Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century

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9780747568605: Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century

A century can be understood in many ways - in terms of its inventions, its crimes or its art. In Opening Skinner's Box, Lauren Slater sets out to investigate the twentieth century through a series of ten fascinating, witty and sometimes shocking accounts of its key psychological experiments. Starting with the founder of modern scientific experimentation, B.F. Skinner, Slater traces the evolution of the last hundred years' most pressing concerns - free will, authoritarianism, violence, conformity and morality. Previously buried in academic textbooks, these often daring experiments are now seen in their full context and told as stories, rich in plot, wit and character.

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About the Author:

Lauren Slater is the author of Welcome to My Country, Prozac Diary and Love Works Like This, and has written articles and contributed pieces to the New York Times, Harper's, Elle and Nerve. Her essays are widely anthologized and she is a frequent guest on US radio shows, including 'The People's Pharmacy' on NPR.

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.

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