Review of Lauren Slater’s latest

The Telegraph reviews Lauren Slater’s Opening Skinner’s Box. It sounds interesting. And harrowing:

Lauren Slater’s new book looks at 10 experiments, most of them American. They are, as she puts it in her introduction, “compressed experience, life distilled to its potentially elegant essence, the metaphorical test tube parsing the normally blended parts so you might see love, or fear, or conformity, or cowardice play its role”. Slater places each experiment in its biographical context, and responds to it proactively.

Her title refers to the work of BF Skinner who, at Harvard in the 1930s, used Pavlovian conditioning to develop a mechanics of compulsion. By getting pigeons to play ping-pong and a cat to play the piano, he raised questions about free will and stupidity. Skinner envisaged a world government of benevolent behaviourists, and as a start he kept his baby daughter in a cage for two years, training her with bells and lights, rewards and punishments, just as he did the rats in his laboratory. When she was 21, and psychotic, she sued him, lost, and then shot herself in a bowling alley. Slater rejects the received opinion of Skinner as a proto-Nazi, and tries his techniques on her own infant daughter, whom she trains to sleep through the night.

Stanley Milgram’s experiment at Yale is the best known of the experiments. Volunteers were asked to administer electric shocks to subjects unable to answer easy questions. There was a degree of fraud involved – they were told the experiment was about learning rather than obedience, the victims were actors, and the “shock machine” was a fake – but 65 per cent administered what they thought were fatal levels of electricity to people screaming in agony. “I once wondered,” wrote Milgram, “whether in all of the United States a vicious government could find enough moral imbeciles to meet the personnel requirements of a national system of death camps, of the sort that were maintained in Germany. I am now beginning to think that the full complement could be recruited in New Haven.”

Each experiment chosen by Slater is related in some way to one or more of the others, which gives her book a narrative coherence. Milgram’s work, for example, finds a corollary in that of John Darley and Bibb Latané, who were inspired by the case of a woman raped and murdered outside her home in Queens, New York. The crime occurred over 35 minutes, and throughout that time the victim cried for help from her neighbours; there were 38 witnesses, none of whom helped. In their study of group authority, Darley and Latané concluded that in some circumstances, “we value social etiquette over survival”.

The most appalling of the animal experiments are those of Harry Harlow, who subjected rhesus macaque monkies to vile torments. He would separate babies from their mothers, and substitute a variety of artificial ones: “some… pumped freezing cold water over their children; others stabbed them. No matter what the torture, Harlow observed that the babies would not let go…” Such babies grew up violently antisocial and sexually dysfunctional. Unable to mate naturally, the females were subjected to “the rape rack”, and as mothers tended either to ignore their children or to kill them.

There’s something wonky with the formatting of that article. I tried to send the Telegraph’s web people an email but got lost in their unfriendly forms. And that reminds me, if you want to contact me about something I’ve posted here on Fridays, you can use my very own handy-dandy stephka@maudnewton.com address. (Maud’s practically a brand!)

I’ve read Slater’s Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir and Love Works Like This. She reads a bit like Slyvia Plath if Plath had become a psychologist instead of suicidal. I find she’s best taken in small doses and so I have not yet read Prozac Diary or Welcome to My Country. But they’re on my list.


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