Skinner’s Box is a Pandora’s Box

I wrote several weeks ago about psychologist Lauren Slater’s new book, Opening Skinner’s Box –

Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century
. In a fascinating chapter about David Rosenhan’s “On Being Sane in Insane Places”, psychiatrist Robert Spitzer, the ‘godfather’ of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the Bible of psychiatric classification, is the subject of some very unflattering description. It appears that Slater has taken on a very formidable opponent; Spitzer has put his response to her portrayal of him in the public domain on the evolutionary psychology listserv. If Slater chooses to defend herself, we may be in for a monumental scientific-literary catfight. Be sure not to miss Spitzer’s final paragraph.

Robert L. Spitzer, M.D.

Professor of Psychiatry

Chief, Biometrics Research Department

Unit 60, 1051 Riverside Drive

New York State Psychiatric Institute

College of Physicians & Surgeons of Columbia University

New York, N.Y. 10032

Tel: (212) 543-5524

Fax: (212) 543-5525


February 21, 2004

Drake Mc Feely,

President, WW Norton & Company


500 Fifth Avenue

New York, N.Y. 10110

Dear Mr. Mc Feely,

In the third chapter of Lauren Slater’s new book, Opening Skinner’s Box –

Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century
, she has extensive

quotes from a telephone conversation that we had several years ago. Several

colleagues who have read the book have asked me if the quotes are accurate,

since they found it hard to believe that I had actually made so many

outrageous statements. The quotes of me that appear in the book are either

outright fabrications or represent what Slater imagines I could or would


It is of note that Slater could have – but did not – record our


Here are some of the statements that Slater claims I made and why I am sure

I never made them.

Spitzer pauses. “So how is David Rosenhan?” he finally asks. “Actually, not

so good,” I say. “He’s lost his wife to cancer, his daughter Nina in a car

crash. He’s had several strokes and is now suffering from a disease they

can’t quite diagnose. He’s paralyzed.” That Spitzer doesn’t say, or much

sound, sorry when he hears this reveals the depths to which Rosenhan’s study

is still hated in the field, even after 30 years. “That’s what you get,” he

says, “for conducting such an inquiry.” (p. 68)

I never said this. I would certainly not have gloated over Rosenhan’s


Spitzer says: “The new classification system of the DSM is stringent and

scientific.” (p. 80)

You can search all of the many papers I have written about DSM-III. I have

never said it was “scientific” or “stringent.” DSM-III facilitates

scientific study but it makes no sense to say that it is itself

“scientific.” “Stringent” is a word I never use and incorrectly

characterizes DSM-III.

“I’m telling you, with the new diagnostic system in place, Rosenhan’s

experiment could never happen today. It would never work. You would not be

admitted and in the ER they would diagnose you as deferred.”. “No,” repeats

Spitzer, “that experiment could never be successfully repeated. Not in this

day and age.” (p. 80)

I would never have referred to Rosenhan’s study as an “experiment” nor would

I talk about it being “successfully repeated.” Slater seems to be saying

that I claimed that now, with the DSM, psychiatrists would not diagnose a

pseudopatient as having a mental disorder. I would not make such a claim. If

there were no reason to suspect the pseudopatient of malingering, I guess

that most psychiatrists now would also make an incorrect diagnosis – just as

the psychiatrists in Rosenhan’s study did. It would not make sense for me to

have made a blanket prediction (twice!) that it could never happen now.

Since DSM-III was published in 1980, why would I have referred to it as “the

new diagnostic system?”

This is a serious matter. As a reputable publisher you have an obligation to

investigate this matter and take appropriate action to stop these damaging

misrepresentations by your author.

I am enjoying reading Slater’s book, Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir (Penguin

Books, 2000). I am up to the part where she describes how she went through a

period of her life when she was a compulsive liar.

I look forward to hearing from you.

Robert L. Spitzer, M.D.

Professor of Psychiatry

Elizabeth Loftus, the subject of another of Slater’s chapters, has also written to Slater’s publisher claiming misrepresentation:

University of California – Irvine


Elizabeth F. Loftus, Ph.D.

Distinguished Professor

Psychology & Social Behavior

Criminology, Law & Society

(949) 824-3285 (TEL)

(949) 824-3002 (FAX)

E mail:

February 21, 2004

Drake McFeely,

President, WW Norton & Company


500 Fifth Avenue

New York, N.Y. 10110

Dear Mr. McFeely,

I am writing to inform you about a number of factual errors and serious

misrepresentations in Lauren Slater’s book Opening Skinner’s Box: Great

Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century
. Her Chapter 8, entitled

“Lost in the Mall”, is about my research. The chapter is riddled with

errors – some minor but others extremely serious. Moreover, quotes are

attributed to me that I have never said, nor would ever say. Here is a

sampling of some of Slater’s errors:

p. 183: Slater quotes me as saying that Ted Bundy

“was wrongly identified in

a kidnapping charge.”

I have never said that Bundy was wrongly identified.

During his trial I pointed to some of the difficulties with the

identification. However, I never said he was wrongly identified.

p. 184: Slater quotes me as saying that 25% of the sample is a

“statistically significant minority.”

I have called this figure a

significant minority of the sample, but would never say something so

scientifically improper as to call it a “statistically significant


p. 184: I am also astounded that Slater would refer to my sometime co-author

and ex-husband, Professor Geoffrey Loftus, as “Gregg.” One would think that

someone who sets out to publicly explain and review a scientific literature

would be familiar with the names of its major contributors. Lest you think

that this sloppiness with names is an isolated case, let me quote from a

published review of Slater’s book in the London Mail on Sunday (February

15, 2004):

“It does not boost one’s confidence in her judgment, for instance, that

within the space of two lines she manages to spell the names of two famous

psychologists wrong: Thomas Szasz she spells ‘Sasz’ and R. D. Laing she

spells ‘Lang’. She also writes ‘per se’ as ‘per say’, which makes you wonder

if she knows what it means.”

p. 185: I did not claim that George Franklin’s daughter went to


new-age therapist who practiced all sorts of suggestion.”

I did not make

subjects in the lab think that red signs were yellow. I did not say, as to

Eileen Franklin’s memories,

“Untrue. All these details Eileen later read

about in newspaper reports.”

The details included in Eileen Franklin’s

account were in fact available in newspapers, television accounts, and other

public places. As to where she might have been exposed to them I cannot say,

since I never interviewed her.

p. 191: Slater has a long quote attributed to me that uses words that I

would never have said. It beings:

“The real facts are sometimes so subtle

as to defy language.”

– I’m not ever sure I can even figure out what this


p. 192: Slater refers to

“the woman who yelled ‘whore’ [at me] in the

airport a few years back”.

No woman has ever yelled “whore” at me in an


p. 192: Slater refers to

“the egged windows of her home, the yolks drying to

a crisp crust”

. No one has ever egged my home or its windows.

p. 193: Slater’s account of the Paul Ingram case is sloppy to the point of

leaving the reader with completely incorrect impressions. For example,

Slater writes of me

“when she heard about this case, and the kind of

questioning Ingram underwent. She got in touch with her friend and cult

expert Richard Ofshe, who trundled down to see Paul in his jail cell.”

Contrary to the impression conveyed by these words and those that follow,

namely that I had played some role in connecting Ofshe with Ingram, or in

Ingram’s subsequent decision to recant his confession, the truth of the

matter is that Ofshe had been working on the Ingram case and meeting with

Ingram in his jail cell, and Ingram had recanted his confession, years

before I had ever met Dr. Ofshe or had become involved with the Ingram case

at all. I first became interested in the case years after these events

occurred, when a television reporter who was suspicious about the case asked

me to help examine transcripts. Dr. Ofshe, and not I, deserves the sole

credit for his innovative work in this case.

p. 196: Slater makes a point of the fact that

“ the end of the

interview, I know not only Loftus’s shoe size but her bra size too.”


reason Slater knows that is that she explicitly asked me for each of those

pieces of information. It makes me wonder what questions she asked of her

other interviewees.

p. 202: Slater claims that I slammed the phone down on her. I have no

recollection of ever slamming the phone down on anyone, let alone her. If

there was an accidental disconnection that occurred I would have explained

or apologized.

As you will become aware when you hear from other scientists and scholars,

there are additional serious factual and scholarly errors in other chapters

of Slater’s volume. Historically, W.W. Norton’s publications have been known

for matching the highest standards of factual accuracy of any scholarly

publisher, but I worry that lately these standards may have slipped. Could

you either confirm that my impression is accurate, or else let me know what

steps Norton will be taking to correct the factual error it has published in

Slater’s volume?


Elizabeth Loftus, Ph.D.