Opening Skinner's Box
Author: Lauren Slater
The Skinner to whom the eponymous box belongs is BF
Skinner, the famous advocate of behavioral psychology,
experimenter, social reformer and poet. Slater
describes his experiments in grand detail, bringing
them alive and connecting the reader with her own
personal sense of his work more effectively than I
have known any other author to do when writing about
psychologists and their ideas.
She describes with novelistic flourish ten enthralling psychology experiments (yes, enthralling!) carried out during the 20th century. Some of these experiments would be considered ethically questionable nowadays, but nevertheless they highlight some profound human truths.
Some of the experiments will be familiar to many readers, such as the famous 'Milgram experiment' used to test public obedience to recognizable authority. The results of that experiment seem to go a long way in explaining mass aberrations in collective behavior such as the rise of Nazi Germany, or the genocide in Rwanda. Others will be less well known, such as the 'false memory' experiment detailed with Slater's customary relish in the chapter entitled 'Lost in the Mall'.
Other chapters deal with bystander apathy, cognitive dissonance and the importance of early maternal love in the development of monkeys. Slater connects many of the experiments to real events, such as the Catherine Genovese murder case – which resulted in 'bystander apathy' becoming a hot research topic – and the flying saucer cult that got Leon Fastinger interested in cognitive dissonance. This approach helps her to bring psychology alive and make it immediately relevant.
Lauren Slater also breathes life into the personalities and lives of the great researchers, and inspired me to want to investigate these people and their research in much greater depth. An astonishing and engrossing read.