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.


Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you

Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

The Ascent of Gravity - Marcus Chown ****

Marcus Chown is one of the UK's best writers on physics and astronomy - it's excellent to see him back on what he does best. Here we discover our gradual approach to understanding the nature of gravity - the 'ascent' of the title - which, though perhaps slightly overblown in the words 'the force that explains everything' (quantum physics does quite a lot too, for example), certainly makes us aware of the importance of this weakest of fundamental forces. Chown's approach to gravity is a game of three halves, as they say, broadly covering Newton, Einstein and where we go from general relativity.
As far as the first two sections go, with the exception of the 2015 gravitational waves detection, there's not much that's actually new - if you want a popular science exploration of these aspects of the topic with more depth see this reviewer's Gravity - but no one has covered the topic with such a light touch and joie de vivre as Chown. 
Although Chown doe…