Tuesday, January 10, 2012

"Opening Skinner's Box" by Lauren Slater

I'm fascinated by various aspects of psychology, despite my ambivalence to some of its uses. I decided to read Opening Skinner's Box at the recommendation of a blog reader (thanks Ulises!). In the book, Slater explores ten famous (or infamous) behavioral experiments in psychology, describing the experiments and experimenters and the lasting impact of their findings.

Slater has chosen her experiments well, though that does mean a reader with any basic psychology background will be familiar with much of what she talks about. For example, I have a decent understanding of the work of Skinner (Skinner's "box"), Milgram (obedience experiment), and Harlow (monkeys), and I was disappointed that her chapters on them offered little new or little that couldn't be gleaned from any other source. I was more interested when it came to territory that was new to me, such as Alexander's experiments with addition or Loftus' experiments in memory.

Prior to starting Skinner's Box, I read some Amazon reviews, where I found many highly critical comments of Slater, her methods, and her conclusions. Undoubtedly these colored my reading some (coincidentally, I think she even discussed an experiment about preconceived notions), but I couldn't help disliking Slater throughout the book. Though I normally enjoy an author inserting his or her personal life and insights, I grew tired easily of Slater's meanderings. She spends a lot of time drawing vague conclusions from each experiment, often making tangential connections to her husband or child. Slater tries to work in detailed description, but she usually ends up prefacing it with "I imagine" or "we can imagine," which means she really has no idea what happened. She's also weirdly prejudiced. Though she seems to give most experimenters the benefit of the doubt, she's surprisingly hostile to Loftus' work on repressed memory. Though Loftus does seem to be a bit of a kook (though Slater's bizarre enough herself--she surreptitiously takes a bite of a ten-year-old piece of chocolate Skinner had bitten and which Skinner's daughter has preserved in Skinner's office; she tries her husband's illegal pain medication to see if she can become addicted), I was on Loftus' side, believing that repressed memories are largely imaginary. And, when I asked my psychologist husband what he thought of repressed memories, he firmly said, "They don't exist." It's surprising, then, that Slater portrays Loftus as on the fringe and presents those who support the existence of repressed memories as the norm.

Opening Skinner's Box does provide an easy-to-understand overview of some of psychology's most famous behavioral experiments, and if you don't mind the author's style, it could be a good book for those interested in such work. She offers little new insight into the experiments, though, and the time spent on her own philosophy can drag down the reading (I was skimming much of it by the end). For a more fun look into one aspect of psychology, I recommend Ronson's The Psychopath Test.


  1. Hey Tia, thanks for checking out the book! Before reading the book I wasn't very familiar with any of the experiments mentioned, so I think that was a big part of how much I was able to enjoy reading the stories. I agree that sometimes her style can be a put-off, and can even feel like it was artificial (manipulative?). Obviously the writer wants the reader to experience a certain emotion or feeling, but it should be a natural thing (I think). Anyway, nice review. I'm gonna go look for the Psychopath Test :)

  2. I hope you do try The Psychopath Test--I really enjoyed it. The author puts a lot of his own voice and experiences in that story too, so it makes an interesting comparison with how Slater structured her book. I wonder, though, if I would have liked Ronson as much if I had read some negative reviews of his work as I had Slater's--definitely brings up, for me, how easily I can be influenced to think of something a certain way!

  3. I finally got around to finishing the book (had to read Cry, the Beloved Country for school). It was great following Ronson around practically the world just to get an interview or some new piece of information. His neutrality throughout the whole book, while talking to the scientologists, the psychologists, or the psychopaths, was a comforting voice amid all the conflicting information being tossed at the reader. Especially when he himself isn't quite sure who to trust, and like myself, anxiously wonders how well he'd do on the Hare checklist. Or when he too starts questioning who else in his life might be a psychopath (his harshest literary critic?). And finally trying to find out what "psycopath" really means, whether there's a gray area etc...

    I feel I learned a lot from the book (different cases, people, events) but really it was how much fun the story was which made the book the most enjoyable.
    Anyway, I agree with your last point. Even worse, i usually skip right to the reviews with the worst ratings. I'm trying to stop doing that, though, at least until I've finish the book.
    Haha, well thanks again a ton for letting me know about The Psychopath Test

  4. I'm so glad you enjoyed Psychopath Test! I also thought Ronson was a great narrator, and (like you) I enjoyed the way I could identify with the feelings he was having.

    I definitely have the same problem of being too quick to read negative reviews. I'm sure I've ruined a number of books (or skipped over books I might have really liked) because of it. Maybe I'll have to make a commitment to at least reading one positive and one negative each time.

    Thanks for coming back and letting me know what you thought!