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A Review of "Shelly’s Heart" by Charles McCarry

A Review of "Shelly’s Heart" by Charles McCarry

Charles Mc Carry is a former journalist and best-selling author of novels of intrigue. Apropos to this summer of political conventions, “Shelly’s Heart ” is the story of political maneuvering at the highest levels of government as two political parties vie for control of the White House in the aftermath of a controversial, contested election.

This book was published a few years after B. F. Skinner’s death, at age 86, 1991. It was a surprise to find the behavior of several characters in a novel so explicitly interpreted in terms of Skinner’s observations about behavior. Rather than review the plot or the writing per se, given the focus of the Aubrey Daniel’s Institute’s web site, I will critique Mr. Mc Carry’s interpretations of his characters’ actions in behavior-analytic terms. To this end, what follows are several quotes from the book relevant to the theme of the review, each followed by some comments about the author’s statements. The pages listed are for an electronic (iBook) version, using Times New Roman font and set such that the book in its entirety was 894 pages.


The first allusion to Skinner is as follows:  

“Hammett [one of the central characters in the story] was a believer in B. F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, which holds that an organism will naturally repeat behavior when it is reinforced by properly designed rewards. By “organism” Skinner meant any sentient being, from pigeons to members of the I.Q. elite. …” (Page 185)

Comment: This is a reasonably straightforward statement of the reinforcement principle and its generality across species.

He continues:

“… Pigeons, for example, were conditioned by his methods to guide nuclear missiles to a target by inducing them to peck an electronic switch in response to a certain radar picture. The bird was instantaneously rewarded with something to eat every time its beak struck the right button in response to the correct image. …” (Page 185)

Comment: Several errors here. Yes, Skinner did train pigeons to guide bombs by pecking a response key, but everything else is incorrect. Most importantly, the pigeons weren’t guiding “nuclear missiles.” The research was done during the Second World War, before nuclear weapons had come on the scene. The pigeons were being trained to guide conventional bombs dropped from airplanes. Nor were they viewing a “radar picture.” They viewed movie films of (enemy) naval vessels. Moreover, technically speaking the pigeons did not receive something to eat with each peck of the button (response key). To ensure that pecking was maintained long enough for the bomb to reach its target, reinforcement was intermittent (occurred only occasionally), a common way to maintain behavior for long periods of time with infrequent reinforcement. It also should be noted that Skinner’s demonstration was just that, it was never implemented in a wartime theater of operations and, in fact, research on it was discontinued as radar guidance of bombs developed …

The next part of this section is as follows:

“… The objective of operant conditioning is not to ‘cure’ or ‘correct’ negative behavior or to instill unnatural behavior, nor does punishment play any part in the system. Its objective, rather is to reinforce an already existing tendency or instinct to behave in a certain way by rewarding the organism in such a way that it associates the reward with the behavior. Soon the organism develops such a craving for the reward that it will invariably behave in the way that produces it.” (Page 185)

Comment: The first two sentences are more or less accurate, especially with respect to Skinner’s personal views on punishment (something many outside observers of his world view get wrong).  I wouldn’t say that the organism “associates the reward with the behavior.” For me it adds an unnecessary layer of interpretation. I consider it sufficient to describe the functional relation between the response and its consequence. The last sentence is not consistent with Skinner’s view at all. Reinforcement does not have its effect because the organism craves the reward. In fact, craving often is, erroneously, inferred from the fact that the reward maintains the behavior. To say behavior occurs because the organism craves the reward is circular logic that behaviorists find unacceptable as an “explanation” of the effects of reinforcement.


“ … Men and women, though capable of far more complex behavior than pigeons in response to much more subtle stimuli, will nevertheless behave in the same predictable fashion in response to a well-designed program of stimulus and reward. Hammett was interested in reinforcing a certain kind of political behavior, based on a system of beliefs that already had been instilled in his subjects by earlier teachers. His predecessors had created a tribe of young believers by bestowing such irresistible rewards as personal encouragement and praise, higher grades than were strictly deserved, honors, prizes, recognition, power, and the psychological support of like-minded tribe – and of course side benefits in which Hammett himself was not interested, chiefly sex and money. …In short, he taught them to want a certain reward, self-esteem, and then gave it to them in return for Shellyan good works. This was the ultimate Skinnerian result.” (Pages 185-186)

Comment: These observations introduce a darker interpretation of Skinner’s reinforcement principle that is a theme in other popular renditions of Skinner’s ideas: An all-powerful Controller exerting control over a malleable, even vulnerable person or persons to bring their behavior in accord with the Controller’s wishes. Here, the author presents a group of intelligent, highly motivated people as sheep being led to the slaughter by following the reinforcement stick. This is a gross oversimplification of both the individuals and the context in which they work. Reinforcement is a naturally occurring phenomena that pervades the behavior of living organisms, as the author pointed out in the first quotation above. It certainly may be possible to change behavior in the ways described in this quote, but this is like damning the science of physics because it led to the development of nuclear weapons. The findings of any science can be applied in ways to the detriment of humankind, but that same science can be applied to great good as well. In the case of Skinner’s reinforcement principle, it has been used perhaps a million more times for god than for the kinds of outcomes described in this quotation.  I would be remiss to negate the possibility of its misuse, but I would caution readers, and authors to be circumspect in presenting scientific principles in simple black-and white fashion, too.    


“Curiosity, as he knew, was one of the greatest of all reinforcements to behavior …” (Page 410)

Comment: Technically speaking, the author is treating curiosity as a thing, something that behavior analysis does not do. Reinforcers are defined functionally -0 in terms of their behavioral effects – not categorically.  To be even pickier, I would suggest that in this circumstance, if behavior is maintained it is not be the curiosity but by the satisfying of it.


“ …’What was her emotional state?’

Zarah said, ‘I don’t know.’

‘But you saw her jump up and heard her make an accusation.’

‘It was more in the nature of an exclamation. But I had no way of knowing what she was feeling.’

‘You didn’t observe her state of mind?’

‘I observed her behavior. …’” (Page 513)

Comment: Yes. Love it.


“These developments did not surprise Hammett. He understood them for what they were, a predictable programmed, Skinnerian response by an organism to a stimulus. The organism was the Cause (sic). The stimulus was Olmedo’s charge that there was something false about Hammett.” (Page 774)

Comment: Here, the author shows an unusual, and commendable, level of sophistication about Skinner’s system by alluding to the fact that it operates not simply at the level of individual organisms. In this example, he is suggesting that the principles apply to organizational behavior – collective behavior of a group – as well as to individuals. This positive observation is offset, however, by the rather mechanical, automatic stimulus-response nature of behavior (see Mechanics and Behavior).


“In the Skinnerian sense, these men and women were reinforced by every word, every ruling, every gesture Hammett made. Each of them was touched by the sound of Hammett’s words in exactly the same part of his psychology, and all reacted as one.” (Page 776)

Comment: This is a rather confusing passage to a behavior analyst like me. I am not sure what is being reinforced by the things described. By “touched … in exactly the same part of his psychology” the author could mean that the viewers’ attending to the proceedings was maintained. The last phrase seems to say that the reinforcer was the same for the behavior of each of the listeners.


“He had made an instantly recognizable reference and that was what had activated the organism. That was the stimulus that set off the whole reaction, projecting into every good person’s mind the famous black-and-white television image of unshaven, uncouth, unspeakable Joe McCarthy, while in the background the quivering voice of reason asked. (sic) ‘Have you no decency, sir? At long last, have you no decency?’ Hammett was pleased with himself; he had triggered it all with subliminals. It did not begin with Skinner, or even Pavlov.” (The text then goes on to relate an example from Hammett’s past relevant to the observation.)(Page 776)

Comment: No doubt stimuli can set the occasion for behavior, particularly those associated with a history of reinforcement or punishment. But, as in the previous quote, the example implies automatic action without accounting for the organism’s history of reinforcement in the presence of particular stimuli that play a critical role in determining subsequent behavior in the presence of those stimuli. This implied automaticity is compounded by including Skinner and Pavlov in the same sentence, a common but inaccurate equivalence that often shows up in popular writing. Here, the author doesn’t exactly equate them, but he doesn’t distinguish them either.   


“... withholding information from Sturdi acted as a stimulus to her. Some of her most remarkable behavior had been a response to this. When she needed managing, he would not tell her something. She would respond with resentment. He would then reinforce her desire to be trusted with an irrelevant scrap of data that made her even more curious. Thereupon she would go out and so something she supposed he wanted her to do (she did not always read his wishes accurately), and then he would reward her.” (Page 779).

Comment: This passage suggests the use of behavior principles to manipulate and control others, which I have commented on above.


Final Observations: These passages illustrate Mr. Mc Carry’s use of a Skinnerian, behavior-analytic framework for considering the actions of his characters at different times during the course of the novel. Such direct interpretation of actions in terms of behavior principles struck me as unusual in a fictional work. Kudos to the author for grappling with this analysis of at least some his characters’ actions. I do note, however, that many of the interpretations are in terms of automaticity, manipulation, and negative control, despite what Mr. Mc Carry says about positive reinforcement. It is unfortunate that the invocation of Skinner’s framework is applied mostly to characters behaving nefariously. This framework for understanding human behavior applies equally to humankind’s best actions and noblest deeds, and it could have applied with great effect in accounting for the behavior of the positive characters in the story. Doing so would have yielded a more balanced picture of how behavior principles operate in everyday life.  

Charles Mc Carry is a former journalist and best-selling author of novels of intrigue. Apropos to this summer of political conventions, “Shelly’s Heart ” is the story of political maneuvering at the highest levels of government as two political parties vie for control of the White House in the aftermath of a controversial, contested election.


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