Opening Skinner's Box

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Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century (W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, ISBN 0393050955), is a book by Lauren Slater.

In this book, Slater sets out to describe some of the psychological experiments of the twentieth century. Controversially, the author also describes the urban legend that B.F. Skinner raised his child in a Skinner box in a way which many perceived as being poorly researched and lending credit to a false claim.


Chapter 1[1][edit]

Throughout the chapter, Lauren Slater gives the impression that she is an investigator trying to solve the mystery of B.F. Skinner and his daughter whom people say had committed suicide. Slater has a way of putting Skinner on this sort of a pedestal that only a worthy man of great intelligence can reside. The chapter covers B.F. Skinner’s style of experimenting. He was a behaviorist and “a man of real frigidity who slept in a bright yellow cubicle”. Slater also gives a little bit of background to Skinner and his early life. He attended Harvard and fell in love with a woman named Yvonne, who later was to be his wife. Skinner did not always want to be a psychologist; in fact, he wanted to be a novelist. Skinner used to spend months in his mother’s attic “writing lyric prose.” After Skinner dove into the realm of psychology, he focused a lot on introspection and mentalist views. He wanted to see how subjects would react in different situations and he would observe their behavior. Skinner wanted to expand on Pavlov’s saliva experiment, but he wanted more out of it. In Skinner’s journal he wrote, “I began to become unbearably excited. Everything I touched suggested new and promising things to do”. This just shows the true passion Skinner had for learning new things and doing experiments. A common theme of Skinner’s experiments was that he would conduct experiments using rewarding gestures. For example, he would reward a bird whenever the bird would push a lever. He found that using reward rather than punishment is much more effective in creating a particular type of behavior. Also, Skinner found that an irregularly rewarded subject showed the most amount of commitment. An example Slater uses is that a woman may not leave a mean boyfriend because on occasion, that boy just might be nice or call. So that girl will hang on to that boy in hopes that someday he will call and be nice, even though he shows normal behavior of being a jerk. Slater ended the chapter with a segment about how she met with one of Skinner’s daughters. She let him read some of her archives and even allowed her to see a piece of chocolate that Skinner himself had taken a bite of

Experiments covered[edit]

  • The work and experiments of B. F. Skinner
  • Stanley Milgram's controversial 1950s experiment designed to explain obedience to authority to a post-Holocaust world.
  • David Rosenhan's disturbing 1970s experiment that questioned the validity of psychiatric diagnosis itself.
  • Darley and Latane's helping behavior studies
  • Leon Festinger's theory of Cognitive dissonance among cult members whose apocalypse fails to arrive
  • Rat Park, a study into drug addiction conducted in the late 1970s, by Canadian psychologist Bruce K. Alexander, that aimed to show that drugs do not cause addiction, and that the apparent addiction to opiate drugs commonly observed in laboratory rats exposed to it is attributable to their living conditions, and not to any addictive property of the drug itself.
  • The misinformation effect discovered by Elizabeth Loftus which has given rise to the lost in the mall technique.
  • Harry Harlow, an American psychologist best known for his maternal-separation and social isolation experiments on rhesus monkeys, which demonstrated the importance of care-giving and companionship in social and cognitive development.
  • António Egas Moniz and his development of lobotomy.
  • Eric Kandel who discovered that CREB was identified as being a protein involved in long-term memory storage. One result of CREB activation is an increase in the number of synaptic connections. Thus, short-term memory had been linked to functional changes in existing synapses, while long-term memory was associated with a change in the number of synaptic connect


B. F. Skinner's daughter Deborah criticised the book for its claims that she had been raised in a box and committed suicide. The book, indeed, mentioned such claims, but also rebutted them with an interview with Deborah's sister, Julie Vargas. In an article for The Guardian, Deborah described the claims as "doing her family a disservice" and stated that she was a very healthy child growing up. Skinner's daughter also described the truth behind the photographs which spawned the legend, namely that her father had developed a heated crib for her, later marketed under the name "Air-Crib", which had been mistaken by the public for a Skinner box.[2]


  1. ^ Myers, David G. Exploring Psychology. 8th ed. New York: Worth, 2008. Print.
  2. ^ Buzan, Deborah Skinner (12 March 2004). "I was not a lab rat". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 May 2012.
  • Slater, Lauren. "Chapter 1." Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004. 6–30.