Lauren Slater, who is a psychologist herself, introduces Opening Skinner’s Box by explaining that her desire in writing the book was twofold. First, she wanted to take the great psychological experiments of this century out of their dry lab reports, out of the bar graphs and jargon, and put them into the narrative form that would make them exciting and accessible. Second, she wanted to consider what these great experiments have to offer in the way of insight for a new world. Can we still understand ourselves better in the light of experiments done fifty or more years ago?
Each chapter tackles a different experiment: Skinner’s famous behaviorist rat-boxes; Milgram and his subjects who blithely shocked others in obedience to authority; Rosenhan, whose subjects faked their way into mental institutions and then behaved perfectly normally, in order to see whether trained psychiatrists could detect that they were actually sane. One chapter deals with cognitive dissonance, another with Harry Harlow and his experiments proving that monkeys need touch and play from their mothers even more than they need nutrition, another with addiction, and still another with psychosurgery such as lobotomies. Each chapter is fascinating in its own right, simply because it describes an earth-shaking experiment, an often-controversial psychological discovery that made us rethink how we saw ourselves and changed everything from clinical practice to public policy.
Slater also succeeded brilliantly, usually through the use of narrative, in making me think about the implications of each experiment. The best example is probably the Milgram experiment, which explored whether subjects would be willing to administer shocks they believed to be painful or even lethal when told to do so by an authority. Sixty-five percent shocked their way up the scale under no greater pressure than someone in a white coat saying, “The experiment requires this to continue.” It’s reflexive: you ask yourself, would I do that? What would stop me? Ethically, how strong am I? I found myself thinking about the implications of this experiment far into the night. And Slater insists that this is the great strength of this experiment as well as others: it teaches us to look inside ourselves and react differently in future than we otherwise might.
The book had a few flaws. Slater brought each experiment, even one about a sea slug, back to herself, her own experience, her own beliefs and desires. After a while, it began to feel a bit solipsistic; after all, this isn’t a memoir. I could have done without the note of personal angst at the end of every single chapter. However, some of those interludes were useful and interesting, such as the one where she repeated Rosenhan’s experiment, trying to get admitted to local mental institutions, so I’ll cut her some slack on that front. (This was also another book I read recently in which there were many, many proofreading errors. Irritating as all get out.)
These minor flaws in no way spoiled this book for me, however — I found it riveting! I had heard of a lot of these experiments, but not all of them, and the ones I had heard of were fragmentary in my mind. I’m so glad to have a more complete idea of this century’s psychological history, and to have read this fascinating, accessible account of it.