Tuesday, January 10, 2012
"Opening Skinner's Box" by Lauren Slater
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.