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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.


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Review by Brian Clegg

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