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Opening Skinners Box [Hardcover]

Lauren Slater
4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (48 customer reviews)

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Book Description

Feb. 24 2004
Documents the drama of extraordinary inquiries into human psychology, bringing to life stories with unforgettable protagonists. LAUREN SLATER delivers a witty and stunningly perceptive view of the progress of the science of the human mind in the last century. Beginning with B. F. Skinner and the legend of a child raised in a box, she takes us from a deep empathy with Stanley Milgram's obedience subjects to a funny and disturbing recreation of an experiment questioning the validity of psychiatric diagnosis. We observe cognitive dissonance among cult members whose apocalypse fails to arrive, and we see the groundwork being laid for a pill that promises to rescue the memories of aging baby boomers. Through nine examples of ingenious experiments by some of psychology's most innovative thinkers. Slater traces the evolution of the century's most pressing concerns--free will, authoritarianism, conformity, and morality. Previously described only in academic journals and textbooks, these often daring experiments have never before been narrated as stories, chock-full of plot, wit, personality, and theme.

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From Publishers Weekly

Psychologist Slater's account of 10 of the most influential-and controversial-experimental forays into the mind's inner workings is neither clinical nor dispassionate. Slater (Lying, a Metaphorical Memoir) is a relentlessly inquisitive eccentric somewhat in the mold of Janet Malcolm, and her examinations of such (in)famous experiments as Stanley Milgram's "electric shock" obedience studies and Harry Harlow's "wire monkey" attachment researches are defiantly personal, even intimate. Slater takes the often bleak news about the predictability and malleability of human behavior revealed by such theorists as B.F. Skinner deeply to heart, and her book is as much urgent reassessment as historical re-creation. The brilliant chapter on David Rosenhan's experiment, in which volunteers presented vague symptoms at psychiatric facilities and were immediately admitted, proving that the diagnosis of "mental illness" is a largely contextual affair, is the most flamboyant and revealing example of Slater's method. She is not only frank about her own experiences as a patient in psychiatric institutions but-as she does elsewhere-she reproduces the experiment personally. That Slater-after an average office visit of less than a quarter-hour-is prescribed a variety of drugs rather than being locked up does show a change in clinical methodology, but confirms Rosenhan's thesis. This combination of expert scientific and historical context, tough-minded reporting and daringly subjective re-creation serves to illuminate and humanize a sometimes arcane subject. If this leads to occasionally florid prose, and a chapter on "repressed memory" scourge Elizabeth Loftus in which Slater's ambivalence shades toward outright hostility, this is still one of the most informative and readable recent books on psychology.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From Booklist

"What if?" Perhaps no two words have had a greater capacity for motivating explorers and experimenters to delve into the unknown. When posed by some of the twentieth century's most famous psychologists, this tiny question has yielded tremendous results. From B. F. Skinner's notorious study of behaviorism to Alexander's controversial analysis of addiction, 10 of psychology's most audacious experiments are revisited in Slater's fascinating investigation. The study of human nature, psychology is paradoxically reported in dispassionate terms, its cold objectivity exacting great personal costs. Slater, a psychologist who has written extensively about her own treatments for mental illness--most memorably in Prozac Diary (1998)--wanted to change all that, to reconnect with the patients and physicians who contributed so significantly to our understanding of human behavior. Passionately and poetically, she humanizes the calculating inspiration and inhumane consequences such experimentation conferred. At times facile, even glib, Slater is nonetheless grounded in her research and conclusions and does succeed in bringing a refreshingly honest, and human, perspective to an all-too-often detached clinical science. Carol Haggas
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved

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I did my first psychological experiment when I was fourteen years old. Read the first page
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Customer Reviews

Most helpful customer reviews
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
As a professor of psychology (both grad and undergrad) I have long sought out texts that reflect and expand upon the major trends in psychological literature. OSB does this beautifully. It manages to tell the tale of experimental psychology in a way that's accurate and compelling. I just wish Lauren Slater would next write an actual textbook; what a blessing that would be.
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2.0 out of 5 stars Read as journalism, not psychology. July 17 2004
Format:Hardcover
As a doctoral student and researcher, I enjoyed reading widely in social psychology and applying theories to my own studies. So I hoped this book would shed light on some topics I used to deal with every day.
Unfortunately, OSB seems to belong to the genre of new journalism, a light sweep of the landscape rather than in-depth analysis. Slater reviewed a series of ten experiments, then followed up by interviewing anyone she could find who was connected to those experiments. She seems to seek an ordinary person's perspective, a way to make these experiments accessible to laypersons.
But anyone who's taught doctoral students can verify that making science accessible isn't easy or, in some cases, desirable. When Slater questions whether these lab studies really tell us about human nature, or report isolated atypical situations, she's questioning external validity -- a subject that merits a session or two of a graduate seminar and one that deserves more attention here.
Rather than translate scientific method for the benefit of the layperson, Slater tries to adapt the layperson's perspective. And I'm not sure what we gain.
I believe we give up considerable understanding when we drop the scientific perspective. For instance, Slater reports that 25% of Loftus's subjects were quite willing to create false memories. Only 25%? The scary part isn't the statistic. It's that we don't know if a recovered-memory lawsuit is being brought by one of the 25% or by the 75% who presumably remember accurately. And it's scary to believe that police can convince some suggestible people that they did certain things.
I know little about these experiments, but I have read enough about Milgram's studies to know that Slater gives us an incomplete account and explanation.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Controversial reevaluations vividly presented July 6 2004
Format:Hardcover
This is a remarkable book not only for its content, but for the way it is written. What Lauren Slater does extremely well is (1) provide a context for the experiments and personalize them; (2) insinuate herself into the narrative in meaningful ways; and (3) write the kind of prose that is vivid and psychologically engaging. She has the gift of the novelist, and she is not satisfied with the conventional surface of things.
But there is an edge to Slater's prose. She dwells on the horrific: the lobotomies, the monkeys being abused for the experimenter's purposes, the living rats with their brains exposed... She does/doesn't believe that the means of animal experimentation justifies the ends of neurological knowledge. This dialectic that she holds in her mind, now favoring the value of experimental psychology, now questioning it, may leave the reader dissatisfied and confused. Where DOES Lauren Slater stand? She says she stands "with this book" for which there is no conclusion, even though she writes a concluding chapter with that title.
So it is not so strange that among these "great psychological experiments" she finds nothing like solid ground. Instead she waffles between experimenter and experiment, between one interpretation and another. And while she addresses the experiments themselves and the controversies they raised, more significantly she addresses the experimenters themselves, challenges them with sharp and sometimes impertinent questions; and when the experimenters are not available, she finds relatives or friends and fires loaded questions at them. Slater wants to find the truth, if possible, and to be fair; but often what she finds is that she doesn't know what the truth is, and that life is oh, so complex.
This is refreshing and of course disconcerting.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Fantastic June 29 2004
By A Customer
Format:Hardcover
I am a practicing psychiatrist so it was with great anticipation that I picked up this much discussed book. I was not dissapointed. Slater does a great job portraying the people behind psychological science while simultaneously explaining that science in ways I think ARE EXCEEDINGLY CREDIBLE. People who have taken issue with this book clearly have some deep seated insecurities regarding the status of psychology and psychiatry as a science, and, in order to compensate for those insecurities, have fastened onto a whole raft of criticisms that are, in fact, simply irrelevant to this book. I am dismayed by how my colleagues have been acting. I suggest you read this book if you wish to gain insight and comprehension into the field. If you wish to gain insight into and comprehension of the politics involved in this field, you don't even need to read the book. Just read the disingenous reviews posted here.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Funny, Irreverent, highly entertaining!! June 28 2004
Format:Hardcover
In the first chapter of the book Slater recounts her visit with one of B.F. Skinner's daughters, Julie. It turns out Skinner's study - where he keeled over into a coma before dying more than a decade earlier - has been ghoulishly preserved intact by his family down to the now stale piece of chocolate he was eating at the time. When left alone briefly in this hallowed sanctuary what does Slater do? She picks up the chocolate and takes a bite!
This could be a metaphor for the irreverent manner in which Slater proceeds to violate the sanctity and decorum of modern psychology with her ensuing discussion of psychological experimentation in the 20th century. Jumping through topics such as the heinous liberties taken by experimenters, repressed memories, drug addiction, and lobotomies Slater morphs fluidly between reporter, guinea pig and devils' advocate to show us that as much as we want to be able to explain our psychological processes in neat, categorical terms; right vs. wrong, black or white - the study of our gray matter is alas, just that - gray, and the field of Psychology is not as much of a "science" as the stuffy academics would have us believe.
And as if her commentary itself might not ruffle enough feathers in academia, she deep-sixes the clinical and objective writing style one might consider appropriate for such a topic, and instead brings the subject matter to life with a humorous and whimsical style - mixing factual reporting with cultural commentary and personal musings about why we humans behave the way we do.
Overall, an entertaining, well-written and thought provoking look at experimental psychology in the last century. Highly recommended!
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Most recent customer reviews
1.0 out of 5 stars Occasionally interesting, but mostly annoying, even cruel.
This type of book needed to be done, but this foray into the "real" people and ideas behind the most influential psychological experiments is entirely disappointing. Read more
Published on June 28 2004 by L H
1.0 out of 5 stars The controversy is about credibility
This text had such potential--it was entertaining, certainly, which can help interest people in psychological science. Read more
Published on June 25 2004 by Bryan
5.0 out of 5 stars Revealing Look at Psychology
Lauren Slater is one of the best writers on psychology in America today. This is fitting as Slater herself has experienced her share of psychological trauma. Read more
Published on June 24 2004 by Charles J. Rector
5.0 out of 5 stars an exceptional account
The controversy this book has generated in the scientific community makes sense when you read this book. Read more
Published on June 22 2004
1.0 out of 5 stars A Waste of Talent and Time
Slater's engaging prose style is squandered here on a poorly researched, poorly argued look at some famous psychological experiments of the past. Read more
Published on June 21 2004
4.0 out of 5 stars Get over the controversy
There's been a lot of controversy about this book regarding the veracity of some of its claims. However, it appears that most of the criticms are from various psychologists who... Read more
Published on June 1 2004 by "lizarazu"
4.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat Creepy
After reading how controversial Opening Skinner's Box is, I had to read the book myself. Some of the people interviewed in the book are claiming to have been incorrectly quoted,... Read more
Published on May 31 2004 by takingadayoff
5.0 out of 5 stars A personal touch regarding the soft underbelly of science
Lauren Slater manages to describe what she terms "the greatest psychological experiments of the twentieth century" with a lot of humor, wackiness, and insight into the... Read more
Published on May 25 2004 by Marissa Carter
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