Opening Skinner’s Box

In Prozac Diary (1999) and Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir (2000), author and psychologist Lauren Slater has vividly described her own experiences with mental illness. In Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, she has written ten highly personal essays about the theories and experiments of B.F. Skinner, Stanley Milgram, David Rosenhan, John Darley, Bibb Latané, Harry Harlow, Bruce Alexander, Elizabeth Loftus, Eric Kandel, and António Egas Moriz. The book, with its emphasis on the personalities and foibles of these and other individuals, is always interesting and often entertaining.

Several of Slater’s essays necessarily consider ethical issues associated with using humans and animals for purposes of experimentation. She is especially critical of the way that Harry Harlow deprived infant moneys of their mothers in order to study the negative effects of maternal deprivation. In contrast, she presents a generally favorable judgments of Stanley Milgram’s experiments with a fake shock machine, which demonstrated that most unsuspecting volunteers were willing to follow instructions in delivering painful electrical shocks. Slater found and interviewed aging volunteers who reported that participating in the experiments had caused them to become more morally independent and responsible.

Unfortunately, Opening Skinner’s Box contains a number of errors that raise questions about its factual dependability. Especially troubling, two persons interviewed for the book, Elizabeth Loftus and Robert Spitzer, have formally complained that Slater misquoted them. In the chapter on B.F. Skinner, moreover, Slater mistakenly suggests that his daughter, Deborah Skinner, who slept in the famous “baby box” for about two years, had probably suffered harm from the experience. When speaking with Deborah’s younger sister, Slater failed to inquire about how to get in contact with Deborah in order to find out what had actually happened. Slater’s lapses have given ammunition to critics who have questioned aspects of her book, especially her account of how psychiatrists prescribed medication when she repeated David Rosenhan’s experiment of going to a psychiatric clinic and claiming to have heard voices that said “thud.”