How free is free will?

Lauren Slater's new book about 10 landmark psychological experiments has ignited a firestorm in the psychological establishment. But whatever her shortcomings as a reporter, Slater is asking profound questions about human nature and its limitations

By Farhad Manjoo

Published May 21, 2004 8:00PM (EDT)

Early in Lauren Slater's engaging new book, "Opening Skinner's Box," the author reports an amusing conversation she has with Jerome Kagan, a psychologist at Harvard who insists that humans beings possess "free will." Kagan is having a hard time convincing Slater of his view; in the middle of the last century, the psychologist B.F. Skinner showed, through a series of ingenious experiments with animals, that we are all far more mechanistic than we believe. We do what we do because we are conditioned to do it, because we are, all of us, acutely sensitive to rewards and reinforcements in the environment.

Slater, who is herself a psychologist, agrees with Skinner. She tells Kagan, "I don't absolutely rule out the possibility that we are always either controlled or controlling, that our free will is really just a response to some cues that --" And just then, to prove that people really do whatever they want to do, "Kagan dives under his desk," Slater writes. "I mean that literally. He springs from his seat and goes head forward into nether regions beneath his desk so I cannot see him anymore."

Kagan shouts to Slater, "I'm under my desk. I've never gotten under my desk before. Is this not an act of free will?"

"Opening Skinner's Box," in which Slater guides us through 10 landmark psychological experiments, brims with moments like this one -- unbelievable little scenes in which Slater or one of the many people she encounters does or says something so unexpected that you'll wonder, for just a split second, whether you're reading fiction. There's Kagan diving under his desk. There's the dour psychologist Robert Spitzer, who, when told that an old foe of his is laid up with a terminal disease that doctors can't diagnose, responds with perverse glee. There's Elizabeth Loftus, a famous memory researcher who "blurts out odd comments" and has "targets from a rifle practice affixed to her office wall." She volunteers her bra size to Slater. In the middle of a telephone interview, Loftus slams down the phone for no reason, then "calls back sheepishly," offering no explanation for her behavior.

And finally there's Slater herself, a writer so personally invested in her subject that she seems willing to risk just about anything for a good story. In order to explore the psychology of addiction, Slater puts herself on a two-week regimen of her husband's hydromorphone pills. She tests how well psychiatrists can detect patients who lie by repeating an experiment that the psychologist David Rosenhan did in the 1970s -- Slater stops showering for five days, then goes to several psych emergency rooms and complains that she keeps hearing a voice that says "thud." She is repeatedly diagnosed as depressive and psychotic and given psychiatric medications, which she takes.

These exploits make for captivating reading. Given its premise, "Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century" might have been a dull book, a slow trudge through endless academic debates in psychology. It is, instead, a powerful and accessible introduction to the science by a writer who is adept at navigating its bitterest fault lines. Slater has the necessary technical expertise to tackle the various ethical dilemmas that inevitably arise in inquiries of the human mind, but she also has the necessary creativity to cut through those controversies in order to show us just how complex and curious psychology has shown us humans to be.

Slater's book could therefore have made a fine survey of psychology for the general audience, which the writer says was her aim. But since its release in March, "Opening Skinner's Box" seems to have become, at least in psychology circles, something altogether different -- a book that is only tangentially about its subject, psychological experiments, and mostly about what many call its author's troubled relationship with the truth. Slater has been besieged by some of her book's key characters, who claim that her writing is pocked with errors and fabrications.

While some of the allegations are frivolous, a few are serious, and the fight between Slater and her sources has turned nasty. Neither side offers a good argument to readers looking for guidance on what to believe, and so, in the end, it's hard not to feel adrift and alone with Slater's book. This is a shame: "Opening Skinner's Box" is a genuinely compelling read. Learning of its deficiencies -- or what some of Slater's sources call deficiencies -- doesn't completely discredit the work, but it does, alas, dull the pleasure.

Jerome Kagan says he never jumped under that desk; he merely told Slater that he had enough free will to crawl under his desk if he chose to. Robert Spitzer denies ever telling Slater that a colleague deserved his illness. Elizabeth Loftus says Slater got just about everything wrong in her chapter on Loftus' work; the chapter "is riddled with errors -- some minor but others extremely serious," Loftus wrote in a letter to Slater's publisher, W.W. Norton. "Moreover, quotes are attributed to me that I have never said, nor would ever say." Among other things, Loftus claims not to have volunteered her bra size to Slater -- as Slater's text implies -- and never to have intentionally slammed the phone down on the author.

There's more: Writing in the Guardian in March, B.F. Skinner's daughter Deborah accused Slater of carelessly reproducing the cruelest myths about her father, including the one that he raised Deborah in the same kind of box he used for his experiments on rats and pigeons, damning the daughter to a troubled life said to have ended in suicide. (Deborah, of course, is still alive, and is now known as Deborah Skinner Buzan.) And a group of prominent academics have called on Slater to release additional details about her own experiment on the emergency rooms that medicated her just because she was hearing the word "thud"; Spitzer says he finds the details in the experiment hard to believe. Many of the critics have used Slater's previous work -- especially her memoir "Lying," which provocatively blended truth and fiction -- against her.

Spitzer concluded his letter to W.W. Norton (copied to reporters at the New York Times, National Public Radio and several psychology journals) with this puckish bit: "I am enjoying reading Slater's book, 'Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir.' I am up to the part where she describes how she went through a period of her life when she was a compulsive liar."

A few of these complaints are rather silly. Not only does Kagan's denial that he jumped under his desk undercut his argument about free will -- it's not much proof of free will, after all, to just argue that you could jump under your desk if you wanted to and leave it at that -- but as Slater told reporters, Kagan signed off on the incident during the fact-checking process. (Kagan has claimed that he misread the fact-checking e-mail Slater sent him.)

Deborah Skinner Buzan's article in the Guardian, meanwhile, reads as if she has never even picked up Slater's book. Slater, Buzan says, bought into every rumor floating around about B.F. Skinner -- that he was a fascist and perhaps a Nazi, that he was cold and uncaring, and that he raised Deborah "in a cramped square cage that was equipped with bells and food trays, and arranged for experiments that delivered rewards and punishments." Buzan concludes: "The plain reality is that Lauren Slater never bothered to check the truth of [the rumors] (although she claims to have tried to track me down). Instead, she chose to do me and my family a disservice and, at the same time, to debase the intellectual history of psychology."

But that is not at all the sense one comes away with from Slater's chapter on B.F. Skinner. Slater's point, in fact, is to restore Skinner's good name, which, as Buzan points out, has fallen into disrepair in the decades since Skinner made his psychological breakthroughs. And Slater does manage a kind of restoration of Skinner. Much of what we think we know about Skinner is nonsense, she discovers. Skinner was a humanist at heart; he made no peace with the Nazis and, in his book "Beyond Freedom and Dignity," instead called for ridding society of negative stimuli -- "wars, crimes, and other dangerous things."

Slater does write of an heroic effort to track down Deborah Skinner, and though she does not manage to do it (a shortcoming about which we can gripe, but not really condemn), Slater does put to rest the idea that Deborah died in a suicide. Slater even quotes Deborah's sister Julie as saying, "My sister is alive and well," and "She's an artist. She lives in England." And what about the myth that Deborah was raised in a box? Slater quashes that, too. Slater's description of the box is pretty much in line with Buzan's description in the Guardian -- Slater writes that it was actually an "an upgraded playpen" whose "thermostatically controlled environment" prevented diaper rash and other kiddie ailments, reduced the chance of suffocation by blanket, and allowed the daughter to walk around without any impediments, building a baby of impressive self-confidence.

But some of Slater's other problems are not so amenable to an easy defense. Many of these occur in the chapter she devotes to David Rosenhan's experiment on the diagnosability of psychiatric disorders. In 1972, Rosenhan, a psychologist, wanted to see whether psychiatrists were, as they claimed to be, objective investigators of mental disorder, or whether they were closer to subjective guessers. He and eight friends attempted to fake their way into different psychiatric wards around the country by claiming to hear a voice that said one odd word -- "thud." They were stunningly successful; all were admitted to the hospitals, and they remained committed for an average of 19 days, with one member of the group kept inside for 52 days, even though they all behaved completely normally on the inside.

Rosenhan's experiment rocked the world of psychiatry, deeply shaking the belief, cherished among many in the profession, that psychiatry is well grounded in science. The study attracted a great deal of criticism, but none more passionate, Slater writes, than that of Columbia's Robert Spitzer, who wrote two papers "devoted to dismantling Rosenhan's findings." Spitzer is portrayed in the book as a man who is more than a little pleased with himself, and who felt personally affronted by Rosenhan's attacks on psychiatry. When Slater calls him for a comment on Rosenhan's work, he asks her: "Did you read my responses to Rosenhan? They're pretty brilliant, aren't they?" In another section, Spitzer asks Slater how Rosenhan is doing. Slater tells him that Rosenhan is suffering from a disease that can't be diagnosed, and that he's paralyzed. "That's what you get," Spitzer tells Slater, "for conducting such an inquiry."

"I never said this," Spitzer wrote in his letter to Norton. "I would certainly not have gloated over Rosenhan's illness." Spitzer also says that he did not tell Slater -- as she quotes him as doing -- that Rosenhan's experiment would never work today. "It would not make sense for me to have made a blanket prediction (twice!) that it could never happen now," he wrote.

Of course, Spitzer has a reason to backpedal. Not only does he come off as callous, his predictions (if in fact he made them) are also wrong. Slater does reproduce Rosenhan's experiments, and manages to show that even today psychiatrists are something of a guessing crowd. Go to them with a voice that says "thud" and they'll write you a prescription for antipsychotic medication. Spitzer is absolutely shocked when Slater informs him of her results. "You're kidding me," he tells her. So isn't it conceivable that, now, he wants to step away from those predictions he made, just as a way to save face?

It is conceivable. The trouble is, there's not much more reason to believe Slater in this story. In her letter to Spitzer and in press reports, she has said that while she did not use a tape recorder in her conversation with Spitzer, she did take careful written notes. But how careful is Slater? The book, as various reviewers have remarked, has a good number of careless errors of fact, misspelled names and misused terms. Reviewing it in the New York Times Book Review, the Princeton bioethicist and animal rights pioneer Peter Singer pointed out that the animal rights activist Roger Fouts lives in Washington, not Oregon, as Slater wrote; that his chimpanzee's name is Washoe, not Washou; and that the activist Alex Pacheco's last name is not spelled Pachechio. Singer also notes Slater's curious assertion that "the last time the Catholic Church considered naming someone a saint was in 1983" -- Pope John Paul II has actually named more than 400 saints since then.

Slightly more disturbing is the fact that at one point, Slater refers to "the woman who yelled 'whore' [at Elizabeth Loftus] in the airport a few years back." But as Salon's Laura Miller wrote in a recent Times Book Review column, the line is actually Slater's mischaracterization of this 1996 Psychology Today article, which begins (in reference to Loftus): "She has been called a whore by a prosecutor in a courthouse hallway, assaulted by a passenger on an airplane shouting, 'You're that woman!', and has occasionally required surveillance by plainclothes security guards at lectures." So Slater turned being called a whore in a courthouse to being called a whore in an airport; this can't be called very careful. Whether this kind of sloppiness indicates that she could have fabricated a quote, as Spitzer alleges, is harder to say.

Slater maintains that her notes show Robert Spitzer making the "that's what you get" statement about Rosenhan, but in a letter to Spitzer she wrote in February, she offered to remove that statement from future versions of the book as a way "to make you more comfortable with your appearance in the Rosenhan chapter." But she did not agree to change any other statements Spitzer has disputed. She closes the letter with this curious statement: "At root none of the statements you believe you didn't make are any kind of misrepresentation of you, even the statement about Rosenhan and his illness, given that your ire toward him and his 'study,' is quite well known."

And in response to Spitzer's demand that Slater more fully document her attempt to repeat Rosenhan's study, Slater called in the big guns -- her lawyer. In a letter to Spitzer, Slater's attorney not only declined to provide any details of Slater's visits to psych hospitals, he also threatened Spitzer with fines of $150,000 for distributing text of the book on the Internet. And this, it must be said, is a rather low move. Much of Slater's book is worth defending, but she should know that reaching for the cudgel of copyright law in an attempt to silence her critics doesn't make defending her any easier or more desirable.

It is distressing to have to spare so much space in a review of an interesting book to disentangle what's plainly true in it from what's less plainly so. Readers of Slater's book who are familiar with the controversy will feel a similar distress as they make it through her prose, wondering, from second to second, whether this or that bit of detail is fact or, instead, the author's carelessness at work. The distress might even be enough to prompt some of them to set the book aside: Why read a nonfiction work of popular psychology if you're not sure you're actually learning the truth?

But the truth is that most, if not all, of Slater's book is the truth. Even if you believe she got wrong everything that critics of her book have accused her of getting wrong, that's still not very much. This sounds like a thin assurance -- who wants to read a book that's mostly true? -- but really it's not. If Slater were to change every word that Spitzer and Loftus and the others want her to change, the book would have, at most, two or three pages' worth of alterations. Can you really dismiss a book on the basis of two or three slightly erroneous pages?

Not this book, let's say. "Opening Skinner's Box" should be read. It should be read, for one, because Slater is a gifted stylist and there is pleasure in the reading, but it should also be read because, despite any questions of accuracy, there will be pleasure in the substance of the book, too. Readers unfamiliar with all that occurred in psychology during the last century will find Slater's explorations especially interesting.

Take, for example, the work of John Darley and Bibb Latané, psychologists who devised a series of experiments to test why it is that people sometimes ignore other people's calls for help, and why, at other times, we will leap to others' comfort. Darley and Latané's experiments were inspired by the gruesome murder and rape of Kitty Genovese, a crime that took place over a 35-minute period in the predawn hours of March 13, 1964, in a working-class section of Queens, N.Y. Thirty-eight people witnessed the murder and rape, and nobody called the police for help while it was occurring. Thirty-eight people -- why were they all so heartless?

But they were not heartless, of course. They were human. In a series of experiments on New York University students, Darley and Latané discovered the phenomenon of "diffusion of responsibility" -- the more people who witness an event, Slater writes, "the less responsible any one individual feels and, indeed, is, because responsibility is evenly distributed among the crowd." Combined with social norms -- who wants to be the first one to make a fuss if nobody else seems to be too upset? -- diffusion of responsibility can paralyze a crowd. People witnessing a crime or any other kind of emergency will do nothing.

In fact, the psychology that leads to this paralysis can even prevent us from saving ourselves, Darley and Latané found. In one experiment, they put a naive subject into a room with three actors. They told all four to fill out a questionnaire on college life. After several minutes, the psychologists began to release a non-hazardous white smoke into room through an air vent. The three actors, who'd been instructed to act normally, continued filling out their forms. And what did the fourth person, the experiment's subject, do? "The smoke started pouring like cream, coming faster, heavier, smearing the air and blotting out figures, faces," Slater writes. "Each time, the subject looked alarmed, looked at the smoke going from wisp to waft, looked at the calm confederates, and then, clearly confused, went back to filling out the questionnaire." In the entire experiment, only four subjects ever reported the smoke -- everyone else stuck with the questionnaire, despite the "white film on the hair and on their lips."

Most of us would like to believe we're somehow above, or beyond, our psychology. We would have called the cops about the Genovese murder, though those 38 did not. We would have alerted the experimenters to the smoke in the room, though most others did not. We would not have electrocuted an innocent man just because an authority figure had instructed us to do so, as 65 percent of the people in Stanley Milgram's infamous Yale experiment, another that Slater writes about, simulated doing. But really, who are we kidding? "Opening Skinner's Box" asks us. We would not have called the cops about Kitty Genovese. And there are experiments to prove it.

So far, all that everyone talks about when they talk about "Opening Skinner's Box" are the shortcomings of Lauren Slater. These are, in a sense, important. But by the far the more interesting shortcomings illuminated in this book are not those of the author but of us all. They are the shortcomings in human nature, and they are worth reading about.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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