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Pavlov's Dog - Adam Hart-Davis ****

This was a book I was not expecting to like. Although books of this format with 50 heavily illustrated things you need to know about something, seem to sell well, they usually irritate me. However, a combination of the topic - 50 experiments that revolutionised psychology - and a slight variant of the format - Adam Hart-Davis was allowed significantly more text than is often the case in this type of book - meant that it was surprisingly effective.

There's plenty here that will be familiar to anyone who has grazed the surface of popular psychology, from Pavlov in the book's title and the infamous Milgram electric shock experiments, up to very late 20th century work (there are just two from the 21st). While it's fun to see familiar old friends, it's the ones that are a novelty that inevitably stand out. Which these are will vary from reader to reader - I lapped up the likes of 'can dogs get depressed?' and 'why can't you tickle yourself (and what's the connection with schizophrenia?)'.

Inevitably with this kind of format, the main drawback is that you really want the experiments to be critically analysed, not just described and accepted. Although Hart-Davis occasionally puts in a critical comment, often the outcome of the experiment is accepted without question - despite doubts about the sample size, relevance of sample (they often used university students, for example, an atypical population) and reproducibility of many classic psychology experiments. One, for example, looked at leadership styles and democracy - but the participants were children, and the format was starkly structured, so it's difficult to draw any conclusions about adult leadership and politics. Similarly, with the Milgram experiment, or later on the video-based Ganzfeld ESP experiment (and I'm sure it applies to many others) there's no mention of concerns about how the experiments were carried out.

Despite the desirability of more depth, Hart-Davis does an excellent job of giving us pithy summaries of the experiments and their conclusions. Arranged in chronological chunks, reflecting the changing attitudes to psychology, the book gives a useful picture of how experimental psychology has developed since the late nineteenth century. As is usual with this kind of book, the illustrations are still irritatingly pointless and a waste of space, but the bite-sized approach makes the book great for commutes and bedtime reading. It's always a good sign if, having read one topic, there's a strong urge to move onto the next one - and I got that here. 

If, like me, you struggled with Hart-Davis's presenting style when he was on TV, don't worry - Pavlov's Dog has a much less mannered writing style. It's light and approachable but with as much content as the format allows. As dogs go, it's best of breed.

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Review by Brian Clegg


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