Educated followers of fashions

All inThe Mind
May 17, 1996

Adrian Furnham sets himself two difficult tasks with this book: to make his readers educated consumers of the psychological theories and evidence presented in the media and to plug the gap between academic and pop psychology, thereby giving the reader an overview of the scope of the subject. On the back cover it is described as "an ideal book for the interested lay person, the person considering whether to study psychology". If he could achieve the first goal, and especially if he could affect the media too, he would have done psychology a great service. If he could also achieve the second, then this would be an excellent book.

It is harder to write at introductory level than at advanced level. Introductory texts require an author to be thoroughly conversant with the material but also to have a sense of what it is like to be a novice and not know that material. Furnham is in a good position to achieve this. He has written 20 books, was the second most published psychologist in the world in 1986-1990 and has written for many British newspapers and journals. Despite this, the book is a disappointment.

Its strength lies in its orientation towards the nonpsychologist's existing beliefs about the subject. It is a good pedagogic tactic to begin with students' conceptions and misconceptions and develop their understanding from that base, correcting errors along the way. Much of the book is devoted to untutored views. There is lengthy commentary on the lay beliefs typically held about a variety of topics. There are also questionnaires for readers to complete to assess their beliefs. Unfortunately this hand is overplayed.

Consequently, too little attention is devoted to educating consumers of psychology beyond their basic views. For example, there is much interest in rising crime rates. The crimes in question range from the common to the shocking - the Jamie Bulger murder, the Dunblane shootings. This interest is reflected in TV programmes such as Cracker and in psychologically oriented public debates about crime. The book has sections on crime and punishment and addiction, conformity and helping behaviour, but I suspect most readers will not get what Furnham wants them to get from these. They will be impeded by design when the text breaks into long numbered lists or bullet points that do not readily provide a coherent story.

The chapters on current controversies and the state of the art in psychology seem somewhat narrow, tired and dated. Most of what Furnham's colleagues at University College, London spend their time on is ignored, and most references are to rather dated works.

In sum, the book sets out excellent goals, but I doubt readers will benefit in the way in which Furnham hopes.

David Good is lecturer in social psychology, University of Cambridge.

All inThe Mind: The Essence of Psychology

Author - Adrian Furnham
ISBN - 1 897635 49 4
Publisher - Whurr
Price - £9.95
Pages - 268

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