Skip to main content

Psy-Q: A mind-bending miscellany of everyday psychology - Ben Ambridge *****

I came to this book late, via Ben Ambridge's more recent title Are You Smarter than a Chimpanzee? In that book, it was the human side that I found more interesting than the animal psychology, so a whole book on people in Ambridge's amiable, entertaining style seemed a good bet - as it proved to be.
There was a fair amount here that you will have come across if you've read any other popular psychology books, from the ultimatum game to common psychological illogicalities, like our tendency to give more value to something we own than something we don't. However, there was also enough that I'd never seen before to make it an entertaining read, and even the familiar was often worth revisiting.

One of the more unusual things that Ambridge did was to take in a few borderline psychology/psychiatry concepts from the Rorshach Test to Freud's dream analysis and mildly debunk them. I say 'mildly' as Ambridge doesn't tear into them, but gently points out their lack of scientific basis.

Quite a lot of the psychological treats in this miscellany involve taking a little test. Those that can be done quickly and without writing in the book go down a treat, though once it's necessary to write I suspect a fair number of readers will just look at them and not bother to do them (I'm afraid I did) - which is a shame as we get insights into everything from personality tests to graphology (guess what - it doesn't work). I particularly liked the way that Ambridge takes on the really well known psychology experiments, such as the famous Milgram experiment where subjects were asked to give another volunteer repeated electric shocks, and shows that the traditional interpretation of these experiments may well be wrong.

I've a few quibbles. Ambridge takes without question the 2 sigma level for significance, which is far too low as far as physicists are concerned, and frequently gives a web link that doesn't actually take you to the page for the book. (It's still there, but you have to hunt for it via two levels of indirection.) And he totally misunderstands the finances of Concorde when using it as an example of the sunk cost fallacy, suggesting that the airlines kept putting good money after bad, where the airlines actually made a tidy profit flying Concorde (plus huge kudos) - it was the governments who sponsored the construction who lost money.

All in all, if you've read several popular psychology books, you probably won't find a lot that's new - but for absolute beginners, or those who want to remind themselves of the fun bits, this is a must.


Paperback:  

Kindle 

Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Rockets and Rayguns - Andrew May ****

The Cold War period saw dramatic developments in science and technology, coinciding with the flourishing of the science fiction genre. In Rockets and Rayguns, Andrew May draws on the parallels between reality and fiction, each influencing the other.

Inevitably a major Cold War theme was the threat of nuclear war, and May opens with the bomb. It's fascinating that fiction got there first - nuclear weapons were featured in science fiction when many physicists were still doubting the practicality of using nuclear energy. Of course, it's a lot easier to simply take a concept and dream up a weapon than it is to make it for real - for example, H. G. Wells' prophetic nuclear bombs from his 1914 The World Set Free were nothing like the real thing. And some science fiction devices concepts - notably ray guns and force fields - came to very little in reality. However this doesn't prevent the parallels being of interest.

May gives us a mix of the science - describing how nuclear we…

Galileo Galilei, the Tuscan Artist – Pietro Greco ****

Near the beginning of John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost, he refers to a ‘Tuscan artist’ viewing the Moon through an optic glass. He’s talking about Galileo – one of history’s greatest scientists, but not the most obvious person to slap an ‘artist’ label on. Yet Galileo lived at a time – the Renaissance – when it was fashionable to dabble impartially in both the arts and sciences. Look up ‘Renaissance man’ on Wikipedia and you’ll see Galileo’s picture right there underneath Leonardo da Vinci’s. It’s a less well-known side to his life, but it crops up again and again – interspersed among his many scientific achievements – in this excellent new biography by Pietro Greco.

If you’re looking for interesting trivia, you’ll find plenty in this book. Galileo’s father was a musician with scientific leanings, who carried out some of the first experiments on musical acoustics – which Galileo may have assisted with. As a young professor of mathematics, Galileo delivered a couple of lectures on …

Enjoy Our Universe - Alvaro de Rújula ***

I’m going to start this review with a longish quote from the author’s preface, for several reasons. It explains De Rújula’s purpose in writing the book, as well as the audience he’s trying to reach, while giving a taste of his idiosyncratic writing style (which he keeps up throughout the book). It’s also a good starting point for discussing the book’s strengths and weaknesses. Here’s the quote:

'This book is not intended for (very) young kids nor for physicists. It is intended for anyone – independently of the education (s)he suffered – who is interested in our basic current scientific understanding of the universe. By "universe" I mean everything observable from the largest object, the universe itself, to the smallest ones, the elementary particles that "function" as if they had no smaller parts. This is one more of many books on the subject. Why write yet another one? Because the attempts to understand our universe are indeed fun and I cannot resist the tempta…