Sunday, June 21, 2009

Opening Skinner's box

Opening Skinner's box: great psychological experiments of the 20th century by Lauren Slater is an attempt to 'celebrate as story' significant moments in recent psychological research. We meet the characters who dreamt up these experiments, those who reject or question the results and those who actually took part.

For years psychology has struggled to assert itself as a 'true' science one whose tests could prove robust and repeatable proofs in a supposedly neutral environment. But we're dealing here with the human mind, with complex and mystifying human behaviour. The results of these experiments are intriguing, as much as the methodology can be nauseating. Outcomes are never clear, always debatable, even horrifying but yet... something in them strikes a chord. And so the book becomes as much about philosophy as about science.

One thing to mention, Slater is quite the literary stylist. She gets all a bit woo woo and sometimes seems to work very hard, with an all too self conscious love of drama. She can appear needlessly provocative and you find yourself thinking aaahhh don't go there! But go there she invariably goes.

This is also a book with its own amount of controversy. You see, some things are just not quite right. It starts with a misplaced comma, then a misspelled name, an incorrectly used term, some sloppy research, a dubious fact. Slater, it seems, has 'embelished' certain parts of her research. Yep, apparently there's a fair amount of pure fabrication. Claims have been made, articles written, lawyers marshalled. Which is a shame, because there really is a story to be told here (and it's not just about Slater's relationship to the truth. Did you know she's written a memoir about how she was once a compulsive liar?)

But still... The bulk of this book is true. Uncomfortably so. There are experiments here that will turn your stomach and then make you seriously question your behaviour.

Take this:

In 1964 there occurred a bizarre crime in a working class suburb of New York. Kitty Genovese was about to enter her apartment in the early hours of the morning when she was stabbed. She cried out and said, specifically, Oh my god! He stabbed me! Please help me! Please help me! Lights flicked on in the apartment block. Somone yelled, Leave that girl alone. And then the lights flicked off. So the attacker came back to stab her again. Again she screamed. And screamed. Again, the lights came on. Again, the attacker retreated. But still, no one came to help. And for a third and final time, he attacked. Finally killing her, then attempting to rape her.

This all took place in 35 minute period between 3.15 and 3.50am. Thirty eight people heard her cries. Thirty eight people saw what was happening. Thirty eight people were witness to a horrible, brutal murder. And not one of those thirty eight people did anything. Not even call the police.

The experiment that was inspired by this event is just as shocking. Actually, I feel a bit yuck just writing about it. So the book: dubious, yes. But not half as much as our own behaviour.

1 comment:


sad, this world, where people are immune to others suffering - even sadder that some get pleasure from causing that suffering...