Adventures of the White Coat People
The New York Times, March 28, 2004

The idea behind Lauren Slater's book is simple but ingenious: pluck 10 leading experiments in 20th-century psychology from the pages of the scientific journals in which they were first published, dust off the painfully academic style in which they were written up, add some personal details about the experimenters and retell them as intellectual adventures that help us to understand who we are and what our minds are like.

How to select the experiments? Some select themselves. Slater starts, as her title suggests, with B. F. Skinner's animals in boxes, their behavior modified by food rewards to press levers, peck at a particular spot and behave in various bizarre ways. Then comes Stanley Milgram's research on obedience to authority. Milgram proved that people who have volunteered to take part in an experiment in learning will give what they believe to be severe electric shocks to others, if they are told by someone in a white coat that the experiment requires them to do so. Another classic is the research undertaken by John Darley and Bibb Latane in the wake of the 1964 murder of Kitty Genovese, a young Queens woman who was brutally attacked while 38 people, in different apartments, saw or heard what was happening, but did nothing to aid her. People are more likely to come to the aid of others, Daley and Latane found, when they are alone than in a group. Also included is Leon Festinger's research into ''cognitive dissonance,'' or how we deal with apparently irreconcilable facts and ideas -- research that led Festinger to infiltrate a cult that had set a date when the world would end.

Some of Slater's selections seem influenced by her own experiences. (The author of ''Prozac Diary,'' ''Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir'' and ''Welcome to My Country,'' Slater is herself both a psychologist and someone with first-person experience of mental illness.) That may have led her to include David Rosenhan's 1970's experiment on how easy it is to get admitted to a psychiatric institution, and how hard it is to get out again. In the book's final chapter Slater gives a largely sympathetic account of psychosurgery.

Though Slater is well aware of the ethical questions posed by the application of experimental techniques to patients, she wants us to see the issue as gray, rather than black-and-white. She reminds us that we tend to criticize yesterday's treatment too harshly, and to accept too easily our current practices. We readily assume that taking antidepressants is safer than psychosurgery, because cutting into the brain is irreversible. But Slater points out that we really don't know the long-term effects of taking drugs like Prozac. Psychosurgery today is far more precise than it was in the crude days of the lobotomies that gave it a bad reputation, and it does not turn people into zombies.

Ethical issues run through the book. Milgram's experiments on obedience have made us more aware of the dangers of uncritically accepting authority, but they would be unlikely to get through one of today's institutional ethics committees. Milgram certainly misled his subjects about the nature of the experiment in which they were participating. Most of them were forced to confront the fact that they were capable of giving severe shocks to innocent people. But does the deception, or the discovery, make his research wrong?

Slater interviews one of Milgram's obedient subjects and finds him crediting his involvement with Milgram's research with helping him to become a better person, by confronting his moral weakness. And Milgram apparently received many letters from other subjects saying the same thing. So Slater raises the question whether today's ethics committees have tilted too far in the direction of protecting human subjects.

In another chapter, Slater describes the work of Elizabeth Loftus, a psychologist who has sought to disprove the idea of ''repressed memory.'' Juries that trust the reliability of a recovered memory of sexual abuse or incest that supposedly occurred decades ago can put people living utterly respectable lives into prison for many years. Loftus has found it hard to carry out research into the reliability of such memory because, she asserts, ''you can't get ANYTHING'' past a human ethics committee anymore. Nevertheless, in the end Loftus did, with some ingenuity, manage to set up an experiment that didn't violate ethical guidelines but still demonstrated how easy it is to get people to ''remember'' an entirely fictitious occurrence.

Slater's most ethically troubling chapter, however, is about research not on humans but on animals. Slater describes how Harry Harlow deprived infant monkeys of their mothers to study the effects of maternal deprivation. Then, because he wanted to know what the effect of an ''evil mother'' might be, he designed a mechanical surrogate mother that he called the Iron Maiden. When the infant monkeys tried to cling to it, this mechanical monster would, on command, shoot out sharp spikes or blast the babies with cold air that threw them back against the bars of their cages. In his later years Harlow -- who at this time was, in the words of one of his research assistants, ''a terrible drunk'' and ''always, always intoxicated'' -- devised new ways of tormenting monkeys. Since the maternally deprived female infants grew up into neurotic adults who would not allow a male to mate with them, he constructed a ''rape rack'' -- his term -- so that he could tie them down while males mated with them. Then, Slater tells us, he constructed an isolation chamber ''in which an animal was hung upside down for up to two years, unable to move or see the world, fed through a grid at the bottom of the V-shaped device.'' This he called ''the well of despair.'' Roger Fouts, who has done research with chimpanzees, feels strongly, Slater reports, that what Harlow learned from these experiments was ''not only obvious but derivative.''

At this Slater, to her credit, draws a clear moral line. She thinks what Harlow did, and all the monkey research he spawned, is wrong. When she tells her husband this, he predictably responds by asking her if she'd choose a monkey's life over that of their child. Her response is that as she is 99 percent monkey herself, she would of course choose her child. But that is just animal instinct, or mammalian love. The other 1 percent, which may be her reason, tells her that it is ''rarely defensible to cause suffering to sentient beings.''

Slater makes some errors that made me wonder about her accuracy in areas with which I am not familiar. Some of these are minor slips, like placing Roger Fouts in Oregon, not Washington, and misspelling the names of his chimpanzee friend, Washoe, and of the animal rights activist Alex Pacheco. Others are more troubling. When Linda Santo tells her that the Roman Catholic Church is formally investigating her daughter Audrey for possible sainthood, Slater tells her readers that ''the last time the Catholic Church considered naming someone a saint was in 1983.'' She obviously hasn't been paying attention to Pope John Paul II's canonization binge -- he has named more than 400 saints since that year. To link Milgram's research with Nazism, Slater writes of ''Hannah Arendt's thesis on the banality of evil, the bureaucratic Eichmann blindly taking orders, propelled by forces external to him.'' This misdescribes Arendt's thesis. In ''Eichmann in Jerusalem'' she emphasizes his statement that his obedience was justified by Kant's definition of duty, and that he was able to give a broadly correct account of Kant's categorical imperative. In Arendt's view it was Eichmann's considered decision that he ought to obey orders. He was not ''propelled'' to do so by anything external to him.

Though careful readers may want to check some of Slater's assertions, ''Adventures of the White Coat People'' is a very readable, if highly personal, account of what we know, and don't know, about human nature, and of the ethical issues raised by our efforts to find out more.

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Adventures of the White Coat People'