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Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century Paperback – February 17, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Psychologist Slater's account of 10 of the most influential-and controversial-experimental forays into the mind's inner workings is neither clinical nor dispassionate. Slater (Lying, a Metaphorical Memoir) is a relentlessly inquisitive eccentric somewhat in the mold of Janet Malcolm, and her examinations of such (in)famous experiments as Stanley Milgram's "electric shock" obedience studies and Harry Harlow's "wire monkey" attachment researches are defiantly personal, even intimate. Slater takes the often bleak news about the predictability and malleability of human behavior revealed by such theorists as B.F. Skinner deeply to heart, and her book is as much urgent reassessment as historical re-creation. The brilliant chapter on David Rosenhan's experiment, in which volunteers presented vague symptoms at psychiatric facilities and were immediately admitted, proving that the diagnosis of "mental illness" is a largely contextual affair, is the most flamboyant and revealing example of Slater's method. She is not only frank about her own experiences as a patient in psychiatric institutions but-as she does elsewhere-she reproduces the experiment personally. That Slater-after an average office visit of less than a quarter-hour-is prescribed a variety of drugs rather than being locked up does show a change in clinical methodology, but confirms Rosenhan's thesis. This combination of expert scientific and historical context, tough-minded reporting and daringly subjective re-creation serves to illuminate and humanize a sometimes arcane subject. If this leads to occasionally florid prose, and a chapter on "repressed memory" scourge Elizabeth Loftus in which Slater's ambivalence shades toward outright hostility, this is still one of the most informative and readable recent books on psychology.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From The New England Journal of Medicine

Toward the end of the 18th century, Immanuel Kant argued that psychology could never be a science, because the mind, being immaterial, could not be measured. But less than 100 years later, Wilhelm Wundt established the first psychological laboratory to study aspects of sensation and perception, and by the early 1930s, the scope of psychology as a quantitative, experimental science had progressively extended to include "higher" mental processes (feeling and desire as well as cognition), personality, social interaction, development, and psychopathology. Then the boom was lowered. Around the time of World War I, John B. Watson had argued that psychology would never be a science as long as it focused on people's private mental states. In the late 1930s, B.F. Skinner, Watson's spiritual heir, redefined psychology as a science of behavior whose sole method was to trace the functional relations between observable stimuli in the environment and organisms' observable responses to them. In this book, Lauren Slater, a psychologist and popular writer (her previous books include Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir [New York: Random House, 2000]), offers an account of psychology's progress since Skinner. After a chapter on Skinner himself, she considers nine other landmarks in the history of psychology after World War II: Milgram's experiments regarding obedience to authority, Rosenhan's notorious "pseudopatient" study, Darley and Latane's research on bystander intervention, Festinger's analysis of cognitive dissonance in a flying-saucer cult, Harlow's exploration of attachment in monkeys, Alexander's analysis of environmental factors in morphine addiction, Loftus's "lost in the mall" demonstration of false memory, Moniz's invention of psychosurgery, and Kandel's work on the neural basis of learning in the marine snail aplysia. In each chapter, Slater provides a narrative account of the work, lays out its background and sequelae, interviews some of the experimenters and other authorities, and reflects on its wider implications. Slater's book has already aroused controversy. Reports in the New York Times and elsewhere suggest that at points Slater may have taken too many liberties with her material. Skinner's daughter Deborah has objected to Slater's account of her experience in the Air Crib. Several of Slater's interviewees have disputed her quotations from them, and some of the episodes she recounts call for a certain amount of skepticism on the part of a reader. But Opening Skinner's Box is not a scholarly monograph; it is clearly an exercise in creative nonfiction, so perhaps we should give its author some leeway in that respect. More disturbing are what appear to be fundamental misunderstandings of the progress that Slater describes. For example, Slater is surprised to find that the original "Skinner boxes" are not black. But the black box in question is not a piece of laboratory apparatus at all; rather, the term refers to a conception of the behaving organism as a device that collects stimuli and emits responses but whose inner workings, mental or biologic, need not be examined. We do not learn that the postwar hegemony of Skinner's system was actually challenged from within, by investigators who explored the cognitive and biologic constraints on what animals could learn -- findings that indeed opened up Skinner's box and reoriented psychology toward the mind and mental life. Slater's book is engaging, provocative, and even fun to read. But it can be read profitably only by someone who is already familiar with the material it discusses and who is prepared by virtue of this independent knowledge to engage with the author. In the last chapter, Slater laments that she failed to find Deborah Skinner, though it turns out that Deborah is alive and well and living in London. For all her looking, it seems that Slater has failed to find contemporary psychology as well. Experimental psychology is not, as Slater concludes, "all about doing good." And it is not heading "inevitably, ineluctably" toward biology, either. It is all about knowing how our minds work, which includes the biologic but also the social basis of mental life. In this sense, postwar psychology did indeed open up Skinner's box. But a naive reader would not necessarily understand, from this book alone, precisely how that feat was accomplished. John F. Kihlstrom, Ph.D.
Copyright © 2004 Massachusetts Medical Society. All rights reserved. The New England Journal of Medicine is a registered trademark of the MMS. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 288 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company; Reprint edition (February 17, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0393326551
  • ISBN-13: 978-0393326550
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.8 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 9.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (103 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #15,634 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

LAUREN SLATER is the author of "The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals" (Beacon Press, 2012) and "Playing House: Notes of a Reluctant Mother" (Beacon Press, Nov. 2013). A psychologist and writer, Slater is the author of five books of nonfiction: Welcome to My Country, Prozac Diary, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir, Love Works Like This, and Opening Skinner's Box, as well as a collection of short stories, Blue Beyond Blue. Slater has received numerous awards, including a 2004 National Endowment for the Arts award, multiple inclusions in Best American volumes, and a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Photographer Photo Credit Name: Dianne Newton, 2012.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

73 of 83 people found the following review helpful By L H on June 28, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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.
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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful By A. H. Esterson on March 27, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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.
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39 of 48 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on May 31, 2004
Format: Hardcover
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.
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