Audience Theory:

A note on behavioural-modification research

The idea of individual choice and freedom (in terms of the selection, consumption and interpretation of media production) therefore sets up an oppositional stance against the idea of state / corporate ‘mind control’ that seeks authority to shape and modify human behaviour and interaction. As was highlighted earlier in this post with references to political communication, underpinned by techniques and processes of direct messaging, with intentions of direct ‘hypodermic‘ effect.

In her recent book on the Age of Surveillance Capitalism Shoshana Zuboff provides an analysis of Behavioural Management research, an approach that had ‘dispersed from government-funded (typically CIA) psychology labs and military psyops to a range of institutional applications . . . including prisons, pyschiatric wards, classrooms . . . ‘ (2019, p.321). In particular, she critically analyses the work of B. F. Skinner noting that ‘Skinnerian behaviour-modification practices expanded rapidly during the 1960s and 1970s . . . which prescribed a future based on behavioural control, rejecting the very idea of freedom (as well as every tenet of a liberal society‘ (p. 321). Referring to the Senate Subcommittee investigation into Constitutional Rights, she quotes from the preface of the 1974 report, authored by Senator Sam Ervin:

. . . technology has begun to develop new methods of behavior control capable of altering not just an individual’s actions but his very personality and manner of thinking . . . the behavioral technology being developed in the United States today touches upon the most basic sources of individuality and the very core of personal freedom . . . the most serious threat . . . is the power this technology gives one man to impose his views and values on another.

(cit. Zuboff pp322-3)

To be clear, my point is that technologies, such as, mass communication technologies – television, radio, print etc, are concerned with influencing, affecting, modifying, adapting and altogether changing human behaviour. It is therefore one of the key undertakings of media studies to engage, analyse, decode and reveal such practices and to come to some form of evaluation and judgement as to who is (attempting) to do what, to whom, when, where, how and for what purpose?

As Zuboff highlights, again drawing on the 1974 sub-committee report, ‘a major segment of the emerging behavior control technology is concerned with conditioning, through which various forms of persuasion are used to stimulate certain types of behaviors while suppressing others‘ (p.324) As an illustration of that approach, it is worth looking at Cultivation Theory, which specifically drew upon the prevalent concerns around the power of the media to impact upon and transform behaviour, or to use a key term the power of encultration.

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