Opening Skinner's Box

Lauren Slater

Read May 2007

Slater's book has an excellent premise: to describe and discuss a selection of great psychological experiments of the 20th century. The first few pages are a rollicking ride, both funny and clever. Combining that with the enchanting cover design (a nut-cracket poised over a walnut), I anticipated much.

The actual work is not really reportage; it's a novelistic account of the experiments, frequently interspersed with autobiographical sketches. Not surprisingly the text has no citations, but the endnotes sometimes lacks precise citations too. Slater frequently confuses people and personalities with the experiments, and has a tendency to hunt down noteables, pester them endlessly, and then present them in an unreasonably harsh light. Combined with her glory-seeking tendency, and her attempts at reproducing experiments—which initially seemed laudable, then questionable (there was no clear sense of control, or even of objectivity), and finally creepy—the book becomes something of a train-wreck.

The controversy doesn't end there. A Web search on the book reveals considerable controversy that is largely unedifying and leaves nobody—not only the author but also several academics—in a positive light. In her defense, some of the criticism is not only unwarranted but has the facts entirely backward. For instance, she mounts a reasonable defense of Skinner, allowing herself to be chided by one of Skinner's daughters; but an irresponsible newspaper reporter utterly misquoted her portrayal of another of Skinner's daughters, who in turn laid into Slater with venom. It's all very sad and very ugly.

Despite all the pathos, the book has many redeeming qualities. Slater's love of the subject—once you get past her complex sense of herself—shines, and sometimes illuminates the experiments and the personalities who conducted them. Her rehabilitation of Skinner, her rumination on dissonance theory (p. 122), her diversity of thought (though she typically mislabels Richard Seltzer's Confessions of a Knife as Lessons of a Knife (p. 173)), and her choice of experiments (such as the controversial and somewhat obscure Rat Park of Bruce Alexander) are all indications of an active mind trying hard to piece together a complex subject. It's a pity that she tries too hard, and too often puts herself in the middle of a subject that is already too fraught with emotional baggage.