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Pecking pigeons and false memories
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.