Opening Skinner's Box, by Lauren Slater

A look back by Slater at what she considers to be ten of the most influential psychological experiments of the 20th Century, including:

Slater presents her own take on the experiments: as well as describing what happened, she provides biographical detail (either real or hypothesized) on the experimenters and discusses the ways that subsequent research and understanding of human behaviour has been shaped by what happened in those laboratories. She also reflects on the implications for her personal situation; this is psychology taken out of the lab and into real life.

I think only two of the chapters in the book concerned experiments that I'd not come across before (those on Alexander and Kandel) but even those that I was very familiar with from studying in college were brought them to life in a way that made them seem fresh. She interviewed some of the experimenters, and also family members, and critics and supporters, which provided human interest.

Something that comes up a couple of times is that the power of these experiments lies not just in the data which they provide about human behaviour, but in their power to affect our perception of ourselves. Many of Milgram's subjects sent letters of thanks and claimed to have had their lives changed as a result of taking part in his experiments, and Slater herself recalls how, on first hearing of how subjects administered what they believed to be fatal electric shocks, "I felt a shock of recognition...and I knew that I could do such a thing, not because some strange set of circumstances propelled me to, no. The impetus lay within me, like a little hot sport. It was not external. It was internal...I'd like to think, now that I've made such an intimate acquaintance with Mr. Milgram..that I'd do the dance a little differently when my number is called"

For the Rosenhan experiment, where researchers visited mental hospitals and claimed to be hearing voices, in order to see whether they'd be diagnosed as mentally ill, Slater repeats the experiment herself, claiming to be hearing a voice which says "thud". Unlike Rosenhan and his confederates, she isn't admitted as a patient, but is prescribed drugs. She's also diagnosed as showing symptoms of depression, which worries her because that's something that she's suffered from in the past, and for a moment she wonders if it's come back.

What was new to me was the experiment carried out by Bruce Alexander: while it is commonly accepted that lab rats who are given heroin appear to become addicted to it, and will go to extraordinary lengths to obtain more doses of the drug, crossing electrified floors, neglecting their need for food, etc., Alexander suggested that the reason for their desire for a fix was a product of their environment, rather than a pharmacological addiction. Alexander set up a "rat park", where rats had everything they could want, rather than being cooped up in a cage, and attempted to get them addicted to opiates. He gave the drugs to rats for over seven weeks, then offered the rats the alternative of drug-laced or non drug-laced water to drink. Those in "rat park" went for the drug-free water.

Alexander's conclusion was that "addiction" in humans, like rats, is not inevitable, but is a lifestyle choice that may be taken by people who feel the drugs provide some escape from the environment which they live in. In some ways this is backed up by the evidence that "ninety percent of the men who became 'addicted' to heroin on the war fields stopped using when they hit home turf, and stopped simply and quietly, never to go back to compulsive use". This ties in with Nick Davies' article in the Guardian. But such a message is not very politically acceptable and so Alexander has come in for a fair amount of criticism.

Also interesting was the stuff about Loftus; I'd heard of her experiments on eye-witness testimony but in the book an experiment ("Lost in the Mall") is described where an attempt was made to implant false memories in subjects, and the results (25% of them came to believe that there had been an event in their childhood when they'd been lost) helped convince Loftus that psychoanalysts who claimed to help people recover memories of childhood abuse were dangerous. Loftus acts as an expert witness in many trials. But Loftus critices Slater's book, and claims that it does not fairly represent her position.

In fact, a look around on the web suggests that several of her interviewees are not happy with the book, claiming to have been misquoted, etc., so I suppose her conclusions need to be taken with a pinch of salt, but it's nonetheless a compelling and thought-provoking read.

Completed : 16-Jul-2004

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