Book Review: Opening Skinner’s Box

My copy of the book.

Psychology is just kinetic philosophy, so says Lauren Slater in her 2004 book, Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, which reads as kinetic, and frenetic, as the psychology “movements” she’s describing.

Sure, there’s some prodding, and neurons and synapses, and the amygdala and hippocampus, and pharmacological interventions, but at its heart? What makes psychology hum? And the experimentations its perhaps most known for? They’re philosophy and psychologists doing and extricating philosophy: But in a “doing” sort of way rather than a “thinking” sort of way, such as in Stanley Milgram’s experiments.

Psychology is not of the 20th century, but perhaps its greatest breakthroughs, including pharmacological, psychosurgeries (think: lobotomies), and despite the ethical qualms, human experiments, occurred in the 20th century, and I don’t think it’s difficult to parse out why that is. The 20th century is a century marked by rapid industrialization and technological advancement far beyond even the prior two centuries under the Industrial Revolution, not to say anything of two global wars, replete with a Holocaust in Europe. How do we wrap our brains — those walnut-shaped things tucked behind bone on our shoulders, with millions of neurons tightly wound together no bigger than this “o” — around the milieu in which it is shaping, shaped and to be shaped?

Naturally, Slater starts with B.F. Skinner, the famed (infamous?) behaviorist. Why not start with the experimenter who, ostensibly, upended the idea of free will? That, going by Skinner’s experiments, we can be inclined via reward and punishment, to act as the person in control wishes? I think the extreme version of extrapolating from Skinner’s experiments lead’s one to fascism: That is, Skinner at times seemed to believe, and certainly, he was not alone in the early 20th century on this score, that the government out to be run by scientists — scientists who could essentially puppeteer a citizenry in the right direction. Slater, however, offers a more charitable interpretation of Skinner, which I think seemed closer to the truth: That he was more inclined to the reward side of the ledger than the punishment side.

Like how Slater will proceed throughout the book, the setup and follow-through for each chapter on a psychologist and their experiments is: part-biographical (trying to better understand and locate the psychologist in terms of why they got interested in experimenting the way they did), orienting us on the state of psychology at the time, explaining the experiment and its potential implications, presenting other psychologists who are dismissive of the findings, and then, in some cases, Slater herself tries to replicate the experiment in question.

That’s why I earlier described the book as frenetic as well because Slater is something of an … anarchist, is the word that comes to mind. In the parlance of 2022, she gives no f’s. In service to science. To the human brain. To us. To herself? Because the book, inevitability, is also part-memoir of herself. I say inevitability because a book about psychology, which means a book about free will, obedience, love, our relationships, our hopes and dreams, is going to inevitability also be a window into the person writing about it.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the chapters, and the most salient as to Slater being an anarchist, is Chapter 3, “On Being Sane in Insane Places.” In that chapter, Slater outlines David Rosenhan’s 1970s study, where he sent pseudopatients into eight different asylums to see if they would get admitted. All the “patients” did was say they were hearing a voice inside their head and the voice was saying, “Thud.” That chapter becomes a meditation on the slippery, haphazard way in which hospitals and psychologists then (and now!) diagnosed people, admitted people and treated people who were sane! Slater even repeats the experiment, and two things have thankfully changed: She wasn’t admitted anywhere, as that’s far more harder to slip in now, and the people, she noted, were a lot more kind to her, as opposed to the pseudopatients (including Rosenhan himself) who said the psychologists and nurses at the asylums of the 1970s were dehumanizing to patients.

Human brains, as similar in DNA as we may be to monkeys, or similar in nervous system and such to rats or even sea slugs, there does seem to be something difficult to replicate in the lab and make it applicable to the real world. Heck, even when using human brains, as Milgram and others did, it seems difficult to prove causation and override correlation, and pinpoint what exactly is going on from a physiological standpoint. That seems to be a persistent theme running through the entire field of psychology, as outlined by Slater in these 10 cases. We simply don’t know enough about the brain and the resultant human behavior it spawns. As noted in the Conclusion of the book, it is not as if there is Newton’s Law of Gravity or Newton’s Laws of Motion, but as applied to the science of psychology. And I don’t think there ever will be.

Two other experiments I found worth particularly highlighting are the ones on addiction and on recovered traumatic memory.

To the former, even nearly 20 years after Slater’s book, and more than 40 years after the original addiction experiments, I still don’t think the public at large nor its governing class, thinks about addiction the way the science seems to point: That addiction occurs only in a small subset of people and that it may even have more to do with culture and environment than anything going on biologically with the brain. That is, not everyone who does cocaine or heroin is going to get addicted. Not everyone who takes an opiate is going to get addicted. Not everyone who does so-called illicit drugs is going to be nonfunctional in civil society. This upends the way we think about addiction now, much less in the 1980s when the experimenters were doing their thing. Now, I disagree with the conclusion drawn by researcher Bruce Alexander, who thinks the problem is the free market. His theory is that drug use increased as human dislocation increased as a result. However, I think that’s putting far too much of a rosy gloss on the pre-Industrial Revolution agricultural era. And discounting the fact that our ancestors in America drank quite literally three to four times more than we do and on a more frequent basis. Nonetheless, I appreciate him upending the usual narrative around addiction because the status quo narrative has led to, and continues to perpetuate, the War on Drugs and stigmatization of drug users.

To the latter, Elizabeth Loftus, who pushed back against much of what drove the Satanic panics of the 1980s — the idea that scores of people had repressed memories of abuse — , is a maverick in my eyes for establishing rather compellingly that there is no basis for a neural repression mechanism in our brain. As if we can file away our trauma memories to re-emerge later. Instead, that just becomes yet another plank in the junk science armor used in courtrooms to convict innocent people. Instead, Loftus’s work shows that it’s far more likely that human brains are malleable and susceptible to suggestion from others, even to the point of incriminating ourselves.

That said, I can’t remark upon that chapter without knocking Slater slightly for her naiveté on Alzheimer’s disease. At one point she says (admitting she might be “grossly naïve,” to be fair) that, “I’ve never considered Alzheimer’s, once the patient has crossed the line into its fluid world, to be as horrible as it’s portrayed.” A shockingly naïve statement from a psychologist, particularly because she should know, even in 2004, that Alzheimer’s disease is more than just losing one’s memory (the basis of the chapter is on memory) and that in the final stages of serious symptoms, you wouldn’t wish Alzheimer’s disease on anyone. Forgetting who they are, what they are, others, how to function and so on? It is not a bliss we would want to pharmacologically (or otherwise) engineer.

Finally, I’d also be remiss, while I’m slightly (and in good faith!) admonishing Slater, to point out that she seems quite anti-pharmacological and derogatory of pills. The last chapter is not only a manifestation of that viewpoint, but an active defense of psychosurgeries, such as lobotomy and other variations. She argues that lobotomies largely got an undeserving bad reputation and that’s why the surgeries have largely been relegated to the dust bin of history. She thinks, though, that drilling two tiny, precise holes above the eyes and targeting certain tissue of the brain to make someone better is no different than using Prozac to target the same part of the brain, and that, in fact, the idea that drugs are so much more precise is myth-making itself.

I’m not smart enough to wade into the war between pharmacology and psychosurgery, but I will offer my own anecdote to the proceedings: I’ve been taking venlafaxine (commonly known as effexor-xr) for the better part of nine months and I would largely credit it for saving my life. Therapy was important. Diet was important. Exercise was important. The all-of-the-above approach was important. But I don’t think I’d be where I’m at today, literally, without that wonderful little pill. I might be stretching, but I feel like Slater’s distrust of the pill is a manifestation of the zeitgeist in which she was writing, where the early 2000s saw quite the push against pharmaceutical companies (not that that isn’t still happening, but I think it began then in earnest) and the emergence of alternative approaches to health.

I could go on and on about the experiments in this book because I do find them so deeply fascinating on a philosophy and psychological level (one in the same!), such as the problem of cognitive dissonance, or the bystander effect (even to our own detriment!), or how love is more about touch than taste, and how I would love an updated book to cover what’s gone on in the field these last 20 years as we get deeper into the 21st century (particularly given how psychology is only relatively recently, finally, turning its head (now perhaps to the point of oversaturation) to happiness and positive elements rather than all the deleterious parts of human behavior), but I highly recommend Slater’s book if you’re also interested in thorny questions that do not have satisfying answers.

Isn’t that quite the pitch for a book? I mean, that’s philosophy: We think, but we do not know. And that’s also, apparently, psychology, to a large extent. We think, and hey, we even do, but we still don’t really know, either.

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