Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century

Opening Skinner's Box
Opening Skinner's Box

Lauren Slater’s Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century is a marvellous book for anybody trying to understand human behaviour. Her perspective is that these famous experiments (e.g. Milgram’s experiment on authority) “ultimately concern themselves not with the value-free questions we traditionally associate with ‘science’, […] but with the kinds of ethical and existential questions we associate with philosophy.”

What makes this book special is the fact that Slater manages to give each experiment a personal and human touch. She interviews the people who were in Milgram’s experiment and surprisingly finds out that being part of the experiment has changed these people profoundly and made them highly aware of authority later in their lives.

She explores the Bystander effect and finds out that people can be armed against the diffusion of responsibility by educating them about it and by clearly articulating the five stages of helping behaviour:

  1. You, the potential helper, must notice an event is occurring.
  2. You must interpret the event as one in which help is needed.
  3. You must assume personal responsibility.
  4. You must decide what action to take.
  5. You must then take action.

Slater also does her own version of the Rosenhan experiment in which sane people had themselves committed into psychiatric wards (by saying they heard voices saying “thud”) and acted normally as soon as they were in. Most of them got diagnosed with schizophrenia and they stayed for an average of 19 days(!).

My favourite chapter was the one on B.F. Skinner. He is well known for his experiments with animals, but less known for his thoughts on teaching. He was a strong believer on the effects of the environment on behaviour and was convinced that this could be used to create a better society. Slater writes upon reading his Beyond Freedom & Dignity:

Skinner is clearly proposing a humane society rooted in his experimental findings. He is proposing that we appreciate the immense control (or influence) our surroundings have on us, and so sculpt those surroundings in such a way that they “reinforce positively,” or in other words, engender adaptive and creative behaviours, in all citizens. Skinner is asking society to fashion cues that are most likely to draw on our best selves, as opposed to cues that clearly confound us, cues such as those that exist in prisons, in places of poverty. In other words, stop punishing. Stop humiliating.

All in all a great book…

6.6 Degrees of separation on average

Stanley Milgram was a very innovative social experimenter. I will keep his experiments on authority for another blog post and instead will focus on his Small world experiment, which I have always found fascinating.

In 1969 he tried to figure out whether the world was becoming a “small world” network by sending out packages to random people in the US and asking them to try and get the package in as little steps as possible to a contact in Boston. His research showed that people in the US seemed to be connected through three friendship links on average.

Some students later invented the “six degrees of kevin bacon” game (connecting each film actor to Bacon in 6 film cast lists or fewer) which popularised the term “six degrees of separation”.

Milgram’s research methodology had some problems and later attempts to redo the experiment using e-mail were never very successful (I personally tried to do a version of the experiment with my highschool students which failed miserably).

According to the Guardian Microsoft has now finally proved the theory using raw data from their messaging logs. The average degrees of separation globally (by people that use MSN at least) seems to be 6.6:

Researchers at Microsoft studied records of 30 billion electronic conversations among 180 million people in various countries, according to the Washington Post. This was ‘the first time a planetary-scale social network has been available,’ they observed. The database covered all the Microsoft Messenger instant-messaging network in June 2006, equivalent to roughly half the world’s instant-messaging traffic at that time.

This is an example of a new way of doing research. The amount of data that is being collected by some technology companies is so massive that you don’t need a theory anymore, you can just look at the patterns instead (see Wired’s The End of Theory).

What could this mean for learning? Imagine the amount of things we could find out about how people learn if we would have an equivalent of MSN or Facebook in the learning space! What would all Moodle logs combined tell us about how learning technology is used?

Which organisation will be the first to leverage our small world and use it for learning?