This type of book needed to be done, but this foray into the "real" people and ideas behind the most influential psychological experiments is entirely disappointing. I am a professor who teaches psychology and hoped to gain insight for my classes. Instead, I found a disturbing account by a author who couldn't get past her own self-absorption. It may have been entertaining to read a subjective account of an author's experiences with these famed individuals, if Slater's own troubled personality hadn't been so evident.
Anyone going through a psychology program has been taught about the history of psychology, which includes an evaluation of different approches, such as behaviorism, and also includes the ethical issues of earlier experiments like Milgram's. We also know that prominent psychologists are very "human" and often very flawed individuals. However, Slater's portrayals of the people she interviewed for this book are unsympathetic to the point of being cruel.
For example, Skinner's aging and mourning daughter is "a little too passionate about dear old dad."
The use of an electric defibrilator to attempt to revive Stanley Milgram during a heart attack was compared to his "shock" experiments, while his body is described as "flailing like a fish's."
Harry Harlow's wife died of breast cancer, and is described as "turning a saffron yellow, her mouth pulled back in a masked grimace, her teeth peculiarly sharp looking, monkey teeth, mad." This was evidently, to bring in a "monkey" image to his wife's illness and premature death.
Sometimes, Slater is merely annoying, as when she says she "hoped" that Harry Harlow held his wife's hand in the doctor's office, or says she "imagines" that Rosenhan was "smug" while trying to get himself committed to a mental hospital.
Other times she's just weird, as when she confesses to taking a bite of a 10 year-old piece of chocolate, left half-eaten by Skinner.
There are a few interesting pieces, such as when Slater attempts to replicate Rosenhan's study. She went to mental health centers/hospitals saying she heard "thud." She was treated well, diagnosed as mildly psychotic or depressed, and given a prescription. That would seem to be a good description of current practice and is an interesting update on Rosenhan's work.
She also found some individuals who participated in the Milgram studies, and describes the trauma some continue to experience.
But, getting this interesting material means reading through an annoying and personalized writing style. Slater is at least as flawed and unpleasant as the "big" names (and their families and colleagues) she delights in skewering.
A. H. Esterson
A factual point first. In her chapter on Skinner, Slater does eventually spell out unambiguously that the stories about his daughter Deborah that Slater has previously presented as what is widely believed in some circles are completely untrue. But by exonerating her on this one issue I am far from giving a welcome to this book. On the contrary, even before I read the complaints by prominent psychologists to the President of Norton Publishers that Slater had invented parts of the purported conversations she had with them, and that her accounts of psychological experiments contained serious errors, I had reason to doubt the veracity of the author. From lengthy extracts in the Guardian newspaper in January, and lengthy excerpts from the book on BBC Radio 4 "Book at Bedtime" (five quarter-hour readings from different chapters), I formed the opinion that some of the author's accounts of her experiences, including passages in the alleged conversations she had with current psychologists, were very unlikely to be true. Likewise the detailed account of her first attempt at replicating Rosenhan's experiment concerning the diagnosis of someone who only pretended to have symptoms of severe mental illness seems to me to be largely a product of her imagination. Rebecca Berlin, from Montreal, deplores what she calls a "smear campaign" against Slater. It is depressing that genuine attempts to ascertain, and on clear evidence, doubt the veracity of material in Slater's book, including material that is extremely damaging to psychologists working today, is described as a "smear". It would be better for people like Ms Berlin to keep an open mind until they have had an opportunity to see the evidence adduced by critics of Slater's book.
After reading how controversial Opening Skinner's Box is, I had to read the book myself. Some of the people interviewed in the book are claiming to have been incorrectly quoted, and some psychologists take issue with Slater's scholarship and conclusions. Having been warned not to take the facts too seriously, I thought it would still be intriguing to consider the deeper questions posed by the scientists who performed the experiments described in the book.
And it was intriguing. Slater debunks the myth that B.F. Skinner raised his first child in a "box" in order to conduct an elaborate behavior experiment on her. The box turns out to have been a high-tech playpen designed and built by the doting father that Skinner apparently was. Another famous experiment which revealed that most people would torture another if encouraged by a benign authority figure was especially chilling in light of the Abu Ghraib torture by American guards.
However, I came away with the distinct impression that Slater is a nut. Slater seemed especially enthusiastic about recreating an experiment in which normal people pretended to be demented enough to enter a mental hospital, then reverted to normal behavior and waited to see how long it would be before they would be discharged. Slater checked into some eight different hospitals. She also took some of the anti-psychotic meds she was prescribed rather than tossing them.
She reveals that she was unable to recreate the experiment strictly, because under the original conditions, the pseudo-patients would be truthful after being admitted, but Slater actually had a mental hospital stay in her past, so she lied. And I simply didn't believe that bit about biting the ten-year-old chocolate bar in the Skinner House at first. As I read more of the book and learned more about Slater, it wasn't so unbelievable any more.
Anyway, Opening Skinner's Box is definitely an unusual book. It poses many thoughtful questions about the nature of humanness. It is well-written, but I can't vouch for how well-researched it is or how factual. It is extremely interesting and thought-provoking, and more than a little creepy.
This is a remarkable book not only for its content, but for the way it is written. What Lauren Slater does extremely well is (1) provide a context for the experiments and personalize them; (2) insinuate herself into the narrative in meaningful ways; and (3) write the kind of prose that is vivid and psychologically engaging. She has the gift of the novelist, and she is not satisfied with the conventional surface of things.
But there is an edge to Slater's prose. She dwells on the horrific: the lobotomies, the monkeys being abused for the experimenter's purposes, the living rats with their brains exposed... She does/doesn't believe that the means of animal experimentation justifies the ends of neurological knowledge. This dialectic that she holds in her mind, now favoring the value of experimental psychology, now questioning it, may leave the reader dissatisfied and confused. Where DOES Lauren Slater stand? She says she stands "with this book" for which there is no conclusion, even though she writes a concluding chapter with that title.
So it is not so strange that among these "great psychological experiments" she finds nothing like solid ground. Instead she waffles between experimenter and experiment, between one interpretation and another. And while she addresses the experiments themselves and the controversies they raised, more significantly she addresses the experimenters themselves, challenges them with sharp and sometimes impertinent questions; and when the experimenters are not available, she finds relatives or friends and fires loaded questions at them. Slater wants to find the truth, if possible, and to be fair; but often what she finds is that she doesn't know what the truth is, and that life is oh, so complex.
This is refreshing and of course disconcerting. She began with an attitude of deep distrust, for example, toward B. F. Skinner, the man who had put his daughter in a box, the man who apparently cared more for experiment and establishing behaviorism than he did for human beings, a man whose conclusions could pave the way to a new and more horrible fascist state. But Slater plunges in and finds that his daughters loved him and that the one who supposedly committed suicide is alive and well. Slater even realizes, after being confronted by Julia Skinner Vargas, one of the daughters she interviewed by telephone, that she, Slater, hadn't read Skinner's magnum opus, Beyond Freedom and Dignity--had instead, like most of us, myself included, known it only by reputation, bad reputation.
So Slater reads the book and when she is through she compares Skinner to a "green" Al Gore and speculates that "maybe" Skinner "was the first feminist psychologist." Quite a turnaround.
But this is characteristic of Slater's approach. Become engaged. Keep an open and flexible mind. Dare to believe what others are afraid to believe. Turn on a dime. And this is right for this book since many of the experimenters did exactly that: they sought to show where the conventional wisdom was wrong; and they sought to turn psychology on its head.
The first piece I read (opening the book at random) was "On Being Sane in Insane Places." This is about how in the early 1970s, Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan and eight collaborators showed up at nine different mental hospital around the country and told the shrinks they were hearing voices. The voices said one word: "Thud." They were committed even though otherwise they acted normally. Their stay was from fifty-two to seven days each.
This experiment created a sensation and a scandal in the psychiatric community and caused a complete overall in the DSM II (we have DSM IV today). The diagnostic language was rewritten so that the definitions became measurable, and the volume grew by two hundred pages.
Slater decided to replicate the experiment. She went to mental hospitals and said she heard a voice that said, "Thud." What she got were prescriptions for antipsychotics and antidepressants.
There are ten chapters and a conclusion. "Obscura," the second chapter deals with Stanley Milgram's infamous electric shock experiment which showed that ordinary people would, guided by the authority of the experimenter, administer what they thought were possibly lethal shocks to fellow human beings. Another chapter looks at Leon Festinger's experiment with infiltrating a doom's day cult and seeing what happens when doom does not arrive at the appointed hour. What happens is "cognitive dissonance"--which I would call "elaborate rationalization."
Still another chapter is devoted to the famous "Lost in the Mall" repressed memory experiment by Elizabeth Loftus which demonstrated how subject to suggestion are our memories. Loftus who, along with Katherine Ketcham, wrote The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (1994), showed how a false memory of being lost in the mall as child could be suggested to people and how they would not only come to believe it, but would confabulate all sorts of "remembered" detail around an event that never happened.
This is a book that may make some practicing psychologists uneasy. (And they may write nasty reviews.) Certainly Slater does not play to their feelings. Quite the opposite. Toward the end she asks: "At what point does experimental psychology and clinical psychology meet? Apparently at no point. I interviewed twelve licensed practicing psychologists...and none of them even knew most of these experiments, never mind used them in their work." (p. 253)
And Slater is not enchanted with the new psychopharmacology. She argues that Prozac, Zoloft, and other psychoactive drugs may have long term effects worse than lobotomies. In fact the point of Chapter 10: "Chipped" is to tell the story of a man who benefitted from a cingulotomy (the modern, streamlined lobotomy) after electroshock therapy and after "more than twenty-three...psychiatric medications" had failed him.
The walnuts pictured on the cover come from this statement about the brain on page 249: "there is still something holy about that three-pound wrinkled walnut with a sheen."
I just finished the book and found it fascinating. I came to Amazon to see what other people were saying about it. Here's what they're saying:
1) Slater is a compulsive liar, the book is full of inaccuracies and possibly lies, and therefore worthless.
2) The book was poorly edited.
3) The book is beautifully written and eye-opening.
I can't really judge on point 1, but I pride myself on a strong "lie-dar". I have twice started reading new books that I knew nothing about, decided party-way through that they were probably fiction presented as fact, and then found through online research that either my hunch was correct or that at least lots of other people agreed with me (the latter in the case of Cameron West's "First Person Plural", which seems to me like fiction through-and-through).
On point 2, the book was indeed poorly edited (it contains an embarassing number of misspellings and improper word use, and "per say" is unforgiveable).
On point 3, Slater really is a fantastic writer. Lyrical, capable of spinning various themes in really intelligent and fascinating ways. I found the book stunning on those grounds.
Some of the people attacking the book are motivated by personal/psychological politics. Slater casts doubt on the notion of recovered memory, and that's sort of a "third rail" in psychology. Try to suggest that sometimes a father is wrongly accused of incest because a daughter (perhaps unconsciously) fabricated the story, and lightning will surely strike you. See, for example, the reviews on Elaine Showalter's "Hystories".
But now that the seed of doubt has been planted in me, I have to admit that I raised eyebrows many times while reading the book, notably during her descriptions of her own exploits (like biting the chocolate in Skinner's study) and in her recounts of interviews, where she always seems like the balanced, insightful person speaking to a brilliant experimenter who somehow comes across as a bit dim.
On the whole, I'd say: buy and read this book if you want to be entertained, but take it as fiction, not fact. She who lies about the little things cannot be trusted to tell the truth in the big things. I'm sorely disappointed.