The Rough Guide to Psychology
by Christian Jarrett. Rough Guides, 2011
In the U.S., the ubiquitous For Dummies book series got its start with computer manuals and has since expanded to thousands of titles on everything from composing to composting. In England, a company called Rough Guides made its name selling travel books but has now branched out with about 70 reference books with titles such as The Rough Guide to the Beatles. Its latest entry is a 376-page, paperback-size book called The Rough Guide to Psychology, written by Christian Jarrett, a journalist who works for the British Psychological Society.
“We’re all psychologists at heart,” Jarrett writes, in the sense that we all want to understand human behavior. But real research psychologists, he says, are different from the rest of us “because they know what they don’t know.” They are skeptics, relying heavily on the methods of the natural sciences to find truth. An educator might believe, for example, that the best way to deal with troublemakers is with punishment; a researcher would test that idea by comparing the effects of teachers who punish with those of teachers who do not.
With this idea as its foundation, Jarrett takes us on a research-driven journey through intriguing topics: how memory is organized, why people make bad decisions, how genes set limits on intelligence, what science says about love, where prejudice comes from, and much more. Throughout, he describes experiments or surveys that support every point.
The range of topics is similar to that of an introductory textbook in college, but this volume is about a tenth the size and the writing is consistently lively. In effect, Jarrett has given us a book of psychological nuggets, often delivered in shaded blue boxes that tell us things such as: yes, people overestimate both their driving skills and head size; no, women do not talk more than men, but they do use kisses to size up potential mates more than men do; yes, the brain lights up in distinctive ways when people are experiencing religious feelings, but a “God spot” probably does not exist.
Having taught introductory psychology classes for many years, I was prepared to nitpick this admittedly rough look at the field, but the book holds up. It is accurate, up-to-date and easy to read. My only gripe is that it contains no references; if a passage on sleepwalking or autistic savants grabs your attention and you want to know more, you are on your own. That said, for a rough guide, this book is smooth.