Opening Skinners’ Box at Northern Stage

Free will – just a biological illusion?

Opening Skinner’s Box is a tricky production to sum up.. Part history of behavioural science, part illustration of human arrogance and genius. It’s not just some food for thought, but pretty much an all you can eat buffet!
A co-production between between Northern Stage and West Yorkshire Playhouse – it has been inspired by Lauren Slater’s book ‘Opening Skinner’s Box’ which is a whistle stop tour of our quest to make sense of who we are and why we do what we do, by looking at great psychology experiments of the twentieth century. The piece was developed through improvisation around the concept of trying to illustrate the most popular theories of human behaviour through famous scientists and their experiments. Right through from trial and error, to the first discoveries of how our grey matter works through brain surgery (which often went a bit wrong) and finally the most recent and popular way we have of dealing with mind matters – through the widespread use of pharmaceuticals.

Some are more suggestible than others.

I studied Psychology at University so it was a nice refresher for me – I remembered Skinner and his Box, the theory of mass disassociation of responsibility – where the more people there are around, the less likely an individual is to help someone in need. I particularly remembered Harlow and his cruelty to monkeys trying to prove why newborns need love by taking baby monkeys away from their mothers at an early age and caging them without comfort or any social contact. No wonder he hit the bottle. We really didn’t like him. And what he found out – wasn’t it obvious anyway to any sentient human?

Behavioural science – it makes you think

We appreciated the rather neat theory of cognitive dissonance. When the truth is uncomfortable to us we make up extraordinary rationalisations to deal with it so we can feel OK. What we know we should do is often so very different to how we behave in reality.. All smokers know its very bad for them, but you’ve got to die of something right? Might get run over by a bus tomorrow, and everyone knows someone who smoked until they were 104 with no ill effects whatsoever!  So it’s OK to keep on doing it – the desired result – bingo! Cognitive dissonance!

It’s all perfectly simple!

The experiment testing people’s attitude to authority is also very famous. People were asked to keep on administering electric shocks in increasing voltage right up to danger level when a test subject in another room got the answers wrong to certain questions. They could hear the test subject but not see them. Most people will keep on administering more and more dangerous electric shocks to a subject if they are told to do so by a figure they perceive to be in authority. Only 35% stopped short of killing the unfortunate guinea pig and refused to go on with the experiement. This rather shocking (sorry)finding explains a lot about how people behaved during regimes like the Nazis and things like extreme behaviour during war  – if you are just following orders you feel that it is not really your responsibility any more. Most people are compliers – this keeps the peace in social situations like marriages, friendships and workplaces, but this drive to conform can be be manipulated and misplaced. I know I’m not a complier as I’m always getting into trouble for saying what I think (which often is what other people think too, but will not say)

How much do you revere authority?

Some of the experiments these scientists did were crude and cruel but it led to a more objective understanding of behavioural science and you cannot fault the ambition of this quirky production in trying to explain this journey.
It was a lot of content to bring to the stage and I think it did suffer slightly from being a bit like a lecture at times and it needed more visual content. There were a lot of names to take in if you had no background in psychology – maybe some digital projections could have helped here. When the actors used their bodies to suggest rivers or events or cult behaviour (when a being with a colander on its head prophesying the end of the world became an object of worship) was when the show worked best.

You can fool some of the people all of the time..

All the actors were strong  performers and portrayed different real figures throughout the history of this fascinating area of science.
I particularly liked Pashcale Straiton who suited the suit best (everyone was in a suit) and I loved her as the weird being who justified everything to her followers when surprise surprise the world didn’t actually come to an end when she said it would. I enjoyed her portrayal of cognitive dissonance.
The whole cast were all very good though, and I was entirely absorbed. There were more questions raised than answers provided – why do we really behave the way we do? Will we ever really understand ourselves?
Everything is personal and we are all living a divine hypothesis. Exactly!

The experiment is all!

Opening Skinner’s Box is on at

Northern Stage:  | 22-30 April 2016
West Yorkshire Playhouse:  | 5-14 May 2016
Bristol Old Vic:  | 20-21 May 2016


Photos courtesy of Topher McGrillis