Opening Skinner's Box

by Lauren Slater. Bloomsbury

You must be mad to trust your shrink.

Back in the early Seventies, an American psychologist called David Rosenhan asked eight friends to help him with an experiment. Five days before it began, they were to stop washing, shaving and brushing their teeth.

On the appointed day, each of them would go to a different psychiatric hospital and complain that he or she could hear a voice in their head saying just one word: `Quack'

In every other respect, they would tell the truth about themselves, and feign no other symptoms. If admitted to a ward, they would immediately say they now felt fine, and the voice had stopped.

The results of this experiment were shocking. All of the volunteers were hospitalized; the average length of each stay was 19 days, the longest 52 days. Seven of the volunteers were diagnosed as schizophrenic and the other as a manic depressive psychotic.

The doctors who interviewed them all neatly rearranged their pasts so as to fit the diagnosis; claiming, for instance, that they showed `considerable ambivalence in close relationships'.

When finally released, they were all told their mental illnesses were not cured but only in remission.

These results gave the psychologists a considerable knock, and they decided to fight back. One hospital even challenged Rosenhan to send as many bogus patients as he wanted to its emergency room over the next three months, saying they would definitely detect them.

Craftily, Rosenhan sent none.

Three months later, the hospital reported back. They had, they said, detected no fewer than 41.

Lauren Slater is a practicing psychiatrist (and a patient, too: at one, point, she reveals, a trifle unsettlingly, that she herself has a formidable psychiatric history that includes lots of lock ups', adding, although, really, I'm fine now'.

In her remarkably stimulating new book, she investigates ten of the most famous psychological experiments of the 20th Century, going into the psychology of the experimenters and their guinea-pigs, raising deep ethical questions about the nature of behavioral psychology and, every now and then, attempting to repeat the experiments for herself.

When Slater repeated the Rosenhan experiment 25 years later, she found that, by and large, things had changed for the better.

Where the earlier investigators had been treated with severity, even cruelty, she found only kindness and sympathy.

She was not interned by any of the eight hospitals she visited, though her case was taken seriously by everyone.

`This is the human side of psychiatry, and it should be celebrated,' she concludes.

On the other hand; every single doctor prescribed her antidepressants. She rightly pinpoints depression as enjoying a boom in the 21st Century, along with those other chart-toppers; posttraumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.

One of the many virtues of Opening Skinner's Box is the sharpness with which it shows how psychiatry is as much a victim of the swings of fashion as the most wide-eyed teenager.

One particularly meaty chapter deals with the fashion in the Nineties propagated in America by Oprah Winfrey and Roseanne Barr for suddenly, remembering that a close relative had abused you as a child.

`If you think you were abused, then you, were' Oprah Winfrey used to tell her viewers, with monstrous omniscience.

Slater writes of an iconoclastic experimental psychologist called Elisabeth Loftus who has devoted her life to exposing this as nonsense.

`Only the flimsiest curtain separates reality from imagination,' she maintains, and Slater appears to agree with her.

'Memory,' she writes, `is as slippery as a stream, as unreliable as a rat' In one experiment, Loftus set out to prove how easy it is to implant a false memory in a human being.

She presented her subjects with made-up evidence that, as children, they had been lost in a shopping mall. Twenty-five per cent of her subjects then suddenly remembered this nonexistent event, most of them providing more and more details to support the story of their forgotten trauma.

The results seemed to show that a persuasive therapist could easily implant a memory of incest in a patient's brain, regardless of whether or not there was any truth in it. But there is, of course, a different way of looking at it. Supporters of the if-you-think-you-were-abused-then-you-were school point out that the vast majority - 75 her cent of Loftus's subjects did not succumb to her suggestions.

And on closer investigation by Slater, Loftus herself appears a little kooky, to put it mildly, often bursting into tears, slamming down the phone and taking her cause to such an extreme length that she has appeared as an expert witness for the defense in support of such obvious creeps and charlatans as the parent-murdering Menendez brothers and the serial killer Ted `Son of Sam' Bundy.

`Talking to her, feeling her high-flying energy, the zeal that burns up the center of her life, you have to wonder why,' writes Slater. You are forced to ask the very kind of question Loftus most abhors: did something bad happen to her?' It turns out that indeed it did: when she was 14, Loftus's mother drowned in the family swimming pool.

`Was it suicide?' asks Slater, over the phone.

Loftus replies they'll never know, but that 'it doesn't matter'.

`What doesn't matter?’ asks Slater.

`Whether it was or it wasn't.

It doesn't matter because it's all going to be OK."

The line then goes silent.

`You there?' says Slater.

`Oh, I'm here,' replies Loftus.

`Tomorrow, I'm going to Chicago, some guy on death row, I'm gonna save him. I gotta testify: Thank God I have my work...Without it, where would I be?'

But did this conversation actually take place? Throughout the book, Slater shows an artist's instinct for perceiving the strange and often contradictory forces that drive human beings. She is peculiarly adept at showing the other side of the coin, the real story behind the first impression.

Sometimes, though, one wishes she were, a little less artistic and rather more strictly factual. It does not boost one's confidence in her judgment, for instance, that within the space of two lines she manages to spell the names of two famous psychologists wrong: Thomas Szasz she spells `Sasz' and R. D. Laing she spells `Lang'. She also writes `per se' as `per say', which makes you wonder if she knows what it means.

These might seem like pedantic quibbles but there are important passages where one is led to wonder whether, to put it kindly, her creativity hasn't got the better of her veracity.

For example, the mesmerizing title story, Opening Skinner's Box, charts the career of a bizarre behavioral psychologist called B. F Skinner who, it was rumored, kept his baby daughter in a box for two years in order to shape her future behavior.

The rumor went on to suggest that in later life his traumatized daughter killed herself in a hotel room: Slater sets out to investigate this rumor, and, after many twists and turns, discovers that the box was a safe and luxurious playpen, and that the baby daughter spent only a few hours a day in it.

Nor did she commit suicide: in fact, she is now said to be an artist living in England.

All very interesting, but in tiny print in the endnotes Slater recommends a thorough and thoughtful' biography of Skinner, published ten years ago. Presumably, when Slater read this thorough biography she discovered the rumors were false - in which case, why does she then make such a to-do about tracking them down?

There are quite a few similar moments when one thinks: `Yes, but...' However, despite a surplus of poetry and a lack of cold facts, Opening Skinner's Box is an endless delight, and the author's rebellious nature gives her the courage to remain at odds with by far the most decadent tenet of modern psychology - that feeling good is more important than being good.