The Perfected Self: BF Skinner and Behavior Modification Make a Comeback
B. F. Skinner’s notorious theory of behavior modification was denounced by critics 50 years ago as a fascist, manipulative vehicle for government control. But Skinner’s ideas are making an unlikely comeback today, powered by smartphone apps that are transforming us into thinner, richer, all-around-better versions of ourselves. The only thing we have to give up? Free will.
MY YOUNGER BROTHER DAN gradually put on weight over a decade, reaching 230 pounds two years ago, at the age of 50. Given his 5-foot-6 frame, that put him 45 pounds above the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s threshold of obesity. Accompanying this dubious milestone were a diagnosis of type 2 diabetes and multiple indicators of creeping heart disease, all of which left him on a regimen of drugs aimed at lowering his newly significant risks of becoming seriously ill and of dying at an unnecessarily early age.
He’d be in good company: a 2007 study by TheJournal of the American Medical Association found that each year, 160,000 Americans die early for reasons related to obesity, accounting for more than one in 20 deaths. The costs are not just bodily. Other studies have found that a person 70 or more pounds overweight racks up extra lifetime medical costs of as much as $30,000, a figure that varies with race and gender. And we seem to be just warming up: cardiologists who have looked at current childhood obesity rates and other health indicators predict a steep rise in heart disease over the next few decades, while a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development projected that two-thirds of the populations of some industrialized nations will be obese within 10 years.
Dan had always been a gregarious, confident, life-of-the-party sort of guy, but as his weight went up, he seemed to be winding down. Then, on a family visit to Washington, D.C., early last year, he and I dropped in on the National Gallery of Art, where 10 minutes of walking left him so sore in one leg that I had to find him a wheelchair. That evening, I decided to say the obvious: He was fast heading to incapacity and an early grave. He had a family to think of. He needed to get into some sort of weight-loss program. “Got any suggestions?” he retorted. As it happened, I did.
Today, my brother weighs 165 pounds—what he weighed at age 23—and his doctor has taken him off all his medications. He has his vigor back, and a brisk three-mile walk is a breeze for him…
In short, Dan seems a lot like many of the people in the National Weight-Control Registry, the research database of those who, despite the popular wisdom that avoiding weight regain is a Herculean task, have kept off a minimum of 30 pounds for at least a year. Most of us know someone who lost weight years ago and has kept it off, and we all see celebrities who claim to have slimmed down for good using plain old diet and exercise, from Bill Clinton to Drew Carey to Jennifer Hudson. But we keep hearing that the vast majority of us—98 percent is a figure that gets thrown about—can’t expect to do the same.