[FoRK] Opening Skinner's Box: How free is free will?

Contempt for Meatheads jbone at place.org
Fri May 21 07:19:07 PDT 2004

Amazing.  Something non-partisan from Salon?


How free is free will?

Lauren Slater's new book about 10 landmark psychological experiments 
has ignited a firestorm in the psychological establishment. But 
whatever her shortcomings as a reporter, Slater is asking profound 
questions about human nature and its limitations.

- - - - - - - - - - - -
By Farhad Manjoo

May 21, 2004  |  Early in Lauren Slater's engaging new book, "Opening 
Skinner's Box," the author reports an amusing conversation she has with 
Jerome Kagan, a psychologist at Harvard who insists that humans beings 
possess "free will." Kagan is having a hard time convincing Slater of 
his view; in the middle of the last century, the psychologist B.F. 
Skinner showed, through a series of ingenious experiments with animals, 
that we are all far more mechanistic than we believe. We do what we do 
because we are conditioned to do it, because we are, all of us, acutely 
sensitive to rewards and reinforcements in the environment.

Slater, who is herself a psychologist, agrees with Skinner. She tells 
Kagan, "I don't absolutely rule out the possibility that we are always 
either controlled or controlling, that our free will is really just a 
response to some cues that --" And just then, to prove that people 
really do whatever they want to do, "Kagan dives under his desk," 
Slater writes. "I mean that literally. He springs from his seat and 
goes head forward into nether regions beneath his desk so I cannot see 
him anymore."

Kagan shouts to Slater, "I'm under my desk. I've never gotten under my 
desk before. Is this not an act of free will?"

"Opening Skinner's Box," in which Slater guides us through 10 landmark 
psychological experiments, brims with moments like this one -- 
unbelievable little scenes in which Slater or one of the many people 
she encounters does or says something so unexpected that you'll wonder, 
for just a split second, whether you're reading fiction. There's Kagan 
diving under his desk. There's the dour psychologist Robert Spitzer, 
who, when told that an old foe of his is laid up with a terminal 
disease that doctors can't diagnose, responds with perverse glee. 
There's Elizabeth Loftus, a famous memory researcher who "blurts out 
odd comments" and has "targets from a rifle practice affixed to her 
office wall." She volunteers her bra size to Slater. In the middle of a 
telephone interview, Loftus slams down the phone for no reason, then 
"calls back sheepishly," offering no explanation for her behavior.

And finally there's Slater herself, a writer so personally invested in 
her subject that she seems willing to risk just about anything for a 
good story. In order to explore the psychology of addiction, Slater 
puts herself on a two-week regimen of her husband's hydromorphone 
pills. She tests how well psychiatrists can detect patients who lie by 
repeating an experiment that the psychologist David Rosenhan did in the 
1970s -- Slater stops showering for five days, then goes to several 
psych emergency rooms and complains that she keeps hearing a voice that 
says "thud." She is repeatedly diagnosed as depressive and psychotic 
and given psychiatric medications, which she takes.

These exploits make for captivating reading. Given its premise, 
"Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the 
Twentieth Century" might have been a dull book, a slow trudge through 
endless academic debates in psychology. It is, instead, a powerful and 
accessible introduction to the science by a writer who is adept at 
navigating its bitterest fault lines. Slater has the necessary 
technical expertise to tackle the various ethical dilemmas that 
inevitably arise in inquiries of the human mind, but she also has the 
necessary creativity to cut through those controversies in order to 
show us just how complex and curious psychology has shown us humans to 

Slater's book could therefore have made a fine survey of psychology for 
the general audience, which the writer says was her aim. But since its 
release in March, "Opening Skinner's Box" seems to have become, at 
least in psychology circles, something altogether different -- a book 
that is only tangentially about its subject, psychological experiments, 
and mostly about what many call its author's troubled relationship with 
the truth. Slater has been besieged by some of her book's key 
characters, who claim that her writing is pocked with errors and 

While some of the allegations are frivolous, a few are serious, and the 
fight between Slater and her sources has turned nasty. Neither side 
offers a good argument to readers looking for guidance on what to 
believe, and so, in the end, it's hard not to feel adrift and alone 
with Slater's book. This is a shame: "Opening Skinner's Box" is a 
genuinely compelling read. Learning of its deficiencies -- or what some 
of Slater's sources call deficiencies -- doesn't completely discredit 
the work, but it does, alas, dull the pleasure.

Jerome Kagan says he never jumped under that desk; he merely told 
Slater that he had enough free will to crawl under his desk if he chose 
to. Robert Spitzer denies ever telling Slater that a colleague deserved 
his illness. Elizabeth Loftus says Slater got just about everything 
wrong in her chapter on Loftus' work; the chapter "is riddled with 
errors -- some minor but others extremely serious," Loftus wrote in a 
letter to Slater's publisher, W.W. Norton. "Moreover, quotes are 
attributed to me that I have never said, nor would ever say." Among 
other things, Loftus claims not to have volunteered her bra size to 
Slater -- as Slater's text implies -- and never to have intentionally 
slammed the phone down on the author.

There's more: Writing in the Guardian in March, B.F. Skinner's daughter 
Deborah accused Slater of carelessly reproducing the cruelest myths 
about her father, including the one that he raised Deborah in the same 
kind of box he used for his experiments on rats and pigeons, damning 
the daughter to a troubled life said to have ended in suicide. 
(Deborah, of course, is still alive, and is now known as Deborah 
Skinner Buzan.) And a group of prominent academics have called on 
Slater to release additional details about her own experiment on the 
emergency rooms that medicated her just because she was hearing the 
word "thud"; Spitzer says he finds the details in the experiment hard 
to believe. Many of the critics have used Slater's previous work -- 
especially her memoir "Lying," which provocatively blended truth and 
fiction -- against her.

Spitzer concluded his letter to W.W. Norton (copied to reporters at the 
New York Times, National Public Radio and several psychology journals) 
with this puckish bit: "I am enjoying reading Slater's book, 'Lying: A 
Metaphorical Memoir.' I am up to the part where she describes how she 
went through a period of her life when she was a compulsive liar."

A few of these complaints are rather silly. Not only does Kagan's 
denial that he jumped under his desk undercut his argument about free 
will -- it's not much proof of free will, after all, to just argue that 
you could jump under your desk if you wanted to and leave it at that -- 
but as Slater told reporters, Kagan signed off on the incident during 
the fact-checking process. (Kagan has claimed that he misread the 
fact-checking e-mail Slater sent him.)

Deborah Skinner Buzan's article in the Guardian, meanwhile, reads as if 
she has never even picked up Slater's book. Slater, Buzan says, bought 
into every rumor floating around about B.F. Skinner -- that he was a 
fascist and perhaps a Nazi, that he was cold and uncaring, and that he 
raised Deborah "in a cramped square cage that was equipped with bells 
and food trays, and arranged for experiments that delivered rewards and 
punishments." Buzan concludes: "The plain reality is that Lauren Slater 
never bothered to check the truth of [the rumors] (although she claims 
to have tried to track me down). Instead, she chose to do me and my 
family a disservice and, at the same time, to debase the intellectual 
history of psychology."

But that is not at all the sense one comes away with from Slater's 
chapter on B.F. Skinner. Slater's point, in fact, is to restore 
Skinner's good name, which, as Buzan points out, has fallen into 
disrepair in the decades since Skinner made his psychological 
breakthroughs. And Slater does manage a kind of restoration of Skinner. 
Much of what we think we know about Skinner is nonsense, she discovers. 
Skinner was a humanist at heart; he made no peace with the Nazis and, 
in his book "Beyond Freedom and Dignity," instead called for ridding 
society of negative stimuli -- "wars, crimes, and other dangerous 

Slater does write of an heroic effort to track down Deborah Skinner, 
and though she does not manage to do it (a shortcoming about which we 
can gripe, but not really condemn), Slater does put to rest the idea 
that Deborah died in a suicide. Slater even quotes Deborah's sister 
Julie as saying, "My sister is alive and well," and "She's an artist. 
She lives in England." And what about the myth that Deborah was raised 
in a box? Slater quashes that, too. Slater's description of the box is 
pretty much in line with Buzan's description in the Guardian -- Slater 
writes that it was actually an "an upgraded playpen" whose 
"thermostatically controlled environment" prevented diaper rash and 
other kiddie ailments, reduced the chance of suffocation by blanket, 
and allowed the daughter to walk around without any impediments, 
building a baby of impressive self-confidence.

But some of Slater's other problems are not so amenable to an easy 
defense. Many of these occur in the chapter she devotes to David 
Rosenhan's experiment on the diagnosability of psychiatric disorders. 
In 1972, Rosenhan, a psychologist, wanted to see whether psychiatrists 
were, as they claimed to be, objective investigators of mental 
disorder, or whether they were closer to subjective guessers. He and 
eight friends attempted to fake their way into different psychiatric 
wards around the country by claiming to hear a voice that said one odd 
word -- "thud." They were stunningly successful; all were admitted to 
the hospitals, and they remained committed for an average of 19 days, 
with one member of the group kept inside for 52 days, even though they 
all behaved completely normally on the inside.

Rosenhan's experiment rocked the world of psychiatry, deeply shaking 
the belief, cherished among many in the profession, that psychiatry is 
well grounded in science. The study attracted a great deal of 
criticism, but none more passionate, Slater writes, than that of 
Columbia's Robert Spitzer, who wrote two papers "devoted to dismantling 
Rosenhan's findings." Spitzer is portrayed in the book as a man who is 
more than a little pleased with himself, and who felt personally 
affronted by Rosenhan's attacks on psychiatry. When Slater calls him 
for a comment on Rosenhan's work, he asks her: "Did you read my 
responses to Rosenhan? They're pretty brilliant, aren't they?" In 
another section, Spitzer asks Slater how Rosenhan is doing. Slater 
tells him that Rosenhan is suffering from a disease that can't be 
diagnosed, and that he's paralyzed. "That's what you get," Spitzer 
tells Slater, "for conducting such an inquiry."

"I never said this," Spitzer wrote in his letter to Norton. "I would 
certainly not have gloated over Rosenhan's illness." Spitzer also says 
that he did not tell Slater -- as she quotes him as doing -- that 
Rosenhan's experiment would never work today. "It would not make sense 
for me to have made a blanket prediction (twice!) that it could never 
happen now," he wrote.

Of course, Spitzer has a reason to backpedal. Not only does he come off 
as callous, his predictions (if in fact he made them) are also wrong. 
Slater does reproduce Rosenhan's experiments, and manages to show that 
even today psychiatrists are something of a guessing crowd. Go to them 
with a voice that says "thud" and they'll write you a prescription for 
antipsychotic medication. Spitzer is absolutely shocked when Slater 
informs him of her results. "You're kidding me," he tells her. So isn't 
it conceivable that, now, he wants to step away from those predictions 
he made, just as a way to save face?

It is conceivable. The trouble is, there's not much more reason to 
believe Slater in this story. In her letter to Spitzer and in press 
reports, she has said that while she did not use a tape recorder in her 
conversation with Spitzer, she did take careful written notes. But how 
careful is Slater? The book, as various reviewers have remarked, has a 
good number of careless errors of fact, misspelled names and misused 
terms. Reviewing it in the New York Times Book Review, the Princeton 
bioethicist and animal rights pioneer Peter Singer pointed out that the 
animal rights activist Roger Fouts lives in Washington, not Oregon, as 
Slater wrote; that his chimpanzee's name is Washoe, not Washou; and 
that the activist Alex Pacheco's last name is not spelled Pachechio. 
Singer also notes Slater's curious assertion that "the last time the 
Catholic Church considered naming someone a saint was in 1983" -- Pope 
John Paul II has actually named more than 400 saints since then.

Slightly more disturbing is the fact that at one point, Slater refers 
to "the woman who yelled 'whore' [at Elizabeth Loftus] in the airport a 
few years back." But as Salon's Laura Miller wrote in a recent Times 
Book Review column, the line is actually Slater's mischaracterization 
of this 1996 Psychology Today article, which begins (in reference to 
Loftus): "She has been called a whore by a prosecutor in a courthouse 
hallway, assaulted by a passenger on an airplane shouting, 'You're that 
woman!', and has occasionally required surveillance by plainclothes 
security guards at lectures." So Slater turned being called a whore in 
a courthouse to being called a whore in an airport; this can't be 
called very careful. Whether this kind of sloppiness indicates that she 
could have fabricated a quote, as Spitzer alleges, is harder to say.

Slater maintains that her notes show Robert Spitzer making the "that's 
what you get" statement about Rosenhan, but in a letter to Spitzer she 
wrote in February, she offered to remove that statement from future 
versions of the book as a way "to make you more comfortable with your 
appearance in the Rosenhan chapter." But she did not agree to change 
any other statements Spitzer has disputed. She closes the letter with 
this curious statement: "At root none of the statements you believe you 
didn't make are any kind of misrepresentation of you, even the 
statement about Rosenhan and his illness, given that your ire toward 
him and his 'study,' is quite well known."

And in response to Spitzer's demand that Slater more fully document her 
attempt to repeat Rosenhan's study, Slater called in the big guns -- 
her lawyer. In a letter to Spitzer, Slater's attorney not only declined 
to provide any details of Slater's visits to psych hospitals, he also 
threatened Spitzer with fines of $150,000 for distributing text of the 
book on the Internet. And this, it must be said, is a rather low move. 
Much of Slater's book is worth defending, but she should know that 
reaching for the cudgel of copyright law in an attempt to silence her 
critics doesn't make defending her any easier or more desirable.

It is distressing to have to spare so much space in a review of an 
interesting book to disentangle what's plainly true in it from what's 
less plainly so. Readers of Slater's book who are familiar with the 
controversy will feel a similar distress as they make it through her 
prose, wondering, from second to second, whether this or that bit of 
detail is fact or, instead, the author's carelessness at work. The 
distress might even be enough to prompt some of them to set the book 
aside: Why read a nonfiction work of popular psychology if you're not 
sure you're actually learning the truth?

But the truth is that most, if not all, of Slater's book is the truth. 
Even if you believe she got wrong everything that critics of her book 
have accused her of getting wrong, that's still not very much. This 
sounds like a thin assurance -- who wants to read a book that's mostly 
true? -- but really it's not. If Slater were to change every word that 
Spitzer and Loftus and the others want her to change, the book would 
have, at most, two or three pages' worth of alterations. Can you really 
dismiss a book on the basis of two or three slightly erroneous pages?

Not this book, let's say. "Opening Skinner's Box" should be read. It 
should be read, for one, because Slater is a gifted stylist and there 
is pleasure in the reading, but it should also be read because, despite 
any questions of accuracy, there will be pleasure in the substance of 
the book, too. Readers unfamiliar with all that occurred in psychology 
during the last century will find Slater's explorations especially 

Take, for example, the work of John Darley and Bibb Latané, 
psychologists who devised a series of experiments to test why it is 
that people sometimes ignore other people's calls for help, and why, at 
other times, we will leap to others' comfort. Darley and Latané's 
experiments were inspired by the gruesome murder and rape of Kitty 
Genovese, a crime that took place over a 35-minute period in the 
predawn hours of March 13, 1964, in a working-class section of Queens, 
N.Y. Thirty-eight people witnessed the murder and rape, and nobody 
called the police for help while it was occurring. Thirty-eight people 
-- why were they all so heartless?

But they were not heartless, of course. They were human. In a series of 
experiments on New York University students, Darley and Latané 
discovered the phenomenon of "diffusion of responsibility" -- the more 
people who witness an event, Slater writes, "the less responsible any 
one individual feels and, indeed, is, because responsibility is evenly 
distributed among the crowd." Combined with social norms -- who wants 
to be the first one to make a fuss if nobody else seems to be too 
upset? -- diffusion of responsibility can paralyze a crowd. People 
witnessing a crime or any other kind of emergency will do nothing.

In fact, the psychology that leads to this paralysis can even prevent 
us from saving ourselves, Darley and Latané found. In one experiment, 
they put a naive subject into a room with three actors. They told all 
four to fill out a questionnaire on college life. After several 
minutes, the psychologists began to release a non-hazardous white smoke 
into room through an air vent. The three actors, who'd been instructed 
to act normally, continued filling out their forms. And what did the 
fourth person, the experiment's subject, do? "The smoke started pouring 
like cream, coming faster, heavier, smearing the air and blotting out 
figures, faces," Slater writes. "Each time, the subject looked alarmed, 
looked at the smoke going from wisp to waft, looked at the calm 
confederates, and then, clearly confused, went back to filling out the 
questionnaire." In the entire experiment, only four subjects ever 
reported the smoke -- everyone else stuck with the questionnaire, 
despite the "white film on the hair and on their lips."

Most of us would like to believe we're somehow above, or beyond, our 
psychology. We would have called the cops about the Genovese murder, 
though those 38 did not. We would have alerted the experimenters to the 
smoke in the room, though most others did not. We would not have 
electrocuted an innocent man just because an authority figure had 
instructed us to do so, as 65 percent of the people in Stanley 
Milgram's infamous Yale experiment, another that Slater writes about, 
simulated doing. But really, who are we kidding? "Opening Skinner's 
Box" asks us. We would not have called the cops about Kitty Genovese. 
And there are experiments to prove it.

So far, all that everyone talks about when they talk about "Opening 
Skinner's Box" are the shortcomings of Lauren Slater. These are, in a 
sense, important. But by the far the more interesting shortcomings 
illuminated in this book are not those of the author but of us all. 
They are the shortcomings in human nature, and they are worth reading 

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