Skinner's Box or Pandora's Box?
Ten landmark psychological studies on the couch
BY Katy Butler
In Opening Skinner's Box --the fascinating, flawed, and controversial psychology book published by W.W. Norton in March--author Lauren Slater revisits one of the 20th century's most influential psychology experiments. It was 1961, a decade before My Lai and four decades before Abu Ghraib. In New Haven, Connecticut, a 27-year-old social psychologist named Stanley Milgram set out to explain why ordinary human beings in Nazi Germany had inflicted cruelty on innocent strangers. He was skeptical of the psychoanalytically influenced theories of the day that abusive German childraising practices had created an "authoritarian personality" willing to scapegoat others as an outlet for its own disowned aggression. Far more significant, he thought, was the shaping power of the social situations in which German adults had found themselves.
So Milgram, an assistant professor at Yale, perpetrated what Slater calls "one of psychology's grandest and most horrible hoaxes." Pretending to be studying the effects of punishment on learning in a lab in the basement of Yale's Linsley-Chittenden Hall, he instructed unwitting subjects to give increasingly intense "shocks" to a man who was actually an actor and an accomplice. When ordered to do so, 65 percent of the volunteers pulled levers that said "Danger, Extreme Shock: 340 Volts" even while the supposed victim writhed in feigned agony, screamed, begged for mercy, and fell into deathly silence. They did it, apparently, because a man in a white coat told them to. So much for theories about German childraising. If a hypothetically evil U.S. government tried to set up death camps, Milgram wrote to his backers at the National Science Foundation, New Haven alone could produce a full complement of "moral imbeciles" willing to man them.
Technically, Milgram's was a study of the effect of obedience and social influence on human behavior. But as Slater asks in Opening Skinner's Box, what about the story behind the story? Should we pay no attention to the man behind the curtain--to Milgram himself, raised in the South Bronx hearing the news of the Nazi death camps on the family radio? Should we ignore the social climate of his times, which denied him tenure at Yale because of outrage about the ethics of his experiment? Were his results simply objective pieces of data, the latest bricks in the growing edifice of a truly scientific psychology? Or does Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle (which holds that the presence of an observer changes the thing observed) obtain in the world of psychology as well as in quantum mechanics?
Working in an agnostic century horrified by the trench warfare of World War I and the collective madness of the Holocaust, Milgram had implictly raised large, messy questions that reverberated beyond the narrow confines of his basement lab, questions that resonate to this day: What's free will, and do we have it? What makes us capable of being cruel, or of witnessing cruelty as passive bystanders? What primarily propels us--personality, social situations, drives, neurobiology, upbringing, or moral or religious teachings--toward good or evil? Are these questions reducible to an experimental design? And is it ethical--or unjustifiably cruel--to hoax innocent volunteers into giving others "shocks" in the interest of advancing science?
Little of this back-story could be gleaned from the dry scientific language in which this influential experiment was originally published. Now Slater, a memoirist and counseling psychologist, has retold it, and nine other experiments like it, in compelling, novelistic terms. She imagines Milgram as "Part imp, a little Jewish leprechaun, his science soaked in joke" and writes that in another experiment he pointed up at an empty sky and timed how long it took to gather a crowd looking up at nothing. His obedience …