Vivid, insightful account of the experiments that changed the field of psychology in the last century.
Slater, who is both psychologist and superb storyteller (Love Works Like This, 2002, etc.), has by no means abandoned the memoir genre here. She is very much a part of these stories, personally visiting with experimenters and sizing them up, reacting to their looks, behavior, and personalities, chatting with their children, picking their colleagues’ brains, assessing the significance of their work and relating it to her own experience, even at times conducting her own similar experiments. Her opening section, about B.F. Skinner’s work on operant conditioning, takes her on a search for the daughter Skinner supposedly raised in one of his famous boxes. She doesn’t find the girl, but does report on a hilarious interview with a thorny colleague who refutes Skinner’s findings by talking to her from underneath his desk to demonstrate that he possesses free will. Other experiments deal with obedience to authority (i.e., the willingness of individuals to follow instructions to inflict pain on another person); people’s behavior in a group crisis when there is no authority in charge; the actions people take when their deepest beliefs are disconfirmed (e.g., when the world doesn’t come to an end on a predicted date). After looking at a 1970s experiment in which sane individuals posed as insane to test the ability of psychiatrists to distinguish between the two states, Slater carried her research to the limit, presenting herself to a number of mental institutions as a person hearing voices so that she could observe the psychiatrists’ reactions. She also examines experiments exploring love, addiction, and memory, as well as forms of psychosurgery. Throughout, Slater places each experiment in historical context, relates its findings to subsequent work, and reveals how the labs of experimental psychology reflect life in the real world.
Astonishing stories full of quirky personalities, told with wit and warmth.