Advice for a New Secretary of State, Part 6; How to Use a Skinner Box

In Part 5, Advice For…, we have an abstract argument that operant conditioning could be an effective tool to curb some of the activities of a nation-state. We want the Russians to cease subversion of our political process via social media and fake news.  B.F. Skinner’s numerous publications explain in general terms how this should be done. Now let’s get specific.  A U.S. response, what Skinner calls the reinforcer,  to inhibit the Russian operant,  should:

  • Occur quickly after the operant, preferably overlapping the operant itself.
  • Be  implemented according to Skinner’s research on schedules. This rules out actions that are one-shots, without the possibility of unlimited repetition.

Since we’re dealing with a supra-organism, a nation-state, other requirements can be inferred. Unlike a small furry animal in a box, which knows when it is shocked and when it gets a treat, we must ensure that the Russians are aware of both their operant, and our reinforcer. This is what you did, and this is what we’re doing. It may take the form of a simple note,  a web page, or a PowerPoint presentation. Who do we want to target?

  • If the reinforcer is known only to a small elite group, the effect of the reinforcer can be obviated with spurious explanations.
  • if the reinforcer is widely known to the Russian public, then it risks what Skinner’s warning on page 120 of Beyond Freedom and Dignity, reinforcement of the wrong thing. If viewed as a political threat, it forces the Russian government into a propaganda war. This is counter to the goal.
  • We want the behavior modification of our reinforcer to increase the satisfaction of the Russians as well as ourselves. In other words, we want to them to feel happier if they stop, than if they continue despite the reinforcer.
  • This is best achieved if a high-to-mid level of the Russian bureaucracy is aware of the reinforcer.
  • The process must be fair. It must not be subject to political manipulation that changes how the Skinner Box works.

We want a low key public approach, neither a whisper or a shout, that the Russian propaganda machine would prefer to skip over, rather than amplify.

Our actions are reinforcers that significant Russians, and those who approach significance, care about. What should they be? The Russia sanctions are analogous to the person-to-person behavior of passive aggression. This is the psych term for aggression by one person against another by not acting. In foreign relations, “passive aggression” is the only form of aggression that is rarely interpreted as a casus belli.

Five cabinet-level departments have the potential to implement Skinner’s reinforcers: State, Commerce, Justice,  Treasury, and Homeland Security. The actual ability to do so relies on a framework of administrative law that only partially exists. Changes to administrative law for this purpose may encounter resistance. Bureaucrats may protest a legal intrusion. Entrenched interests may lobby intensively.

But the threat to democracy is as great as Nikki Haley says. So this is what we need to do:

  • For sanctions already in place, administrative law must be developed that permits changing the sanctions with the speed required to implement Skinner’s requirement, that the response overlap the operant. This implies lifting some sanctions, but with the supple threat to reimpose, in days if not hours.
  • Specifications should be developed for new sanctions that, too severe for the long term, could be used in the short term as responses to operants.
  • The large body of administrative law under the purview of State and Homeland Security should be examined for possible use as operant responses.
  • This is our Skinner Box. It has to work smoothly and rapidly. This cannot be accomplished through a normal deliberative process. A central authority, with  technical expertise in operant conditioning, should work the levers and, with the help of the intelligence community, measure the result.  The State Department fits well as the umbrella, provided that political insulation can be provided.
  • After Russia has spent some time in our Skinner Box, they should have a feeling akin to the exhaustion of the impulse of a small furry animal, but in words: “Why are we doing this? We’re getting nothing out of it.” The possibly unattainable perfect result would be if this feeling were accompanied by no other, such as rage, anger, or desire of retribution. We just want them to quit.

So that the Russians understand why a reinforcer is used, we have to give them least a hint of why. There could be a metric, based on the level of social media hacking, volumes of fake news generated, and other forms of subversion, according to a semi-public formula. A simple daily chart, attachable in emails, would explain our dissatisfaction. The only constraint on openness is the need of the intelligence community to “obfuscate” , to partially disguise the data. We can’t allow the Russians to discover in detail how we monitor subversion, or how to game the system.

The Russians have expressed continuing interest in cooperation in the fight against terror. Russia’s long southern border should make this their most important foreign policy concern. The Ukraine, Assad’s genocide, and uncertainty about Russia’s actual goals in the region are strong deterrents to cooperation. Perhaps things will change, creating new possibilities for engagement with Russia.

Ironically, the more engagement with the Russians, the greater the possibilities to deter their noxious habits of political subversion. The Russians have their own technology of subversion and social control, developed  in the Soviet Union, and to the pinnacle  in East Germany as Zersetzung. An effective Western counter strategy must also leverage technology, of which operant conditioning is one example.

Next: Ethics, theirs, and ours.