Men In White


Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men

By Rebecca Lemov

Hill and Wang -- 291pp -- $30.00

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Editor's Review

Star Rating

The Good A well-researched history of behavior-modification experimentation.

The Bad The application of behavioral conditioning to business gets short shrift.

The Bottom Line An often colorful but disappointingly incomplete effort.

In 1916, scientist John B. Watson created an outcry by performing psychological experiments on babies. In one test at the Phipps Clinic in Baltimore, he trained an infant nicknamed Little Albert to fear white rabbits. Each time the tot reached out in delight to touch a bunny that Watson brought into the lab, Watson bashed a claw hammer against a steel rod to make a startling noise. Soon, Watson claimed, Albert recoiled in terror every time he saw the rabbit -- or any white, furry object for that matter -- even when there was no ear-splitting clang accompanying it. Watson's conclusion: Fear, not love, is the most powerful tool for conditioning a person's social and emotional life.

Watson was one of the pioneers of human engineering -- an often shocking branch of psychology that first-time author Rebecca Lemov examines with gusto in World as Laboratory: Experiments with Mice, Mazes, and Men. As Lemov walks readers through this history, she describes the close relationship between human-behavior researchers and Big Business. Watson, for example, went on to become a top executive at advertising giant J. Walter Thompson (WPPGY ). There, Lemov reports, he helped pioneer the technique of selling products based on their emotional appeal rather than actual attributes.

Lemov, who has taught history and anthropology at the University of Washington, has produced a work that reflects her exhaustive research, yet is strangely incomplete. The ever greater understanding of human behavior has had a wide impact, she says, on everything from military training techniques to industry, notably in advertising, focus groups, and consumer surveys. Business readers, however, may be disappointed that she doesn't devote more attention to these commercial uses.

While less than comprehensive, the business-related episodes are some of the most memorable. This includes the 1920s and '30s experiments in "scientific management" of factory workers, carried out at the Hawthorne Works factory of the Western Electric Co. in Chicago. The study was managed by Elton Mayo, a Harvard University psychologist, and funded by John D. Rockefeller Jr. In one phase of the research, Mayo interviewed 20,000 disaffected young workers who performed tasks that were both repetitive and exhausting. Mayo was surprised to discover that the simple act of interviewing the employees boosted their morale. He concluded that infusing workers with a sense of belonging endears them to the company and ultimately benefits the entire industrial process.

Where Lemov shines most brightly is in her colorful descriptions of the scientists who pioneered the study of human behavior. Anyone who took college Psych 101 likely remembers Stanley J. Milgram and his famous 1961 experiment at Yale University, during which he persuaded volunteers to administer what appeared to be increasingly painful electric shocks to other test subjects. (The shocks and resulting screams, unbeknownst to participants, were staged.) The research famously showed just how easy it is to turn ordinary people into torturers. Milgram was also an artist who wrote librettos in his free time and played practical jokes on his friends. A natural ham, Milgram captured his studies on film. In one scene, a reluctant study participant is told: "The experiment requires you to continue." The grainy black-and-white footage is still shown in college classrooms today.

Many other famous scientists put in appearances, including Harvard researcher-turned-LSD advocate Timothy Leary. His lab at Harvard is often credited with laying the groundwork for the modern focus group. Leary colleague Robert F. Bales devised "the architecture of one-way mirrors, adjoining observation rooms, and recording devices," Lemov explains. Again, though, the author doesn't give us enough on the real workplace example; aside from the brief Bales mention, she says little about how social engineering has influenced the design of the focus groups that some companies still rely on to make crucial product and marketing decisions.

Lemov also fails to fully describe psychology's impact on the one industry that has mastered the art of manipulating human behavior: advertising. She declares early in the book that behavior-modification theories examined by Watson and others formed the basis of "every advertising technique." I wish she had followed through with rich examples that would bring the relationship between the two disciplines to life.

By Arlene Weintraub

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