- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 6, 2004


By Lauren Slater

W.W. Norton & Co., $24.95, 256 pages


In her previous books, “Prozac Diary” and “Welcome to My Country,” Lauren Slater delved into mental healing and suffering as one who knows both firsthand. She spent much of her adolescence hospitalized for eating disorders and depression, was one of the first people to use Prozac in clinical trials, and later became a practicing psychologist herself.

Her latest book, “Opening Skinner’s Box,” on the (one would think) cold, impersonal field of experimental psychology, may seem a departure at first. But in fact it is precisely her intimate, confessional approach that is able to reveal the poetry latent in the sterile laboratory.

Experiments, the author argues, are “compressed experience, life distilled to its potentially elegant essence” and “deserve to be … celebrated as story.” Within bone-dry accounts of rats and mazes, monkeys and electric shocks, she says, hides all the stuff of great fiction: character, plot, meaning, message.

Her experiment in experiment-criticism takes the form of a “top ten” of the great discoveries of the past century. She interviews the experimenters (where alive), their families (when possible), and their subjects (when human), and the result is a powerful and even inspiring meditation on the strengths and weaknesses hidden in our nature.

It starts with the towering, misunderstood figure of B.F. Skinner. By carefully recording the behavior of rats and pigeons in boxes that dispensed food when the animals pressed a lever, the Harvard psychologist revealed how environmental rewards shape behavior.

He also discovered something surprising: The most powerful reinforcers of behavior are those that are inconsistent.

This discovery enabled Skinner “to systematically evoke and explain much of human folly … why your best friend hangs on the phone … waiting for that mean boyfriend with an occasional streak of kindness to call … Why perfectly normal people empty their coffers in smoky casinos … Why women love too much and men stock-trade on line.”

Skinner’s work was brilliant, the author says, precisely because it illuminated our stupidity. Yet Skinner’s mechanistic view of human nature and his bold social philosophizing, in books with disturbingly fascist-sounding titles like “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” made him seem almost the Dr. Strangelove of psychology.

Rumors that he raised one of his daughters in a box and that she later committed suicide didn’t help his reputation. The author tracks down another of Skinner’s daughters and learns that the box was a far cry from the heartless well of infant misery it sounds like, and that Skinner was actually a kind and loving father.

The supposedly dead daughter is really alive and well and living somewhere in England … probably.

Yet the picture of an obsessed visionary, a failed artist-cum-scientific genius bent on proving some distinctly unpoetic point about human nature still emerges forcefully. It is an archetype that returns, in different ways, in many of the subsequent chapters.

The most powerful, disturbing and inspiring chapter in the book is surely the second, on the famous obedience experiment of Stanley Milgram at Yale in 1961.

On the pretext of testing how punishment affects learning, the experimenter had test subjects deliver electrical shocks to another subject whenever he gave incorrect responses to a word quiz, with the voltage steadily increasing to dangerous levels.

There was no real shock, and the second subject was only an actor feigning pain, but for the actual subjects the pressure — to obey or not — was all too real. Most of Milgram’s subjects suppressed their qualms and delivered what they believed were potentially deadly voltages to another human being.

In a single stroke, the psychologist stripped away much of the mystery of atrocities like the Holocaust, and provided scientific basis for Hannah Arendt’s concept of the banality of evil.

The bare statistics carry a cynical message — “Sixty-two to sixty-five percent of us, when faced with a credible authority, will follow orders to the point of lethally harming a person” —yet the author has a knack for finding hope even in depressing facts like this.

There’s that other, defiant 35 percent, for one thing. One of the high points of the book is the author’s interview with 78-year-old Joshua Chaffin. Having said “no” to Milgram one summer night in 1961 has remained alive in Mr. Chaffin’s memory over four decades, and he is eager to tell his story.

Yet despite her expectations of encountering that rare thing — an ethically centered being, utterly sure in his convictions — what she finds is an ordinary, contradictory, complex human being with liver spots on his hands, who admits that he said no partly because he didn’t want to hurt a guy, but also partly because he was afraid of suffering a heart attack from the stress of the situation.

Even in his refusal, moral rectitude was mingled, Mr. Chaffin confessed, with self-interest, and simple fear.

Much of 20th-century experimental psychology related in different ways to the basic questions of conformity and autonomy raised by Skinner and Milgram: “Why do we lack the moral center from which rebellion grows? Why do we fail to offer our immediate and global neighbors a helping hand? Why, time and again, do we abandon our own perceptions and capitulate to the dominant point of view?”

In later chapters the author describes Leon Festinger’s studies of “cognitive dissonance” and the ways we hypocritically shape our beliefs to fit our actions (rather than vice versa).

She revisits the work of John Darley and Bibb Latane, inspired by the 1964 murder of Catherine Genovese, on the “bystander effect” — the reluctance of people to break rank even when others’ lives, or their own, are apparently at stake.

And in another troubling chapter she delves into the cruel and iconic experiments of Harry Harlow, who raised infant monkeys with wire-mesh surrogate mothers to dissect the nature of love.

There are also chapters on the power of labels and diagnoses to shape our perceptions, on the nature of addiction and memory, and on radical new cures like psychosurgery. In short, a lot to think about, all delivered with verve by a bold and thoughtful writer.

It is an odd fact that the lessons of experimental psychology have had so little impact on the clinical side of the field. Psychotherapy, as the author notes in her conclusion, tends to be about feeling good, not about encouraging us to be better people.

“Experimental psychology, on the other hand, with its relentless pursuit of ethical questions about obedience, conformity, is all about doing good, and when we do good, when we act with honor, we have a chance to experience dignity.”

Experiments, like stories, can forewarn us about our own darker possibilities as well as remind us of our easily-forgotten autonomy, our hidden potential for heroism.

Any Psych 101 student who reads about Milgram’s obedience experiment, or about the bystander effect, feels the dangerous thrill of moral self-examination, the eagerness to be tested by life and, having now been forewarned, to say “no” when everyone else goes blindly along, or to rush to the aid of someone in distress despite others’ passivity.

Unfortunately these lessons easily get forgotten. It is great to be reminded.

Eric Wargo is an associate editor at the Biblical Archaeology Society in Washington.

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