This large, stylish book takes the reader on a quick tour through the history and discipline of psychology, with tiny bits of information and loads of design. The title gets it right: these are indeed big ideas (and also plenty of small ones), and the explanations are simplified and presented in a number of ways. DK Publishing seems to have come up with an idea and run with it; two years ago they published The Philosophy Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained and now they’ve turned their sights on an often-related field, psychology.
The book is divided into seven broad sections: Philosophical Roots (14 articles), Behaviorism (10 articles), Psychotherapy (22 articles), Cognitive Psychology (20 articles), Social Psychology (13 articles), Developmental Philosophy (oops! Typo in the Table of Contents – 14 articles), and Psychology of Difference (9 articles).
In this case, you really can tell a book by its cover. This book jacket is tiled with 28 bumper sticker sayings and cartoons such as:
- We become ourselves through others.
- Instinct is a dynamic pattern.
- A man with conviction is a hard man to change.
- We can listen to only one voice at a time.
- The more you see it, the more you like it.
- The sight of tasty food makes a hungry man’s mouth water.
- Emotions are a runaway train.
Inside, this approach is repeated and I was often struck by how well a two-page graphic spread would work as a poster for a college student’s dorm room, such as the butterscotch and black spread on pages 124-125:
Man’s main task is to give birth to himself. Erich Fromm (1900-1980)
Not all the material is presented in this aphoristic, overly-designed way; the book is filled with one-page articles of a couple of columns of text, an image or pull quote, and a sidebar giving the timeline context for the idea. For instance, in the Cognitive Psychology section, a short article by Steven Pinker titled “The Fear is That Biology Will Debunk All That is Sacred,” two paragraphs describe the concept, and it is placed in the context of evolutionary psychology and embellished with a pull quote. Other topics are covered at greater length. For example, the article on Stanley Milgram’s famous work on obedience covers six pages and addresses the topic in some depth, and the article on Philip Zimbardo’s well-known prison experiment covers two pages.
In the back there is a directory of people, organized by year of birth. This is not helpful if you need to find a particular person, though it did reveal historical movements in an interesting way. There also is a brief glossary, followed by an index.
The book’s organization seems somewhat odd when you consider the field of psychology as it is typically represented in the United States. This is partly explained by the brief list of contributors, composed entirely of two clinical psychologists, a lecturer in philosophy and psychology, a business psychologist, and two writers. A section on biological/neurological/physiological psychology would be appropriate but was not included, nor was even a brief section on the various research methods that are employed across the wide field. The section on psychotherapy (meant to stand in for clinical psychology, which is not actually limited to psychotherapy) is heavily weighted toward Freud and his contemporaries, and does not include approaches that are currently in favor, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.
My own subdiscipline is social psychology. I was a bit bewildered by the specific topics chosen, and by those left out. The articles tend toward the oldest classics – Lewin, Asch, Zajonc, Milgram, Zimbardo – but do not include such important topics as the bystander effect, or the fundamental attribution error. This left me with a feeling that the brief section would not provide a useful summary of the field, so what use would the book be?
This book has been described as falling somewhere between a textbook and a coffee table book, and that’s an appropriate description. It has been so heavily designed that the content is nearly overshadowed. As I read the book, I tried to imagine the person who would want to buy it – or the person for whom I would buy it. The ideal reader, I suppose, would be a high school student taking an advanced placement psychology course, or a college student in an introductory psychology course. But the college student would already have a real textbook, and the high school student would need a better representation of information across the field. It would have a welcome home, I imagine, in a high school library. It provides a tiny bit of information about a wide variety of subjects, and tries to interconnect them through organization and design, but it’s not much more than an overly designed encyclopedia.
The Psychology Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained
DK Publishing: January 16, 2012
Hardcover, 352 pages