Opening Skinner's Box: ten psych experiments that remade the world

Lauren Slater's Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century is one of those popular science books that leaves you feeling a lot smarter after you finish it. Specifically, it makes you feel smart enough to feel kind of dumb and humble -- to feel like your received wisdom about the world and your place in it needs to be rethought.

Slater traces the history, personalities and science of ten momentous psychology experiments, from the infamous Stanford obedience experiment to experiments on the construction of false memories, the experimental use of lobotomy, experiments on addiction, compassion and indifference. You've probably heard of many of these experiments -- for example, Elizabeth Loftus's notorious "Lost in the Mall" experiments on false memory -- but if you're like me, you only retained a cursory impression of the experiment and its conclusion. Here, Slater fills in the whole story: the experimenter's personal history, the social upheaval arising from the conclusions drawn, the detractors' arguments. Where possible, Slater interviews the actual experimenter -- when that can't be done, she tracks down experimental subjects, mentors, spouses, anyone who can provide the context.

The book opens with Slater's quest to find Deborah Skinner, BF Skinner's daughter whom "everyone knows" was raised in a sterile, experimental transparent box, and grew up to be a mad broken person, a memorial to her father's terrible hubris. What she discovers is Skinner's descendants, living happy and well (including the supposedly deceased Deborah), and the truth about the Skinner box: it was designed to maximize personal attention from parents, to maximize experimental play by the baby, to minimize harm and punishment arising from a baby's first clumsy gropings. A psychiatrist herself, Slater turns to Skinner's reviled works on political theory -- the supposedly reductionist, cryptofascist tracts that show how a population can be trained into docility -- and discovers in them a humanist streak that matches well with the most progressive ideas of today.

From here, Slater moves on to Milgram's obedience experiments, uncovering the identity of one of the subjects in the experiment as well as Milgram's former lab assistants, and unpicks the conclusions of the experiment, and discovers the untold story of the experiment: the subjects, scarred by the simulated execution to which they'd been a party, spent the rest of their lives thinking for themselves, refusing to go along to get along.

From there, Slater goes on to look at Rosenhan's psychiatric diagnosis experiment (normal people go to a mental ward, complaining of a voice saying "thud" and are diagnosed as insane, medicated, and finally released "in remission") -- and then re-enacts it, going to many emergency rooms complaining of the same symptoms, to see what happens (she's given antipsychotics, but not held). This is a springboard to discuss Slater's own mental health history (she was institutionalized as a teen), and the ways that diagnosing mental illness have become more concrete and less impressionistic in response to Rosenhan's research.

And on: research into how and why we freeze in emergencies, into how bystanders could allow Kitty Genovese to be brutally murdered while they watched from their apartment windows, on Festinger's extraordinarily cruel experiments on separating monkeys from their mothers and the compassionate results that he came up with, on Bruce Alexander's shocking conclusions on the biological basis for addiction, and then onto the use of drugs and surgery to alter the brain.

Shot through this is Slater's life story, the conflicts with her family, and her compassion for the researchers, even the ones who are unequivocal monsters. Her style is lush, bordering on florid, filled with poesy and metaphor, and though it sometimes gets in the way, it mostly does its job and makes every detail vivid and memorable, every puzzle fascinating and frustrating.

This is a great book, about great things, many of them done by bad people. The ten experiments that Slater investigates have shaped the world we live in, informing our theories of the mind, our penal system, government, education, relationships, employment -- all of it. I love secret histories, and this one is a doozy.

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

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

Update: After its initial publication in 2004, this book generated a lot of controversy; this Salon article does a great job of summing up both sides of the debate (Thanks, Goldfroggy!)