on 27 March 2004
Readers should be aware that some people interviewed in this book, including prominent psychologists, have written formal letters of complaint to the President of Norton (publishers of the US edition), stating that parts of the purported conversations are defamatory inventions. Other knowledgeable psychologists have stated that important elements in Slater's descriptions of important psychological experiments are erroneous. Even before I read these complaints by a number of prominent psychologists, I had reason to doubt the veracity of the author. From lengthy extracts in the Guardian newspaper in January, and lengthy excerpts from the book on BBC Radio 4 "Book at Bedtime" (five quarter-hour readings from different chapters), I formed the opinion that some of the author's accounts of her experiences, including passages in the alleged conversations she had with current psychologists, were very unlikely to be true. Likewise the detailed account of her first attempt at replicating Rosenhan's experiment concerning the diagnosis of someone who only pretended to have symptoms of severe mental illness seems to me to be largely a product of her imagination. I suggest that people impressed by enthusiastic reviews of the book, such as some of those posted here, should keep an open mind until they have had an opportunity to see the evidence adduced by critics of Slater's book.
on 10 March 2004
I too had intended to read a chapter of this book and then come back to it later, but ended up reading the whole thing, then re-reading the whole thing, then a fortnight later dipping into it and thinking it over.
The experiments are interesting, whether or not you are interested in psychology, because what they are about is attempting to understand human beings. Some of them you may be familiar with - most people have heard of Milgram's experiment where unknowing dupes were prepared to deliver what they believed were potentially fatal electric shocks to another participant in an experiment, just because they were asked to, but the author also finds some less well-known and equally interesting experiments.
What she does particularly well, is plunge herself into the issues involved. She doesn't just read about the boxes that Skinner put his trained pigeons into, she goes and looks at them. She doesn't just accept the common-knowledge that Skinner's daughter who he raised on the disciplines of positive reinforcement (in a special playpen he dubbed 'heir conditioner) killed herself, she goes out and talks to his other daughter, who says that this is all nonsense, that her father was misunderstood.
If you think for a second that this is going to be dry or technical, it is not. Every chapter in this book will make you think in a slightly different way about something you've never considered before - I wish I could say that about even 5 % of the novels that are out there at the moment.
For me, the most interesting chapter was on the rat-park experiment on drug-addiction, which flies in the face of everything you have ever been told about the addictiveness of drugs - the most harrowing the chapter on the nature of love, with the monkeys brought up on mother substitutes who were unyielding wire-frames covered in cloth and later even worse excesses with blasts of cold water, but still the monkeys sought them out. Slater gets really under the skin of the experimenters as well as the experiments and in the monkey chapter, you really feel how desperately unhappy and unloved the pyschologist behind this was.
The only fault I could find with this book is the same as Ricky Jay's Journal of Anomalies - that it is not four times the length. Don't worry about not knowing much about psychology, or even not being particularly interested in it, this book is just a fascinating, absorbing and emotional read.
This is a remarkable book not only for its content, but for the way it is written. What Lauren Slater does extremely well is (1) provide a context for the experiments and personalize them; (2) insinuate herself into the narrative in meaningful ways; and (3) write the kind of prose that is vivid and psychologically engaging. She has the gift of the novelist, and she is not satisfied with the conventional surface of things.
But there is an edge to Slater's prose. She dwells on the horrific: the lobotomies, the monkeys being abused for the experimenter's purposes, the living rats with their brains exposed... She does/doesn't believe that the means of animal experimentation justifies the ends of neurological knowledge. This dialectic that she holds in her mind, now favoring the value of experimental psychology, now questioning it, may leave the reader dissatisfied and confused. Where DOES Lauren Slater stand? She says she stands "with this book" for which there is no conclusion, even though she writes a concluding chapter with that title.
So it is not so strange that among these "great psychological experiments" she finds nothing like solid ground. Instead she waffles between experimenter and experiment, between one interpretation and another. And while she addresses the experiments themselves and the controversies they raised, more significantly she addresses the experimenters themselves, challenges them with sharp and sometimes impertinent questions; and when the experimenters are not available, she finds relatives or friends and fires loaded questions at them. Slater wants to find the truth, if possible, and to be fair; but often what she finds is that she doesn't know what the truth is, and that life is oh, so complex.
This is refreshing and of course disconcerting. She began with an attitude of deep distrust, for example, toward B. F. Skinner, the man who had put his daughter in a box, the man who apparently cared more for experiment and establishing behaviorism than he did for human beings, a man whose conclusions could pave the way to a new and more horrible fascist state. But Slater plunges in and finds that his daughters loved him and that the one who supposedly committed suicide is alive and well. Slater even realizes, after being confronted by Julia Skinner Vargas, one of the daughters she interviewed by telephone, that she, Slater, hadn't read Skinner's magnum opus, Beyond Freedom and Dignity--had instead, like most of us, myself included, known it only by reputation, bad reputation.
So Slater reads the book and when she is through she compares Skinner to a "green" Al Gore and speculates that "maybe" Skinner "was the first feminist psychologist." Quite a turnaround.
But this is characteristic of Slater's approach. Become engaged. Keep an open and flexible mind. Dare to believe what others are afraid to believe. Turn on a dime. And this is right for this book since many of the experimenters did exactly that: they sought to show where the conventional wisdom was wrong; and they sought to turn psychology on its head.
The first piece I read (opening the book at random) was "On Being Sane in Insane Places." This is about how in the early 1970s, Stanford psychologist David Rosenhan and eight collaborators showed up at nine different mental hospital around the country and told the shrinks they were hearing voices. The voices said one word: "Thud." They were committed even though otherwise they acted normally. Their stay was from fifty-two to seven days each.
This experiment created a sensation and a scandal in the psychiatric community and caused a complete overall in the DSM II (we have DSM IV today). The diagnostic language was rewritten so that the definitions became measurable, and the volume grew by two hundred pages.
Slater decided to replicate the experiment. She went to mental hospitals and said she heard a voice that said, "Thud." What she got were prescriptions for antipsychotics and antidepressants.
There are ten chapters and a conclusion. "Obscura," the second chapter deals with Stanley Milgram's infamous electric shock experiment which showed that ordinary people would, guided by the authority of the experimenter, administer what they thought were possibly lethal shocks to fellow human beings. Another chapter looks at Leon Festinger's experiment with infiltrating a doom's day cult and seeing what happens when doom does not arrive at the appointed hour. What happens is "cognitive dissonance"--which I would call "elaborate rationalization."
Still another chapter is devoted to the famous "Lost in the Mall" repressed memory experiment by Elizabeth Loftus which demonstrated how subject to suggestion are our memories. Loftus who, along with Katherine Ketcham, wrote The Myth of Repressed Memory: False Memories and Allegations of Sexual Abuse (1994), showed how a false memory of being lost in the mall as child could be suggested to people and how they would not only come to believe it, but would confabulate all sorts of "remembered" detail around an event that never happened.
This is a book that may make some practicing psychologists uneasy. (And they may write nasty reviews.) Certainly Slater does not play to their feelings. Quite the opposite. Toward the end she asks: "At what point does experimental psychology and clinical psychology meet? Apparently at no point. I interviewed twelve licensed practicing psychologists...and none of them even knew most of these experiments, never mind used them in their work." (p. 253)
And Slater is not enchanted with the new psychopharmacology. She argues that Prozac, Zoloft, and other psychoactive drugs may have long term effects worse than lobotomies. In fact the point of Chapter 10: "Chipped" is to tell the story of a man who benefitted from a cingulotomy (the modern, streamlined lobotomy) after electroshock therapy and after "more than twenty-three...psychiatric medications" had failed him.
The walnuts pictured on the cover come from this statement about the brain on page 249: "there is still something holy about that three-pound wrinkled walnut with a sheen."
on 25 February 2004
I bought this book and planned on reading one chapter and then alternating with a book of fiction. Instead, i started this book and finished it in a day and plan on reading it again. Slater's descriptions of past psychological experiments in laymen terms and collection of current views on their outcomes is gripping and intelligent reading. After every chapter i couldn't help but apply the principles to myself to see where i stood. What makes this book so gripping, is the author's ability to make the past so personal and relevant to everyone. Slater is extremely generous in sharing of herself as a guinea pig for us to learn through and question ourselves. This is the best book i have read in a long time.
on 1 April 2004
I first heard Slater's book serialised on BBC Radio 4. It seemed then, and in fact is, an attempt to look at the experiences and the individuals behind famous psychological experiments.
Slater goes into a great deal of detail on the background to each experiment, and also adds her own commentary to it and the personalities involved. She sets out not only each experiment and its context, but the reaction to it, particularly the negative, and - as a professional herself presumably - tries to steer us through the rights and wrongs of each position. I like this, as it makes the narrative less dry and more interesting and personal. Sometimes she's a little *too* self-indulgent: she constantly mentions her young child, and sometimes to read her you'd think she's the only person who's ever been a parent.
There is plenty of food for thought. The chapter on addiction, for example, is fascinating and thought-provoking on a subject where the battle-lines are so firmly drawn on a political basis that you rarely hear rational debate.
My main gripe is the relentlessly parochial style. You doubt that Ms SLater has ever been outside America, or even knows that "abroad" exists. Every one of the ten experiments was either conducted in the US or by a US national, with the exception of that of lobotomy pioneer Egas Moniz in Portugal - and even the greater part of that chapter is taken up with its effect on the history of lobotomy in America. I'm not a psychologist myself, and I could be wrong, but surely *some* valuable work was done in the field in the 20th century that didn't either take place in America or affect it overwhlemingly more than everywhere else ... ?
on 2 July 2007
I really enjoyed reading this book. It covers 10 psychology studies (including: goon park, skinners box, being sane in insane places, rat park) written in a way that I haven't seen often. Psychology textbooks can often focus too much on statistics and criticisms; even though Slater makes these clear she helps us form a relationship with the psychologist who conducted these studies. She also includes her experiences through recreating some of the studies and by including her personal/ professional relationships with the people in this book.
I would recommend this book for anyone who is learning about psychology (especially A level students) or interested, due to it being a very light and enjoyable read that still gets your brain thinking.
If you found this book enjoyable and wish to learn more about psychology studies I recommend this book: Forty Studies That Changed Psychology by Roger R. Hock. The writer has similar enthusiasm in his style to that of Slater.
on 25 October 2007
Here are the 10 great ones according to Slater:
1) Skinner's work, much of it: with an appreciation of his decency.
2) Milgram's experiment purported to demonstrate obedience but probably more about how to market an experiment: with several sharp experts cited questioning Milgram's conclusions.
3) Rosenham's efforts to discredit psychiatry: by deception that played upon doctors' wise carefulness.
4) Darley and Latane's "recreation" of the Kitty Genovese murder: by soundly creating conditions under which individual responsibility weakened.
5) Festinger's cognitive dissonance work: here comes the space ship. Slater's not afraid to present the implications for mainstream religion.
6) Harry Harlow's giving baby monkey's fake Mom's: sad use of animals.
7) Bruce Alexander's experiments to show rats can resist drugs when treated well: if this is so, the implications for public policy are huge.
8) Elizabeth Loftus' "Lost in the Mall" demonstrations of false memory: gathering facts needed to combat abusive manipulation to plant "memories".
9) Eric Kandel's study of sea slug's memory: be glad you remember well and be glad you forget well.
10) Psychosurgery beginning with Antonio Moniz: Apparently, for example, in California, psychosurgery can be refused and in Oregon it is banned altogether.
If, instead of reading some typically dry introductory psychology text, you read this and then followup by reading elsewhere about the experiments in this book that grabbed you, you can go deep into the study of modern psychology.
on 18 April 2010
Another (5 star) reviewer called this book "chick lit psychology". I think that's not a bad summary and if that gets your juices flowing, go for it.
For anyone else not wanting to read a dumbed-down (and watered down) summary of a scientific experiment, retold and dramatised in the style of an especially clumsy and aggravating 'Take a Break' true story, steer well clear of this book.
I really don't think I can go on. I'm only 3 chapters in, have learnt nothing (in fact, I think this book has made me more stupid) and have had to endure the most narcissistic editorialising imaginable. Something tells me that I am being subject to a secret psychology experiment in the form of this book.
I hate to admit defeat, so I'm going to persevere but so far it appears to be the work of a frustrated novelist cobbling together some wikipedia articles and then "bringing them to life" through endless inane, self-important waffle. I've never felt so robbed in all my life.
on 5 June 2007
As soon as i picked this book up i couldnt put it down. From studing psychology at A level i had an interest in the subject and Its been lovely to be able to found out about experiments which i studied in a much more readable format.
Her comments on the addiction and obedience studies are particularly interesting.
I definatly recommend this to people with either and general interest in the subject or to people that have already had an insight in the subject and want to know more about certain landmark experiments.
Overall, a very good and interesting read!!!
on 29 April 2009
On the whole, this is a very entertaining book, which summarises some of the most famous / influential / notorious psychological experiments of the 20th century.
While there is certainly a bit of an authorial bias, the book is informative and interesting. I found the style a bit corny and annoying at times, but got used to it.
All in all, a good lightish read ... not really academic stuff, but fun, and if you want to know more, there's plenty of dry academic research to dig into!