The Perfected Self

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.

From my cover story in the June 2012 issue of The Atlantic


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…read more

5 thoughts on “The Perfected Self

  1. Lauren Harris says:

    You really missed the boat in your article. You spoke several times about AA working so well for alcoholics. Haven’t you ever heard of OA? (That’s Overeaters Anonymous) It works for overeaters as well as AA does for alcoholics. I encourage you to check it out.

    • My one and only comment about the efficacy of AA was that it and other 12-step programs “are widely regarded as effective treatments.” Apparently you agree. (Did you happen to catch any of the other 6,500 words in the article?) Yes, I’m familiar with OA. I think it’s a good program. I didn’t have room to mention it specifically in the article. If that’s “missing the boat,” I’m content to stand on the dock and wave goodbye.

  2. mike jolin says:

    Hi. I’m in the middle of Wrong and think it’s great. Have you thought of doing a book on the mis-use of data in the public education debate. As a Supt of Schools, I think it would be great. i was trained as a sociologist at Brown by a professor by the name of Martin U. Martel ( now passed) who schooled me in the work of Karl Popper who was just quoted in the 6/24/2012 New York Times in an article “Political Scientists Are Lousy Forecasters” by Jacqueline Stevens as follows, “Long-term prophecies can be derived from scientific conditional predictions only if they apply to systems which can be described as well-isolated, stationary, and recurrent. These systems are very rare in nature;modern society is not one of them.” One of the commentaries on social science ever, and I think right up your ally! Keep up the good work!

    • Popper is surprisingly rarely mentioned (outside of certain academic circles) given how seminal his work was to understanding what the scientific process can or can’t do for us. All students should be taught more about those who gave us great insights into the squishiness of supposedly evidence- and logic-based claims. (Most of us are pretty good at recognizing how our opponents in any debate distort the truth, we’re just terrible at seeing how we do it ourselves!)

      I’m sure there’s a great story in how findings and “facts” are distorted when experts and others try to sell their cases on education. I’m more focused on health these days, but education is always of interest, I’ll keep it in mind. Thanks!

  3. Aaron Stillerman says:

    Hi. I am writing an essay for school that is based largely upon “The Perfected Self.” You mention quite a few smartphone apps that may help motivate one to lose weight and become a healthier individual. I am curious as to which app(s) your brother used as his motivation.

    Thanks much!

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