Opening Skinner's BoxReview - Opening Skinner's Box
Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century
by Lauren Slater
W.W. Norton, 2004
Review by Maura Pilotti, Ph.D.
May 28th 2004 (Volume 8, Issue 22)

The author of Opening Skinner's Box, Lauren Slater, claims that the goal of her book is to make accessible to the general public ten relevant psychological "experiments". How can one do so? Slater alleges that each of the selected "experiments" is to be summarized in a language devoid of cryptic references and unfamiliar concepts, and structured in a narrative resembling a fiction story more than a scientific report. Regretfully, the book is far from achieving anything close to what the author alleges.

Slater does not select ten "experiments" but ten 20th-century researchers who undoubtedly have made (and some continue to make) a noticeable contribution to psychological knowledge. Slater attempts to describe their work, which is not always in the form of experiments as she incorrectly claims, by putting it into the complex context of the researchers' personal, social, and historic environments. Her attempts miserably fail to provide reasonable, well-informed accounts and they are smeared by unfounded personal comments, which make the reading of many sections of the book unsavory. Particularly disturbing is the scarcity of information behind many of the outrageous allegations she makes and her apparent lack of concern for the importance of corroborating evidence. Slater's admission that she has not read all of Skinner's work before commenting negatively on his philosophy and motives is symptomatic of her approach to "knowledge". Slater does not fail, however, to trivialize and insert superfluous personal feelings into her superficial and, at times, distorted accounts of the work of others. Her blindness to accuracy of reporting and lack of depth in the understanding of the ethical issues raised by the studies that she attempts to describe are troublesome (see chapter 10 for a paradigmatic illustration of the latter).

Unfortunately, in Slater's book, the selected researchers do not clearly emerge as complex human beings absorbed in the pursuit of some difficult question about human experience (e.g., Can "normal" people harm others just because they are ordered to do so? Why do witnesses fail to provide, either directly or indirectly, help to a victim?). In the book, it is also not entirely clear the extent to which such questions result from the researchers' social, historical, and personal scenarios. Even more troubling is the absence of a clearly articulated chronological account of the researchers' struggle. As a result, there cannot be any appreciation of the flow of ideas that emanate from the mere passage of time and accumulation of evidence, and of the complex dilemmas produced by conflicting views of human nature and their influence in generating research predictions. The reading of Slater's portrayal of ten prominent researchers' work equates to the reading of the stories of cartoon characters where exaggerations triumph and sound investigative work is neglected. Given this state of affairs, the researchers that are not included in the author's selection, and whose numerous professional and non-professional citations would command otherwise, should consider themselves fortunate not to appear anywhere in the book.

In summary, this is a book about lost opportunities. If you are an instructor looking for readings that can make psychology interesting to your students, you'll find Opening Skinner's Box unsuited for the purpose of educating. If you are searching for entertainment, you'll certainly find the book full of shock-provoking and misleading statements that overshadow any of the author's meager attempts to describe the work of ten influential researchers. Lastly, if you want a book that introduces you to psychological research, you'll be faced with glossy, superficial, and, at times, gratuitous accounts of various research endeavors, which do not even begin to provide the flavor of the efforts behind any of the selected scientific inquiries. Most disturbingly, you'll discover caricature-like characters whose personal lives and the domains of their professional careers Slater never manages to connect realistically. If you are any of the aforementioned persons, there are alternative books on the market that offer realistic descriptions of the work of influential researchers in the field of psychology without providing trivialized and misleading accounts of their work and of the human beings behind it. Not surprisingly, there is one more glitch. Consistent with the inadequate reporting, the book contains some noticeable errors such as "data" treated as a singular noun and non-experimental studies labeled as "experiments".

Slater claims that an investigation, "in order to break beyond the container of science, needs to have some poetry in its presentation, some smoke, some shock, a verbal trill or two." (p. 110). One just wishes she had followed her own words and added to them a dash of concern for accuracy of reporting, a sprinkle of restraint towards unbridled expressions of ungrounded personal views, and a lot more work in the gathering of evidence.

 

2004 Maura Pilotti

 

Maura Pilotti, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Dowling College, New York.


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