By Katy Butler
Ten Landmark psychological studies on the couch: a review of Lauren Slater’s Opening Skinner’s Box.
IN “OPENING SKINNER’S BOX”–the fascinating, flawed, and controversial psychology book published by W.W. Norton in March–author Lauren Slater revisits one of the 20th century’s most influential psychology experiments. It was 1961, a decade before My Lai and four decades before Abu Ghraib. In New Haven, Connecticut, a 27-year-old social psychologist named Stanley Milgram set out to explain why ordinary human beings in Nazi Germany had inflicted cruelty on innocent strangers. He was skeptical of the psychoanalytically influenced theories of the day that abusive German child raising practices had created an “authoritarian personality” willing to scapegoat others as an outlet for its own disowned aggression. Far more significant, he thought, was the shaping power of the social situations in which German adults had found themselves.
So Milgram, an assistant professor at Yale, perpetrated what Slater calls “one of psychology’s grandest and most horrible hoaxes.” Pretending to be studying the effects of punishment on learning in a lab in the basement of Yale’s Linsley-Chittenden Hall, he instructed unwitting subjects to give increasingly intense “shocks” to a man who was actually an actor and an accomplice. When ordered to do so, 65 percent of the volunteers pulled levers that said “Danger, Extreme Shock: 340 Volts” even while the supposed victim writhed in feigned agony, screamed, begged for mercy, and fell into deathly silence. They did it, apparently, because a man in a white coat told them to. So much for theories about German childraising. If a hypothetically evil U.S. government tried to set up death camps, Milgram wrote to his backers at the National Science Foundation, New Haven alone could produce a full complement of “moral imbeciles” willing to man them.
Technically, Milgram’s was a study of the effect of obedience and social influence on human behavior. But as Slater asks in Opening Skinner’s Box, what about the story behind the story? Should we pay no attention to the man behind the curtain–to Milgram himself, raised in the South Bronx hearing the news of the Nazi death camps on the family radio? Should we ignore the social climate of his times, which denied him tenure at Yale because of outrage about the ethics of his experiment? Were his results simply objective pieces of data, the latest bricks in the growing edifice of a truly scientific psychology? Or does Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle (which holds that the presence of an observer changes the thing observed) obtain in the world of psychology as well as in quantum mechanics?
Working in an agnostic century horrified by the trench warfare of World War I and the collective madness of the Holocaust, Milgram had implicitly raised large, messy questions that reverberated beyond the narrow confines of his basement lab, questions that resonate to this day: What’s free will, and do we have it? What makes us capable of being cruel, or of witnessing cruelty as passive bystanders? What primarily propels us–personality, social situations, drives, neurobiology, upbringing, or moral or religious teachings–toward good or evil? Are these questions reducible to an experimental design? And is it ethical–or unjustifiably cruel–to hoax innocent volunteers into giving others “shocks” in the interest of advancing science?
Little of this back-story could be gleaned from the dry scientific language in which this influential experiment was originally published. Now Slater, a memoirist and counseling psychologist, has retold it, and nine other experiments like it, in compelling, novelistic terms. She imagines Milgram as “Part imp, a little Jewish leprechaun, his science soaked in joke” and writes that in another experiment he pointed up at an empty sky and timed how long it took to gather a crowd looking up at nothing. His obedience experiment inspired public loathing: Bruno Bettelheim called him “vile” and child psychologist Diana Baumrind attacked him for traumatizing human subjects. Yet, Slater did discover one man, whom she calls Jacob, who credits his involvement in the study with changing his life. He told Slater that he was so shocked by his passive compliance that he soon came out as a gay man and lived a much less conventional life. Thus a study in social influence turned out to be an exercise in social influence as well.
As for Milgram himself, he was devastated by his failure to get tenure at Yale and Harvard. Slater writes that he wanted it both ways–“He wanted to shock the world and then be taken into its forgiving embrace.” He wasn’t simply a scientist and his times weren’t a neutral Petri dish; he was a complex human being with an emotional life of his own.
In this he wasn’t alone. Like Milgram, some of the other scientists profiled in Slater’s book (behaviorists, cognitive and social psychologists, monkey-and-rat researchers, neurosurgeons and addiction specialists) traumatized subjects, crossed ethical lines, and wouldn’t be able to get their work past Human Subjects Review today. Some were tricksters, their work a form of hoax. Most were psychologists who considered themselves scientists and part of a continuing and bitter cultural quarrel with the heirs of Freud and their fascination with dreams, unprovable drives, memories, and unquantifiable emotions.
With a prose style honed in her writing of memoir and an astonishing willingness to expose everybody’s secrets, including her own, Slater reveals the emotional lives of these men (and one woman) while shifting from scientific history to memoir to gossip column and back again. The end result is something like a slow-motion, multi-car pileup: there’s damage and an unforgivable amount of mess, but you can’t stop watching.
Slater explores Antonio Egas Moniz’s lobotomies; B.F. Skinner’s rat-box behaviorism; Elizabeth Loftus’s “Lost in the Mall” memory fabrication; Eric Kandel’s dissection of sea slug neurons; and Bruce Alexander’s construction of an experimental “rat paradise” whose residents proved uninterested in cocaine. Then she goes further, stripping away the aura of disinterested scientific investigation and putting the experimenters on the couch. The result is a book that implicitly challenges the notion of psychology as an objective science and toys with the boundaries between author and subject.
In a chapter on the validity of psychiatric classification, for instance, Slater describes her own teenage experiences with cutting and psychiatric hospitalization. Reflecting on behaviorism, she describes “Skinnerizing” her own daughter to sleep through the night. And while pondering addiction in rats, she comments on her husband’s occasional indulgence in mind-altering chemicals.
Then Slater cuts deeper, and the flesh she parts isn’t her own: B.F. Skinner, she writes, promoted a utopia where human behavior would be neatly shaped by reward rather than punishment, but his legacy was dogged by the rumor that his daughter Deborah had been driven to madness by being raised in a “Skinner box.” Researcher Harry Harlow tore infant monkeys from their mothers in the 1960s to disprove psychoanalytic theories that mother’s milk, rather than a mother’s touch, was the crucial ingredient in infant bonding. He’s remembered as a “drunk” and a chauvinist “pig” who, after his own marriage failed, escalated his experimental torture of monkeys until he was using what he called a “rape rack” of his own devising.
Elizabeth Loftus comes across first as the brilliant cognitive researcher frequently quoted in The New York Times for demolishing psychodynamic notions of the reliability of “repressed” memories of childhood sexual abuse. Zig-zagging back and forth between perceptiveness and cruelty, Slater goes on to describe Loftus as an obsessed, emotionally labile workaholic who testified as a defense expert witness for sexual predators and murderers, including Ted Bundy, the Hillside Strangler, and the Menendez Brothers. In a chapter packed with embarrassing and sometimes pointless personal details, she reveals that Loftus disclosed her bra size. The researcher, she writes, is “a little loose inside,” and she speculates that something repressed is “working its way out sideways.”
If carefully reported, the book could have been a tour de force–the rare psychology book to excite readers outside the field, like Listening to Prozac did. But Skinner’s Box, it turns out, was a high-wire act, and Slater was working without a net. Within days of its publication, she was pinned in a spotlight as harsh as the one she’d trained on some of her subjects.
Three of her critics–Elizabeth Loftus, Columbia University psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, and B.F. Skinner’s daughter Deborah Skinner Buzan–claim that errors in her reporting took edgy memoir over the boundary into fiction and damaged their reputations. Spitzer, her bitterest opponent–who’s happy to point out that Slater once published a book called Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir goes further, charging Slater with fabricating quotes and even whole events. Slater, for her part, presents herself as a provocative and imaginative writer facing an organized “vendetta” to destroy her book because she wounded the vanity of a few professorial types who are used to unquestioning adulation.
In the bewildering fog of charges and countercharges presented on the Internet and in the pages of The New York Times, The Boston Globe and The Guardian, a couple of facts shine clear. The book is fantastically readable and thought provoking. It also reads as if it never got past a computer spellchecker, much less a fact checker or copy editor. Misspellings and inaccuracies–from the pedantic to the substantive–riddle it so thoroughly that they shake the reader’s trust in the narrator even when they don’t obscure her larger vision. To pick a handful from an overflowing basket, R. D. Laing appears as R.D. Lang; Thomas Szasz as Thomas Szaz; and per se as Per Say.
The chapter on Elizabeth Loftus misquotes the phrasing of a memory experiment, places Loftus at the University of Washington rather than at her new post at the University of California at Irvine, credits Loftus rather than sociologist Richard Ofshe with involvement in a notorious recovered-memory trial, and reports that someone once yelled “whore” at Loftus in an airport, whereas that particular insult was slung by a prosecutor in a court hallway.
Lots of books are published with errors like these without setting off the metal detectors. But among the meaningless mistakes is at least one that unequivocally smears a reputation. It involves behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s daughter Deborah Skinner Buzan, a graduate of Boston University, artist, avid motorcyclist, and cat lover, married for the past 30 years to a professor at the London School of Economics. On March 12, London’s Guardian published “I was not a lab rat,” Buzan’s furious rebuttal to Slater’s insinuation that Skinner Buzan had been emotionally damaged by an infancy spent in an experimental box designed by her father.
Slater had debunked the most embellished versions of this urban legend, but after a cursory attempt to find Deborah, had left the implication that the poor girl wasn’t quite right. “‘Deborah Skinner is alive,'” she darkly quotes one psychologist as saying. “His voice drops. ‘And she’s doing fine, really.’ . . . There is a suspicious sympathy in his voice, as though she’s just survived some horrid sort of surgery.”
After hearing an excerpt of Slater’s book read on British radio, Skinner Buzan found herself in the impossible position of defending her unconventional upbringing (she did spend a few hours a day in an “aircrib”–something like a large incubator) and publicly proclaiming her sanity. “The plain reality is that Lauren Slater never bothered to check the truth,” she wrote in The Guardian, excoriating Slater for not tracking her down. “Instead she chose to do me and my family a disservice and at the same time to debase the intellectual history of psychology.”
Shortly afterward, Loftus wrote to W.W. Norton listing nine factual inaccuracies in a chapter of 22 pages. Beyond the quibbles over whether Loftus had used the word smashed or crashed in an experiment lay a deeper, harder to articulate complaint: that Slater had practiced unnecessary cruelty, smearing Loftus without advancing her discussion of the ethical and human questions she claimed were the book’s centerpiece. “Admittedly, if she hadn’t been so hostile to me I may not have been so motivated to take the time to write,” says Loftus. “She hasn’t just told some false stories, but she’s misrepresented some major experiments in psychology and the people involved in them. I’m used to people not liking me, but most of them don’t lie.” Thus a book partly about the hidden motives of scientists and the ethical treatment of human subjects is being questioned on much the same terms.
Slater’s bitterest critic is psychiatrist Robert Spitzer of Columbia University, the leading author and editor of the DSM-III. In a chapter called “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” Slater reenacted Daniel Rosenhan’s 1973 experiment, which successfully got sane volunteers committed to mental hospitals and challenged the scientific reliability of psychiatric classifications like the DSM. In the course of detailing how she’d repeated the experiment by faking mental illness herself at eight psychiatric emergency rooms, Slater quotes Spitzer–long a virulent critic of Rosenhan’s experiment–as saying gratuitously, “That’s what you get for doing such a study,” after learning that Rosenhan had suffered several strokes.
“It’s a shame,” says Spitzer, who accuses Slater of making up that particularly damning quote and misphrasing several others in minor ways. “She’s a wonderful writer. I learned a lot from reading that book. But she’s dumping on psychology and she dumps on me. I come across as a little bit of a fool.” Speaking of her descriptions of others, he adds, “She’s really cruel!”
Slater, who says she took handwritten notes during the telephone interview and told friends about Spitzer’s remark soon afterward, has nevertheless agreed to remove it from later editions of the book. “People have recommended this book be used as a supplemental textbook in psychology,” says Spitzer, who’s taken his complaints public, alerting psychology listserves, the Amazon.com website, and a neighbor who works for The New York Times. “I want to do all I can to prevent that from happening. And I’d like newsmakers to know she’s a liar and they ought to be careful. ”
Although there’s no evidence that she did so, Spitzer has accused Slater of fabricating much of her account of recreating the Rosenhan experiment. He and eight other “concerned scientists” he recruited from a psychology listserv have sent Slater a letter demanding that she turn over “data,” such as the names of the emergency rooms she visited, so that her “study” can be independently verified. Slater satisfied one of the letter-writers by giving him access to confirming information, but has refused to answer all the questions posed by Spitzer’s group, describing her reprise as a literary anecdote, not a formal scientific study.
The real story, she says, concerns not the standards of science or journalism, but something far more messy, emotional, and human. Even when quoted with perfect accuracy, she notes, people often regret things they’ve said to journalists and are shocked by the way they come across in print.
“These people very willingly talked to me,” she says. “They were eager to be included, probably largely driven by their own egos. It’s not like I took their pictures on the sly. . . .I was definitely skating close to the edge. But it’s very strange to me when people get so upset about not appearing completely perfect.”
Norton has brushed off the complaints as pedantic quibbling, part of an organized effort to undermine the book. Slater’s editor, Angela Von der Lippe, said she suspects that many mistakes resulted from the book’s being inadvertently printed from an early file that hadn’t been copyedited. “Something fell between the cracks. They’re ridiculous, stupid mistakes,” Von der Lippe says. “One doesn’t defend them.”
Slater herself appears surprised that her subjects have reacted so vehemently. She says that 10 minor factual errors she’s identified will be corrected for the next edition, along with spelling mistakes. At the same time, she wishes readers would look at the story behind the movie currently playing. “The controversy has focused on these really minute details, and hasn’t looked at any of the larger issues that I was trying to discuss–about free will, about memory,” she says. “I wish they were talking about the experiments. They’re great stories, and I can say that because they’re not mine.”
It isn’t yet clear whether the storm over the book’s accuracy will sink it so that a corrected edition–which could be a real contribution to the field–never appears. If the book goes under, its destruction will illuminate something Slater herself addressed: the vehemence of the yearning by some psychologists to have the field treated as a science and an infallible source of expertise. A book about the emotional lives of experimenters implicitly challenges that notion, presenting the profession instead as a collection of warring schools, each expressing only a partial truth. This perception appeals to some psychologists and outrages others. “She had an overaching goal, so I forgive her for the lack of journalism. I’m going to highly recommend the book in my workshops,” says teacher and psychologist Ofer Zur, coauthor, with Arnold Lazarus, of Dual Relationships and Psychotherapy. “It should be taught as part of critical thinking. It will help students weigh the evidence and look at the competing theories and who can benefit from what theory. This is what we don’t have in psychology. We’re so pompous about helping our clients develop critical thinking and helping our clients change, but we’re not capable of doing it as a profession.”
Even among scientific psychologists, Slater has at least one defender. “If you went through the self-help section, through what people are reading as psychology right now, this isn’t the one you would target as a travesty,” says psychologist Richard Gist, who met Slater while she was researching a separate article for The New York Times Magazine. “We have people in the public eye like Laura Schlessinger, who’s not a psychologist, and the Phil McGraws of the world. Here we live in a world where people tap their meridiens, and we’re concerned about someone’s being called a whore in a courtroom and not in an airport. Lauren has learned a profound growth lesson. She’s had her spanking. Now let’s cut her some slack.”
©2004 Katy Butler. All Rights Reserved. Not to be reprinted without permission.