algorithms on its platforms. According to a whistleblower, Facebook has been utilizing algorithms to manipulate teens and pre-teens, all the while knowing the damage it was doing.[ii] Behaviorism is a reality and has become warp and woof of modern culture. In fact, given the power of the internet, Behaviorism has stepped out of the closet as a driving force both for good and for evil. Couple this now with the way messaging can be manipulated behind the scenes through algorithms without the end user knowing. Large groups of individuals can be induced to perform in certain ways without their knowing they are being manipulated.

How is a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ able to withstand the manipulation?

First, we must recognize that this manipulation is taking place. It may be as innocuous as what brand of breakfast cereal to buy. Or as serious as what political ideology to follow. The apostle John, at the end of the first century, wrote:

Do not love the world, nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. And the world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God abides forever.[iii]

The Greek term for world in this context is kosmos. It refers to the arrangement and governance of life under the sun, i.e., physical existence. While we must live in this world, we are not to be of this world.

While the manipulation of human behavior, i.e., Behaviorism, is a relatively new philosophy in history, it is not a new phenomenon. By the time John wrote his account of the gospel of Jesus Christ and his epistles, Gnosticism had inundated the church. This can be seen in the number of times John refers to kosmos in his writings. Of the one hundred and eighty-six times the term is used in the New Testament, it occurs seventy-eight times in his gospel account and twenty-five times in his epistles. While Satan is the god of this world, he uses men to manipulate this world for evil.

Second, we must recognize our own susceptibility to manipulation and use the spiritual tools God has given us to avoid its pitfalls. Paul wrote:

I urge you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship. And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.[iv]

Careful consideration of the context will show that what is in view here is individual behavior in the context of the local church. Our Lord Jesus Christ has assigned to His Body, the local church, the task of rescuing, guiding, and guarding individual believers from the manipulating influences of the world. Many today are moving away from local affiliation with other believers of like faith and doctrine. This leaves the untutored vulnerable to the clutches of Satan and Behaviorism. We must not allow Behaviorism to control our thoughts and actions. We need one another.

Third, we need to be students of God’s Word. The transformative process of renewing our minds takes time, effort, and due diligence. As a pastor and educator for over fifty years, I am amazed at how little the average professing Christian knows regarding the Bible, how to study it, and how to apply it to their lives. Christianity is the only religion that has such an instrument to ward off the evils of Behaviorism.

This was true in the Old Testament. Speaking to Israel through Moses, God commanded:

Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one! And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart; and you shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.[v]

This exhortation was repeated again so that Israel would take heed:

You shall therefore impress these words of mine on your heart and on your soul; and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. And you shall teach them to your sons, talking of them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road and when you lie down and when you rise up. And you shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates, so that your days and the days of your sons may be multiplied on the land which the Lord swore to your fathers to give them, as long as the heavens remain above the earth.[vi]

If the study and assimilation of God’s Word was so important in the desert of Palestine, how much more important is it today?

Fourth, we need to understand how to use the Bible to guide us through the pitfalls of Behaviorism. James called this soul salvation.

Therefore, putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls.[vii]

But how do we know if the choices we make stem from God’s leading us or from the manipulations of the world?

For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.[viii]

The only way to know if we are being manipulated by the world or responding to the spiritually-apprised things of God is by knowing His Word.

Fifth, we need to learn how to walk in the Spirit every day and every moment of every day. Paul wrote:

Now we have received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might know the things freely given to us by God, which things we also speak, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in those taught by the Spirit, combining spiritual thoughts with spiritual words. But a natural man does not accept the things of the Spirit of God; for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually appraised. But he who is spiritual appraises all things, yet he himself is appraised by no man. For who has known the mind of the Lord, that he should instruct Him? But we have the mind of Christ.[ix]

The indwelling Holy Spirit is the gift of God’s presence within us individually given the moment we are born of God. We need to learn to walk in the Spirit as individuals.[x] We also need to learn to live by the Spirit corporately within the framework of a local church.[xi]

Paul concluded his epistle regarding the church with this admonition:

Finally, be strong in the Lord, and in the strength of His might. Put on the full armor of God, that you may be able to stand firm against the schemes of the devil. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore, take up the full armor of God, that you may be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming missiles of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.[xii]

Resisting Behaviorism is a constant battle. It is a battle in which we as individual believers need to be engaged. But we must not see it as a battle we can win without a gathering of fellow believers, a local church, to help us. It is also where we use our spiritual gifts to help others in the church stand against the evils of Behaviorism.

[i] “Behaviorism,” Microsoft® Encarta® 97.

[ii] Facebook hit by a barrage of reports from consortium of news outlets (cnbc.com)

[iii] 1 John 2:15-17.

[iv] Rom 12:1-2.

[v] Deut 6:4-9.

[vi] Deut 11:18-21.

[vii] Jas 1:21.

[viii] Heb 4:12.

[ix] 1 Cor 2:12-16.

[x] Gal 5:16-23.

[xi] Gal 5:24-6:10.

[xii] Eph 6:10-17.