Brits meet Psych 101 challenge

Psychology - Exploring Psychology. Sixth edition - Introduction to Psychology. Seventh edition - Living Psychology. First edition - Psychology - Psychology. First edition
December 2, 2005

Psychology, as most publishers are aware, is a large and lucrative subject. A university introductory course typically involves at least a couple of hundred students, and each one - publishers hope - will be forking out hard cash for their "core text". But getting academics to write textbooks - ah, that's another matter. As an under-recognised and largely unrewarded part of academic endeavour, the textbook produces few returns for the effort required to produce it. In academic terms, there is more credit attached to a single three-page article in a prestigious journal than for a 1,000-page textbook, regardless of the actual quality of the information concerned. So, with a few notable exceptions, textbook writing is an activity most researchers eschew; and textbooks are written mostly by those teaching the subject at introductory level, rather than those directly involved in the developing science.

That would be fine - after all, they have the experience in communicating the information and making it meaningful to students - but few teachers are able to find the time or the resources to keep themselves abreast of developments. Instead, they rely on the tried and tested information they have been teaching for years - and, in the worst cases, learnt themselves while they were students. Of course, getting specialist researchers involved can also involve a lack of balance, but a sound editorial policy and a good bank of specialist advisers can at least produce a book that reflects the developing discipline.

Psychology: A Concise Introduction is a good example of an "orthodox" psychology book written by a single teacher. It is a reasonably sound summary of major areas of psychological knowledge up to and including the 1970s, although it contains few of the major advances in psychology after that decade. It differs from the rest of this batch in being much smaller, shorter, and less detailed, originating from US high school psychology rather than from the university sector, so while it is informative it is also rather too superficial for UK university students. Having said that, it is well written, in plain text and without many of the distracting frills contained by the larger texts. It is also - unlike the others - quite light and easy to carry around, which may mean it has a function as a revision aid. But as a text for an introductory course in psychology, it lacks content and, in my view, is outdated.

The US Psych 101 curriculum specifies what should be taught at first-year university level, and in what order. Standardisation may help bureaucrats, but imposing a rigid and by now outdated framework on a constantly evolving discipline is not the way to get well-informed, critical students. I find little to choose, for example, between David Myers's Exploring Psychology and James Kalat's Introduction to Psychology . Both are established US texts that have gone through several editions; both are strongly focused on the physiological/experimental side of the discipline (although Kalat draws more heavily on animal research than Myers); both have the same almost-neglect of social psychology; and both advocate "critical thinking" with regard to generally held public beliefs while presenting the findings of "experts" uncritically, and with no information regarding their methodology.

On the positive side, both are well presented, with good use of colour and many diagrams, photos and charts, both have good supporting websites, and both are well written. Myers has study aids and "Critical thinking" (sic) sections, with self-assessment questions at the end of each chapter, while Kalat comes with a CD-Rom showing video footage of animal experiments and other material, and it keeps its main text relatively unencumbered. But you could come out of either text believing that "experts have shown" that what people do is almost entirely determined by individualistic or biological factors.

Living Psychology , on the other hand, while still an orthodox American textbook following the Psych 101 outline, has managed to adopt a much more contemporary and relevant approach. Examples are drawn from everyday life, and the text is written in a clear and accessible style. While psychobiological issues are covered thoroughly, Karen Huffman has made a serious attempt to integrate this level of knowledge with the socio-cultural findings of other related areas of psychology. For example, discussion of eyewitness testimony and the constructive nature of human memory appears in the memory chapter immediately after discussion of the biological basis of memory. Insights from one area of research are linked and integrated with findings from other specialised areas, to contribute to a fuller and well-rounded account of the phenomenon of memory. The author has maintained this approach throughout the text, and as a result, it is more up-to-date and also more useful as an introduction to the discipline than many other textbooks of its type.

The author's awareness of social aspects of psychology also manifests itself in more extensive coverage than the traditional single chapter of the Psych 101 texts - which is in itself more up-to-date than many others of its type. The inclusion of two extra chapters - one titled "Living psychology in a global environment" and the other on industrial and organisational psychology, allows the author to deal with a much broader spectrum of social psychological knowledge than is normally the case in US-based texts.

Huffman has chosen to end each chapter with a section titled "Living psychology". These sections are used to bring in interesting and relevant material (for example, movie portrayals of therapy, culture evolution and emotion, or why pseudo personality tests are so popular) and to guide the student in applying psychological insights to common everyday experience.

If I were looking for a good American text to cover an introductory course, this would be top of the list of candidates.

But why look for a US-based text when, for the first time, we seem to have all the answers here at home? Psychology in Britain, as a general rule, is taught rather differently than in America. Critical thinking, for example, is expected to be applied to inadequate research by experts as well as the misconceptions of the general public; social psychology is better developed in the UK than it is in America; and methodology is seen as an issue that threads throughout the discipline, rather than a separate topic. UK students need an introductory text that enables them to see what the "experts" have been doing and to evaluate it for themselves.

Richard Gross, in Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behaviour , covers UK-oriented psychology in a reasonably evaluative and critical manner. His "Ask yourself" questions stimulate more than revision of the preceding chapter - they also direct the students to evaluate theory and methodology for themselves. The text includes far more of the established UK and rest-of-the-world based research than the US books, much of which has been around for many years and is well established. It does suffer from being a little dated and less well informed about recent research and insights than a modern academic with a similar brief would be; but it is nonetheless a sound introductory text that is far more appropriate for the UK market.

There is good use of colour and shaded text, and a good set of illustrations; and each of the major sections ends with a chapter devoted to one of the recent growth areas in applied psychology: sport, criminological psychology, health psychology and so on. It is certainly adequate for the UK market, and preferable, in many ways, to the "glossier" US tomes.

Psychology , by Miles Hewstone et al, though, is more than adequate. For once, we have a British text that can take on the Americans on their own terms and give us everything we need. The text is attractively presented, coloured but not garish, well informed, and with a balance of overview and detail that will enable students to see the wood for the trees while at the same time being able to look closely at an individual leaf from time to time. It combines well-established "orthodox" knowledge with newer insights and development, and being an edited text, it is informed by a large panel of active academics and researchers. Producing a book from a panel of academics is somewhat like herding cats, but the editors have done an excellent job and deserve credit for it.

Although they have, roughly, followed the Psych 101 sequence, the content in each chapter is far more up-to-date than that in Kalat's or Myers's books. The chapters are detailed and relevant, the accounts of theory are reasonably inclusive, and the authors include typically British topics such as thinking and reasoning and intergroup relations, as well as the standard content. Each chapter is concluded by a section titled "Final thoughts", which draws out the overall implications of what has gone before. There is still room for improvement, of course - the learning chapter, for instance, is very light on social learning and scripts, while the motivation chapter deals only with physiological and not social motives, but no book is entirely perfect. As you might expect with Hewstone as first editor, the social psychology chapter is much more current, as are the health, organisational and forensic psychology chapters that conclude the book. The authors also include brief descriptions of the lives and work of psychologists who have made a contribution to the discipline, plus "Research close-ups": detailed accounts of key studies presented in a clear manner that allows students to see what was done and to form their own evaluations.

I once asked a lecturer at one of the larger redbrick universities why they still used US textbooks given these books' shortcomings; I was told that the decisive factor was the huge amount of supporting material.

Exam-setting and the co-ordination of large numbers of supportive seminars is a daunting issue for a young lecturer, and being provided with structured lecture materials, discussion topics, revision questions and - most of all - a ready-made end-of-year assessment makes it easier to cope with huge numbers while retaining consistency.

Hewstone et al have addressed this problem, and I for one have been impressed with the result. Their website contains everything a new lecturer would want, including essay and exam questions, and provides a valuable resource for both teachers and students. Taken as a whole, for the first time we have a British textbook that can really address our needs. I would, and shall, recommend this text to anyone teaching a first-year introductory psychology course in the UK.

Nicky Hayes is a chartered psychologist and the author of several psychology textbooks. She is now retired.

Psychology: A Concise Introduction. First edition

Author - Richard A. Griggs
Publisher - Worth
Pages - 331
Price - £15.99
ISBN - 0 7167 5848 2

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