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…