On Kent McClelland's paper about social power

[From Bill Powers (931210.1145 MST)]

Kent McClelland:

Thanks for the copy of your wonderful article, "Perceptual
control and social power." Getting this introduction to PCT into
print is a great accomplishment, particularly because it is so
clear and well-written. I think your analysis of social power
opens the way to some real understanding of this phenomenon.

While reading your paper I was inspired to have a thought about a
facet of social power that is not mentioned. Skinner's concept of
a "contingency," while not analyzed correctly by Skinner, is
still a useful concept and I think bears resurrection.

A contingency is a cause-effect relationship imposed by the
environment. If you drive your car into a tree, the car will be
damaged. That is, the condition of your car is contingent on
where you drive it. Likewise, if you want to drive from Durango
to Denver, you will not arrive at Denver unless you drive on the
roads. So achieving the goal of driving to Denver is contingent
on driving your car where the car is capable of going. And again,
if you want to drive from First Avenue to 30th Avenue along Main
Street in Durango, your success is contingent on driving at
considerably less than 50 miles per hour; if you drive too fast,
you will be arrested.

The first of these contingencies is in the class of natural law:
nobody can drive a car (at speed) into a tree (of large size)
without damaging the car. There's nothing personal in it; that's
just how the world works.

The second contingency is man-made, because the roads were built
by human agents. They were built along certain routes and not
others; they provide access by car to certain places and not to
others. By building roads where they are, the builder in effect
said, "Here are the ways a person can go by car." Driving to a
certain place is contingent on staying on the roads that already
exist. Nobody can just build a road to go to any arbitrary place,
so the choice of places to drive to is limited, as is the route.
There was nothing personal in the choice of where to build the
roads; that is, the builders were not thinking of the convenience
of any particular person (normally).

The third contingency is also man-made, but it is not a physical
thing: it is a social rule. It says that anyone who drives in
that place above a certain speed will be arrested. Still nothing
personal: the rule isn't aimed at you or President Clinton, but
at anyone who exceeds the cutoff speed. Driving from A to B
successfully is contingent upon following this rule. In this
case, the contingency is not implemented by a physical
arrangement of the environment, but by the actions of a person.

The special property of a contingency in relationship to behavior
is that it does nothing but create links between actions and
consequences. It does not say whether a person should seek or
avoid those consequences, or that the person must do or not do
the act that leads to them. It just says that if the act is
performed, the consequence will follow. A Skinner box is set up
so that for every n presses of a lever, a piece of food will fall
into a dish. This box in no way says that anything or anyone has
to press the lever, or that the appearance of the food in the
dish is of consequence to anything or anyone. It just says, "If
you do this, that will happen."

When an entrepreneur opens a bagel shop, a contingency is
established: if you go into that shop and pay the asking price,
you will be handed a bagel. Conversely, if you don't enter the
shop or don't pay the price, you get no bagel. That's just how
this little corner of the world operates. If you don't want a
bagel, you don't have to go into the shop or pay any money. Even
if you do want a bagel, you don't have to enter the shop. The
shop is simply a cause-effect entity, which can be operated by
anyone who is willing to do what is required. A person could
enter the shop, pay the money, and throw the bagel away. Nothing
forces the person to do anything, at any stage.

So contingencies are not force, coercion, or influence. They are
simply properties of the world, some natural and some artificial.
People can take advantage of them or not, as they please. In PCT
terms, contingencies are part of the feedback function that
converts actions into perceptual effects.

Contingencies in themselves never control behavior, but they do
say that if a person wants something, only certain ways of
getting it are available, and if the person wants to avoid
certain experiences, then certain ways of getting things must be
avoided (and the two other combinations as well). A contingency
is always expressed in such if-then terms, like a natural law.
Artificial contingencies add to those that naturally exist: if
you want to fly, then you have to use a flying machine. Of course
if you don't want to fly, you don't have to use a flying machine.

All social projects establish contingencies. The establishment of
contingencies goes beyond the kind of social influence that comes
simply from people aligning their goals. A contingency is not a
control action taken with respect to any given person, in the way
a bigoted white community can band together to make life
miserable for a black person who moves in. The contingency simply
lies there until someone has a goal that involves the
contingency; then the if-then rule is triggered, and the person
finds that only certain behaviors will work to attain the goal.
If you want to drive a car legally, you have to have a driver's
license; if you want a driver's license, you have to go to the
place where they are issued and pass some tests. If you want to
pass the tests, you have to write down the correct answers or
drive a car in a way that satisfies an examiner.

Social contingencies obviously proliferate and form a network of
subcontingencies, sometimes an almost impenetrable network. This
network has no physical existence independent of people; it
consists entirely of people who have chosen to act in certain
ways, according to rules they have accepted. The policeman who
issues a speeding ticket is not carrying out a personal
relationship with the offender, but simply implementing a
contingency that he or she has accepted as the way to do this
job. That is why the offender is called "the offender" instead of
Joe Smurf. The offender is whoever acted in a way that triggered
the contingency.

Contingencies form an impersonal social system that transcends
the alignment of individual goals and the exertion of direct
influence by a group of persons on one individual. Contingencies
are established by people with aligned goals, but they are not
control actions in themselves. What they do is define properties
of the social world without regulating behavior, just as physical
laws establish properties of the physical world without
specifying particular occurrances. The main difference between
social and physical contingencies is that people can complain
about social contingencies and act to change them. All that can
be done about physical contingencies is to change your goals or
look for loopholes.

So, do you think contingencies belong on the list of means of
applying social power?



Bill P.