The People Shapers

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

People shapers are dangerous. That’s what Vance Packard is selling the public this time around. “Human engineers are at work in a variety of fields. They are increasing the capacity of a relatively small number of people to control, modify, manipulate, reshape the lives of a great number of other people. . . . Control is being achieved over human actions, moods, wishes, thoughts.” Hidden persuaders, waste makers, status seekers, and pyramid climbers have all had their turn on the (book) rack; now those who shape people must do their stretch.

Who are the People Shapers? There are two more or less distinct groups: the behavioral psychologists and the biological scientists. Shaping, however, is a misnaming of the biological true-life amazing stories that Packard relates in his compendium of science news. The scientists who are busily doing research on test-tube births, embryo transplants, sperm banks, rented wombs, bionic replacements, cloning, and other forms of genetic juggling should really be called—at the risk of suggesting a sequel—the body makers. In any event, the attempt to bring behaviorists and biologists under the same cover does not succeed because each represents a different type of danger, and each therefore requires a different type of safeguard.

According to Packard the danger of behavioral control techniques, aside from any inherent aversion we might experience, is twofold. These techniques often produce counterresults, and they may fall into the hands of a dictator. The real danger of biological body making, again aside from any inherent aversions, rests only in the latter. The ability to create would allow a dictator to populate a nation with robotlike creatures. But when reacting to this frightening prospect, it should not be forgotten that dictators have never needed biological technology to gain power, let alone to keep it. And so the surest safeguard against dictatorial eugenics consists of preventing a Stalin or a Hitler from rising in the first place. The same prophylactic measure would, of course, eliminate the corresponding danger of behavioral controls—which leaves us with only the danger of undesired results to consider. And, as we shall see, a consideration of the question of consequences leads to the conclusion (denied by Packard) that recent managerial techniques do play a role in the shaping of people.

The first problem that a reader encounters in examining Packard’s views on what he describes is in finding them. Not that they are not there. They are, strewn throughout his paraphrase-quote-reparaphrase journalistic account of a smorgasbord sequence of stories. Once found, the problem becomes one of discerning some coherent patterns that dominate the sometimes incompatible pieces of commentary. Hopefully, our discussion of results has overcome both problems.

The purpose of classroom conditioning is to encourage learning. But, says Packard, there is no indication that actual learning is enhanced by any of the behavioral modification projects he relates. Indeed, he sympathetically alludes to a whole school of educational thought that believes that “such a rigid structure in fact inhibits learning.” Even the use of drugs to control student behavior, notes the author, fails to improve school performance as measured by the Iowa Test of Basic Skills. And as for the use of drugs to improve memory, the author concludes that forgetting can be beneficial because it prevents minds from being dulled by the clutter of details and lets time heal all wounds. (Though Packard evidently would be opposed to the use of drugs to erase memory, because a dictator could use them to make people forget about popular democratic leaders or what it was like to be free.) The upshot of these criticisms involving countereffects is that they imply that such manipulations of people would not be dangerous, in a democracy, if they only had the effects intended. Hence in the midst of selling his readers on the deplorable nature of human manipulation per se, Packard opens the door to the possibility of control that is desirable. If only conditioning and drugs really did help us to learn, to be brighter instead of duller, then we would presumably have grounds for adopting these techniques for controlling behavior. In fact Packard does recommend the “enrichment” of the environment of students (to improve their intelligence) and the offering of a morning glass of milk to them (as a calmative?). Drugs, though, are still to be avoided—“until someone comes along with a pill for wisdom.”

Nowhere is the full import of Packard’s...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

Book World. October 16, 1977, p. E8.

Christian Century. XCIV, November 23, 1977, p. 1096.

Library Journal. CII, September 15, 1977, p. 1830.

New Republic. CLXXVII, December 10, 1977, p. 31.

New York Times Book Review. October 23, 1977, p. 10.

Psychology Today. XI, September, 1977, p. 122.