Saturday, March 27, 2010

Opening Skinner's Box

(Comment left on Jill Grezcek's blog)

Author: Lauren Slater

In Opening Skinner's Box, Lauren Slater examines 10 of the most influential psychological experiments of the 20th century and applies her own views and interpretations in nearly lyrical style to both entertain and illuminate readers on topics ranging from philosophy, existentialism, and views on the sacredness of life and the human mind.

The 10 psychological Experiments were:
1) Skinner's experiments on rats showing that autonomous responses are cued by rewards and reinforcements meaning that simple animals could learn complex tasks and skills and are more influence by reward than punishment.

2) Milgram's shock/obedience-to-authority experiments that had people put in the situation where they were instructed to shock another human being as punishment. The results showed that about 65% would deliver "fatal" shocks. The experiments were deemed unethical and dehumanizing and those involved were clearly changed by their involvement, although a few claim that they would not trade their experience.

3) Rosenhan's infiltration of psych wards by 8 normal people that challenged the foundation of psychoanalysis. 7 of the 8 infiltrators were held in the psych wards when they complained that they heard a voice say "thump" in their heads. The experiments made it clear that there was no clear way to psychoanalytically define mental conditions and that mental conditions may be more of a problem of perception and labels as opposed to actual illness.

4) Darley and Latane's discovery of the "diffusion of responsibility." Their experiments were inspired by the Kitty-Genovese case in New York City where a woman was killed and raped over a prolonged incident where there were as many as 38 eye-witnesses who did nothing to stop the assault. The Darley and Latane experiment itself had a subject sit in a room where they listened to a recording of a man having a seizure where others were supposedly listening. It took over 6 minutes for most to take action. Darley and Latane developed the five stages of helping behavior in response:
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

5) Festinger and his "Theory of Cognitive Dissonance" where "The psychological opposition of irreconcilable ideas (cognitions) held simultaneously by one individual, created a motivatin force that would lead, under proper conditions, to the adjustment of one's belief to fit one's behavior" (Rather than vice-versa)
People would alter their beliefs to justify their behavior or their current circumstances. Slater investigated cognitive dissonance in Linda and her daughter who supposedly took in the pain of others to heal them. Festinger investigated a cult who believed in a cataclysmic event by aliens but never happened and observed the rationalizations and reactions of the believers. (They continued to believe despite evidence because they were explaining away their reactions)

6) Harlow's experiments on macaque monkeys and the nature of love and affection. Harlow deprived monkey's of their mothers and constructed a metallic surrogate with milk and a soft surrogate. The monkeys clinged to the soft surrogate. Harlow found that for proper development, proximity, touch, play, and affection is needed for primates. This led to changes in what kind of care is needed for infants to develop properly. Ironic that cruelty done to monkeys results reveals the nature of love and affection.

7) Alexander's experiments showing the nature of addiction being situational and cultural in his "Rat Park" experiment where caged rats and rats in an idealistic rat park were provided with clean and heroine laced water. Rats in the rat park stayed clean while caged rats got high. Furthermore rats forced to get high in rat park would overcome their addiction while going through withdrawal. A highly political situation.

8) Loftus's experiments on the nature of memory that showed that false memories can be easily created by mere suggestion. The chapter also showed her defense of people suddenly "remembering" traumatic childhood events that never existed. Her experiments had family members suggesting an episode of being lost in a mall to a subject. After 24-48 hours the subject would completely "remember" the fictional incident and minute details and feelings about the subject. Challenged the ideas of repression and countered popular thought and trends of the time.

9) Kandel conducted experiments on sea slugs to demonstrate the biological nature of learning and memory on a neuron level. He discovered CREB which switches on the genes needed to produce proteins that create permanent connection between cells which is how learning and memory is created. Drugs are being created to use this compound to enhance learning and recall in humans which raises ethical questions.

10) Moniz and his lobotomies that relieved anxiety and severe psychological symptoms. While lobotomies became popular for about 2 decades thanks to Moniz, there was a backlash when less precise (but also less invasive and controversial) pharmacological alternatives were provided. Although the mysteries of the brain are still many, today, lobotomies have become much safer and more precise and may actually be a preferable method to pharmacological alternatives. Lobotomies remain taboo and are hard to find mostly because the perception of lobotomies themselves and the fact that the surguries may "eliminate the spark" that makes us human. In essence, the brain is sacred.


My spill:
The book itself is an interesting read that brings up many intriguing and controversial questions about the nature of the mind and the sanctity of life.
The field of psychology has historically been a hard field to classify and I think this book addresses that point and most of its facets, including its human element, quite well.

The book is written in an artsy style that didn't quite meet up to my sensibilities as to how these kinds of subjects should be addressed. Don't get me wrong, I like the arts and can appreciate cultured expositions, but Slater's presentation of the material felt strained, dishonest, and too skewed to her own perceptions. I think if I met this woman, that her and I would disagree on a large number of issues.

It is interesting to note that East Asians are more comfortable with paradoxes at a biological level.

1 comment:

  1. I for one actually liked the artsy feel of the book. I felt that it took some very deep and difficult subjects and wrapped them in a manner that was easier to swallow.