Thinking outside the box

Dr Mark Wetherell reviews 'Opening Skinner's Box' at the Northern Stage.

Based on Lauren Slater’s book of the same name, this performance, directed by Phelim McDermott and Lee Simpson and performed by Improbable, whizzes through the great psychological experiments of the 20th century; a veritable Psych101 with all of the classics, the great and the good, the flawed and the misinterpreted.

The book, despite many plaudits, has been criticised for its fictionalised style and Slater’s non-scientific research methods; however, for a book described as ‘psychology experiments narrated as stories’, the style was fine with me and it seems perfect for an on-stage adaptation. So here I am, sat in front of a sparse stage containing nothing but the frame of a large empty box. Six classically suited, occasionally white-lab-coated performers then moved through and around the box whilst convincingly playing the roles of our psychologist protagonists; experimental stooges; naïve participants; lab rats; the questioning public; patients; murder victims; and Lauren Slater.

 Starting with the inventor of the box we were taken through Skinner’s work on reinforcement from the perspective of the rat and applied his findings to understanding our behaviours. Is continual phone checking just a modern version of a rat on variable interval reinforcement? At some point, I don’t know when, something exciting will pop up on my phone and reward me. We also explored some of the facts in the myths; yes Skinner did build a box for his daughter – well, an ‘advanced playpen’ – but no, she wasn’t locked inside it without contact and later commit suicide.

The on-stage box then became Milgram’s infamous obedience lab and we were introduced to some of the teachers responsible for the mock shockings; one of the legendary 65 per cent who shocked to the maximum felt that they ‘…had no choice, it was all so convincing’; another was adamant that they stopped after the first scream, surprisingly because they felt too stressed to continue, while others said the experiment made them rethink their relationship with authority and subsequently railed against ‘the man’. We then watched Rosenhan and his friends talk their way into admission to psychiatric hospitals and then try to talk their way out again, and an institution’s response resulting in patients with real psychiatric conditions being turned away. Slater then talked us through her criticised ‘N of one’ version where she was diagnosed with depression and psychotic conditions and dutifully dispatched with medication.

We witnessed the murder of Kitty Genovese, and did nothing, but our inaction was explained by Latane and Darley who etched their theories onto a white board for some lecture room verisimilitude. We observed a mother’s miracle child who had a direct line to God and could heal all ills, as Festinger explained that cognitive dissonance can make us believe what we want to believe no matter how crazy it may seem. We then went back to the lab to watch Harry Harlow with his terry cloth mother surrogate and macaques. A terry cloth may be a short term mother replacement, but social interaction and play are vital. We can thank Harlow for our understanding of parent-child bonding, but as his personal life allegedly took a dive, Harlow’s experimentation became darker as he explored the effects of social deprivation. It was observing Harlow during this period that inspired Bruce Alexander; cue our performers having the time of their lives at ‘Rat Park’, as we learnt the importance of the social environment in determining the likelihood of addiction.

Elizabeth Loftus’s participants then regaled us with their stories of being lost at the mall while her critics told us that because of her, nobody would believe the horrors that they had experienced. Finally, we end with some psychosurgery; to cure his seizures, we watched as H.M’s hippocampi are sucked from his brain to what sounded like the slurping thick-shake. In one slurp his epilepsy is gone, but so too was his ability to form new memories. His surgeon, William Scoville – like Antonio Moniz, the lobotomy pioneer – learnt about the inter-connectedness of the brain; Scoville by mistake and Moniz by design.

Throughout the performance we learnt about the science, but we were also given additional nuggets about the researchers themselves; their personal stories that were often inter-woven with their scientific endeavours which almost certainly guided their hypotheses. These stories revealed their fragility and helped us to understand how as people they could be as flawed as some of the subsequent interpretations of their results. Slater takes the experiments from the box and translates them into stories that represent the hypotheses of our lives, Improbable bring these stories to life.

- 'Opening Skinner's Box' runs until 14 May, at the Northern Stage, West Yorkshire Playhouse and Bristol Old Vic.

Dr Mark Wetherell is Reader in Psychology at Northumbria University Newcastle.

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