In Opening Skinner’s Box Lauren Slater attempts to “celebrate as story” 10 famous psychological experiments; to bring them to life by understanding how they were thought up, how they were received by other psychologists, and what effects they had on the participants.
For more than a century, psychologists have desperately sought to have their discipline accepted as no less a science than biology, chemistry or physics. In the complicated physical world, considerable intervention is required to allow detection of reliable effects. Huge resources are devoted to screening particle interactions from unwanted forces, or biochemical reactions from impurities. To do the same in psychology requires some degree of artificiality, and even trickery, in the experimental set-up. But how much insight do we then gain into how people will behave outside the laboratory? What, anyway, is a “natural” environment for a contemporary person? And if the experimental method we wish to use is sufficiently destructive to prevent us from using it on humans, what do we learn from studies on our fellow mammals?
These and other intricacies are displayed in the chapter “Rat Park”, on perhaps the least known of the experiments discussed. In contradiction to theories proposing that addiction follows from the mere availability of certain drugs, Bruce Alexander created a rat utopia and observed how even “addicted” rats would turn to water rather than opiates. The experiment has a blatant political message: make our lives and life-space pleasant enough and we won’t need to resort to drugs. Even here, however, Slater keeps the ambiguity alive, questioning the relevance of the research for the human condition.
She can also retrieve something of value from the most morally suspect research, such as Egas Moniz’s lobotomy treatment. Moniz’s experiment, conducted in Portugal in 1935, is the only one of the 10 not to have taken place in America; and it rapidly found a home in the US. Yet it would be hasty to dismiss the 10 experiments as shaped completely by their location in the land of the free; many of the experimenters were European immigrants, or had immigrant mentors. Slater seems intrigued by the singularity of the experiments and fascinated by the psychology of the psychologists, most of whom she presents as a fairly insecure lot, unlucky in life and love. But in her personal engagement with the experimental work, she also seems to reveal much about herself.
There’s something provocative in her nature: time and again you tell yourself she won’t pursue that line of enquiry, ask that painful question, or take those pills. As part of her story of Stanley Milgram’s famous obedience experiments, where a large proportion of people were shown to be unable to resist instructions to deliver what they thought to be lethal electric shocks to their fellow man, Slater describes the psychologist’s final hours. Surely she won’t make the link between these fictitious shocks and the real ones the medics used to try to revive him after his final heart attack? Of course, she does.
This lack of restraint, although sometimes offensive, can also be admirable. How many us would dare to repeat a 1972 experiment to see how psychiatric hospitals treat people, by faking one single symptom - a voice in the head saying “thud” - and submitting ourselves for assessment on eight separate occasions? The results are, again, mixed. Slater is treated with kindness and respect, and rather than the weeks of incarceration David Rosenhan and his colleagues endured, she is given consultations and then released. The downside, however, is that after only 12 minutes of a psychiatrist’s time she emerges with a label from the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual on Mental Disorders (DSM) and prescriptions for anti-psychotic and anti-depressant drugs.