On the Ethics of Curiosity: Observing Behavior at the Voyeur’s Motel

Adrienne Fitzer, MA, BCBA

Guest Author

For forty minutes I was captivated by The Voyeur’s Motel , written by Gay Talese and published in the The New Yorker this past month. While the article focuses on Gerald Foos, a self-admitted voyeur who buys a motel and converts 14 of the rooms so he could have a clear view of the beds from a specially designed attic space above them, some might argue the real story is Gay Talese’s. Approached initially via letter in 1980 by Gerald Foos himself, Mr. Talese enters into a decades long relationship during which he receives, by mail, the detailed hand written copies of the journal entries that Gerald Foos kept of his secret observations. Prior to the first delivery of copied journal pages, Mr. Talese admits that he visited the hotel and spent time in the crawl space with Mr. Foos, attesting that he wouldn’t have believed it if he hadn’t seen it himself. In The New Yorker piece, Mr. Talese, a well known author, admits to signing a nondisclosure agreement, and keeping Mr. Foos’ crimes a secret.

As someone interested in all types of human behavior, I was glued to the article. We get a glimpse of the motel guests’ behavior when they are behind closed doors – the marital fights, the affairs, the obscene, and the obscenely day-to-day.

We learn about the unbelievable effort and care Gerald Foos put in the design and alteration of the motel so he could view his guests and journal his observations in excruciating detail. Finally, there is Talese’s behavior. ¹He signed the nondisclosure agreement, agreed to receive and read the written accounts but keep them a secret, and, when Gerald Foos gave permission (after he felt the statute of limitations would be up), he wrote a book based on them which, not surprisingly, both will profit from.

Toward the later part of the piece in The New Yorker, Talese informs us that nothing is left of the now demolished hotel. The truth is, there is no evidence that there ever was an attic space or that any of the reported observations actually occurred except for the countless pages of handwritten accounts sent to Talese by Foos. Talese himself argues that there are inconsistencies that concerned him. Readers will find that while the focus was primarily the behavior of his guests, based on what Talese reported in the The New Yorker piece, some of Foos’ writings lead us to believe Foos may have suffered from delusions of grandeur and had significant depressive episodes, both of which may have impacted the accuracy of his observations (if such observations did occur).

No motel, unreliable documentation, and no evidence that any of this actually occurred. Well, there is Talese. We take his “word” that there was an attic crawl space because he said there was; the “I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it myself.” Perhaps it did exist. But perhaps it didn’t. What a profitable ruse that would be.

Assuming for a minute we accept that indeed Foos was the voyeur his written accounts say he was, and each one of the accounts were accurate, are the data and conclusions drawn from the observations he made valuable enough to put aside the clear violation of the motel guests’ right to privacy? It is a valid question. We know that behavior changes when individuals are observed, at least initially. It was one of the reasons Foos felt his research was far superior to Kinsey’s research on human sexual behavior. Kinsey’s work was impacted by observer effects. His work was not. The written accounts must be incredible.

I am curious.

Is Foos correct that we all are a little bit of a voyeur? Maybe. Can I chalk it up to my interest in human behavior as a behavior analyst? Maybe. I admit that I want to know more about what went on behind those closed doors (perhaps a testament to Telese and his journalistic brilliance). I want to know more about Gerald Foos’ behavior. It intrigues me. Without a doubt, Taleses’ behavior is equally as intriguing. I want to know why he didn’t report Foos. I want to know why he did not report a murder Foos documented when he had evidence of one. It couldn’t just be fear of being sued over breaking a nondisclosure.

I am curious.

I find myself in an ethical dilemma of sorts due to this curiosity. Reading The New Yorker article was one thing, but can I bring myself to actually purchase Taleses’ book when it is published?

Being bound to the BACB Professional and Ethical Compliance Code I look to it for guidance.

1.04 Integrity

(a) Behavior analysts are truthful and honest and arrange the environment to promote truthful and honest behavior in others.

(b) Behavior analysts do not implement contingencies that would cause others to engage in fraudulent, illegal, or unethical conduct.

If I purchase the book and contribute to the profit made by two people who engaged in obvious fraudulent, illegal, and unethical conduct, does my behavior, in part, increase the likelihood that others would engage in fraudulent, illegal, and unethical conduct, hide it, and then publish it years later for profit? I don’t know. Maybe.

I am curious, but I am not willing to take the chance.

1 For those of you looking for an excellent example of the power of intermittent reinforcement, look no further. Foos often did not experience sexual arousal or pleasure because of the mundane nature of the behavior displayed by guests. Sexually arousing situations occurred much less frequently than he hoped, yet his behavior persevered.

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