About

The Malign Hand is a site devoted to essays on psychological, economic and sociological topics from the point of view of behavioral psychobiology. The theme is a variant of Adam Smith’s invisible hand.  Smith famously wrote that when the merchant sells you something “he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”   But there are many situations where the opposite is true.  For example, when the shepherd adds another sheep to the common land “he intends only his own gain, but he is in this, as in many other cases, led by a malign hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.”  This is the well-known tragedy of the commons, but similar processes operate in financial markets.  The malign hand is the theme of my book on financial markets and the causes of the disaster of 2007-8: The Malign Hand of the Markets.  One conclusion is that because of excessive influence of ‘big finance’ on the legislative process, existing regulations  are too complicated and too indirect to be effective in preventing future crises.   I have also written on behaviorism and legal responsibility (The Atlantic Monthly; Feb 1995; pg. 88. http://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/handle/10161/5124)  and rational traffic control (The Atlantic, http://www.theatlantic.com/doc/200807/traffic/1).  Responsibility, contra BF Skinner and some others, does not depend on the concept of free will (Skinner’s ‘autonomous man’), rather the opposite.  If behavior cannot be controlled by its consequences, there is no point in rewarding or punishing it.  US accident rates are higher than rates in some European countries, probably because of the confusing, excessive and often contradictory system of traffic signs and speed limits  that has grown up here.   

Education & Career

John Staddon was educated first at University College, London, then after a year at Hollins College in Virginia he studied under Richard Herrnstein, obtaining his PhD in Experimental Psychology at Harvard University. He has done research at the MIT Systems Lab, Oxford University, the University of São Paulo at Riberão Preto, the National Autonomous University of Mexico, the Ruhr Universität, Universität Konstanz, the University of Western Australia and York University, United Kingdom. He has also taught at the University of Toronto.

Since 1967, Staddon has been at Duke University; where he is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology, and Professor of Biology and Neurobiology, emeritus.   He is an Honorary Visiting Professor at the University of York (UK). He is a past editor of the journals Behavioural Processes and Behavior & Philosophy and present editor of PsyCrit, a journal of commentary. Work in the Staddon laboratory has focused on explaining interval timing in terms of memory, and explaining choice in terms of interval timing and the law of effect.  Work with past students and postdocs has included work on feeding regulation as well as spatial navigation, concurrent choice, and habituation. Many of John Staddon’s publications are available at  http://dukespace.lib.duke.edu/dspace/browse?authority=0101137&type=author  

 

Publications

In addition to lectures on education and social issues, Staddon is the author of more than 200 research papers and six books, including:

  • The Malign Hand of the Markets:The Insidious Forces on Wall Street that are Destroying Financial Markets – and What We Can Do About it, (McGraw-Hill, 2012)
  • The New Behaviorism, 2nd Edition, (Psychology Press, 2014)
  • Adaptive Dynamics: The Theoretical Analysis of Behavior, (MIT/Bradford, 2001)
  • Adaptive Behavior and Learning (Cambridge University Press, 1983, new edition forthcoming)