A Glimpse of Psychology’s Greatest Experiments

OPENING SKINNER’S BOX:
Great Psychological Experiments of the
Twentieth Century

By Lauren Slater
W. W. Norton 2004
Cover Image: Opening Skinner's Box

In the Roaring Twenties, in the midst of what Canadian humorist Stephen Leacock called an “outbreak of psychology in America,” Henry Knight Miller, a 31-year-old Methodist minister, resigned his Brooklyn pulpit to start a psychology magazine for an American public eager to reap the personal benefits of the new science. Banking on this enormous popularity of psychology with the general public and his success in generating interest in his self-help sermons, Miller produced his first issue of Psychology: Health, Happiness, Success in April 1923. He told his readers that psychology held the keys to self-determination. As the science of mind, psychology was the royal road to health, happiness, and success. He expressed dismay at the inability of psychologists to communicate the practicality of their work to the public. But that would be his role. He would get beyond the jargon and technicalities of this new science and translate the research into prescriptions for public consumption.

Lauren Slater, the author of Opening Skinner’s Box, doesn’t promise health, happiness, and success to her readers, but she does promise, as a psychologist and author, to translate the arcane nature of some of psychology’s most famous experiments into a narrative for public understanding and appreciation. She writes, “It seemed sad that these insightful and dramatic stories were reduced to flatness that characterizes most scientific reports, and had therefore utterly failed to capture what only real narrative can – theme, desire, plot, history – this is what we are. The experiments described in this book … deserve to be not only reported on as research, but also celebrated as story, which is what I have here tried to do” (15). Alas, Slater is no more successful in explaining the nature and consequences of science in this book than was Miller in his magazine.

As one who believes that psychologists need to write more for public consumption, and less for ourselves, I began reading this book with high expectations. The goal of the book – to turn science into narrative – promised an interesting read, as did the 10 experiments selected for the book, studies by Skinner, Milgram, Rosenhan, Darley and Latane, Festinger, Harlow, Alexander, Loftus, Kandel, and Moniz. The book opens with a chapter on B. F. Skinner, a dangerous choice for any author claiming special explanatory skills, because Skinner’s work is both so elegantly simplistic in its description and so profoundly complex in its implications and the questions it raises. The chapter, like the book, is entitled “Opening Skinner’s Box,” a title that is ambiguous given the many boxes in Skinner’s life from his operant chambers; to the air crib where his younger daughter, Deborah, spent some of her time as an infant; to his early teaching machines. Reading the chapter does not clear up the ambiguity. Indeed, there is none of the focus in this chapter that a reader can find in later chapters, for example, on Milgram’s obedience studies or Loftus’ work on false memories.

The theme of the story of Skinner is still a mystery to me. The author seemed early on to be interested in Skinner’s notion of control but confessed that she did not read Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) until very late in her research. She is fascinated by the air crib and its effect on Deborah Skinner (Buzan), but evidently never made any effort to contact her. Indeed, there is no experiment of B. F. Skinner’s that is discussed in this chapter. Instead, the reader is told that when Skinner arrived at Harvard as a graduate student in 1928, psychology “was a numberless field sharing more with philosophy than physiology,” and that psychology was the stuff of “introspection” and “mentalism” (22). Not only is the author’s history off, but so is her basic comparative anatomy in her claim that rats “have brains no bigger than a boiled bean” (24). She does not understand the important distinction between reinforcement and reward. She wonders if Skinner realized at the end of his life “that the final act of life, which is death, cannot be learned or otherwise overcome” (27)?

Slater chastises Skinner for his poor public relation decision of publishing his article on the air crib in the Ladies’ Home Journal, evidently unaware of his own published statements about his hopes for some commercial success from the invention. She writes that Skinner’s “proposed name of his invention: Heir Conditioner … is either frightening or just plain foolish.” It was not Skinner’s name for the device but one generated by a Cleveland businessman, Weston Judd, who for a time partnered with Skinner in an unsuccessful venture. Skinner liked the name as a clever play on words, but shortly rejected it for the preferred label, air crib.

When Julie Vargas, Skinner’s older daughter, invites the author to tour the Skinner house in Cambridge, she takes Slater into Skinner’s study, which has been left as it was when he died 14 years earlier. Vargas shows Slater a piece of chocolate with Skinner’s bite mark, a chocolate he was eating just before his death. According to Slater, Vargas says, “I want to save this chocolate forever” (43). Later, when Vargas leaves the room, Slater tells the reader “I take a tiny bite, leave my mark right next to his, and on my teeth the taste of something very strange and slightly sweet” (43).

With that revelation, I certainly feel that the “theme, desire, plot, and history” of Skinner’s work have been revealed to me. I feel no reason to read further, but I have promised this review and so read on.

In the Milgram chapter I learn the startling fact that Bruno Bettelheim is a “paragon of humanism” (69). Much of this chapter is based on interviews with two individuals who claim to have been subjects in Milgram’s experiments, one who resisted the pressure of the situation and quit after “administering” 150 volts, and the other who went all the way. The focus is tighter in this chapter and the nuances of the meanings of Milgram’s experiments are generally well explored.

Slater, admitting to a personal history as an institutionalized mental patient, offers her insights on Rosenhan’s “experiment” in getting himself and friends admitted to mental hospitals in the 1970s. And, evidently in the spirit of showing that times haven’t changed much, Slater attempts a “replication” of Rosenhan’s ruse, visiting nine emergency rooms in nine days, never being admitted but getting prescriptions from all for her complaint, like Rosenhans’ confederates, of hearing voices that say “thud.” In the Harlow chapter, the drive reduction notions of Kenneth Hull and Clark Spence (148) are described. Finally, to test Alexander’s notions of addiction in the chapter on “rat park,” Slater offers her insights based on her decision to try morphine for 14 days.

Portions of the previous paragraph give evidence of one of the principal flaws of the book, a decision by Slater to impose too much of her own life into the research stories she is telling. Psychology teaches us that we typically try to make sense of the world, even the scientific world, by establishing connections between our personal lives and what we are trying to comprehend. Yet Slater’s autobiographical sketches often seem more intrusive than explanatory. They appear as digressions by an author who doesn’t seem to know what to make of the science she is trying to relate.

Psychology needs individuals who can accurately and meaningfully portray our science and practice to a public who seems ever interested in the mysteries of human behavior. Thus I applaud the intent of this book. Further, it is, in the main, an interesting and entertaining read. Yet, in this reviewer’s opinion, the book fails in its avowed mission. It provides accounts of these great experiments as stories but does not convey them as research. As such the book lacks the scientific legitimacy that would give credibility to the narratives. It offers us only a glimpse – a brief and incomplete view.


Observer Vol.17, No.6 June, 2004

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