Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Opening Skinner's Box" by Lauren Slater

This book is a layman's guide to an eclectic selection of the 20th century's most innovative and infamous psychological experiments. Actually, I'm not sure I'm qualified to categorize this as an eclectic selection, as the ten main experiments discussed probably increased the number of psychological experiments I'm familiar with to a total of eleven. But the selection sure seemed eclectic--from rats in mazes to neurons of sea slugs to false memory to lobotomy and beyond.

It's a bit uneven, and sometimes obviously biased, but it is never dry or dull. The author is a bit odd (which is worse: that B. F. Skinner's daughter kept a half-eaten square of chocolate which her father had bitten before his death ten years earlier, or that Lauren Slater also took a bite out of it after the daughter left the room? Did she really do that??) but definitely adds personality and color to her (admittedly unacademic) review of the included experiments.

I was just wishing my memory were such that I would carry with me a kernel of knowledge from each chapter, but lamenting that that was not to be, when I realized I could plant all ten kernels now. So, here they are:
  • B. F. Skinner put rats in boxes and studied reward and punishment. He was able to train a variety of animals to do some amazing things, found that reward was much more motivating than punishment, and further found that inconsistent rewards are more motivating than consistent ones.
  • Stanley Milgram designed a sadistic experiment in which unwitting volunteers were led to believe they were administering increasingly stronger shocks to innocent strangers in the next room. Sixty-five percent of those involved were obedient to the authority in the white coat, continuing to increase the voltage even when they began to hear very real-sounding screams of pain. 
  • David Rosenhan decided to test the validity of psychiatric diagnosis. He and eight other perfectly sane recruits went to psychiatric hospitals across the country and claimed to be hearing a voice that said "thud." Each was admitted on this basis, resulting in stays of varying lengths (averaging 19 days), with the most frequent diagnosis being schizophrenia. 
  • John Darley and Bibb Latané studied the reaction of groups of people to a crisis and found public apathy. An individual's perception of personal responsibility is diluted by the presence of greater numbers of fellow witnesses. 
  • Leon Festinger studied irreconcilable ideas or cognitive dissonance--the way the mind adapts to a breach of faith. For example, what happens to the beliefs of cult members whose ship doesn't come in on the predicted date? "It is precisely when a belief is disconfirmed that religious groups begin to proselytize." 
  • Harry Harlow separated baby monkeys from their mothers and found that the babies preferred a sense of comforting touch over physical nourishment. He further found that more than touch and food was needed; the babies also required movement associated with that touch, and a regular period of play, or they grew up to be freakin' crazy. 
  • Bruce Alexander studied drug addiction in rats, and concluded that a poor environment engendered dependency more reliably than the drugs themselves. Rats raised in the Rat Park (a rat utopia) actually preferred to avoid drugs even after being forced into addiction.
  • Elizabeth Loftus has proven that false memories can easily be implanted by suggestion, using the Lost in the Mall technique. The author had a very obvious dislike for Loftus that was clear in this biased chapter. 
  • The chapter on Eric Kandel begins by discussing HM, the man whose hippocampus was sucked out of his brain in 1953 in order to cure him of his seizures; unfortunately this surgery also left him unable to form any new memories. Kandel wanted to study the way learning and memory is stored in the brain, and used sea slugs with their simplified brains, observing the changes that occurred as he (seriously?!) trained them.
  • Egaz Moniz is the Portuguese neurologist who pioneered the lobotomy. Call me ignorant, but I'd always thought lobotomy was an actual removal of the frontal lobes which regularly resulted in much greater loss of function than this chapter seems to suggest; my misunderstanding was probably the fault of Randle Patrick McMurphy.
My favorite takeaway comes from the Darley and Latané chapter. Slater clearly lists the things an individual must do to overcome public apathy. This is something I hope I can remember myself, as well as something I want my kids to learn--the five stages of helping behavior:

1. You, the potential helper, must notice an event is occurring.
2. You must interpret the event as one in which help is needed.
3. You must assume personal responsibility.
4. You must decide what action to take.
5. You must then take action.

This is meant to be applied to situations where you see a fellow human in dire circumstances . . . is it small-minded of me to note that this exact same sequence can apply to household chores? (Mommy and Daddy need help, child! Notice your dirty underwear on the floor and take action!)

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