Is your mind's map in colour or in depth?

Psychology - Psychology - Psychology - Psychology - Psychology - Foundations of Psychology - Psychology - Approaches to Psychology
November 24, 2000

Sorting these texts into "US glossies" and the rest, the balance is, as ever, that the former provide the glitz, the glamour and the cutting-edge technology, while the rest appear to be rather drab cousins but with far more relevance to A-level and undergraduate teaching in the United Kingdom. That, however, is beginning to change, and this set of texts provided some pleasant surprises.

While the UK texts (and William Glassman's) make clear that there are competing theories providing plenty of critical evaluation, the glossies "factual", ain't-it-amazing approach tends to discourage critical thinking. Despite the desperate inadequacies of conditioning models in explaining even relatively simple human and animal behaviour, these texts present them as universally accepted explanatory systems, as if nothing had changed since B. F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov.

There is rarely a hint of controversy or theoretical battle. The models are either "horses for courses" - we use classical conditioning for this and operant conditioning for that type of learning - or a pick-'n'-mix selection of "alternatives". Cognitive alternatives rarely appear as such.

Though the glossies use a bewildering variety of tricks to engage the reader, wonderful graphics and familiar "real-life" contexts, they will not get the UK student a good A-level grade. They do not require the learner to evaluate one theory against another; they just skirt around ambiguity and conflict.

Their coverage of research methods is superficial and woefully inadequate on statistics that hardly seem worth inclusion because the very basic descriptive procedures always appear quite isolated from the rest of the text. Significance is explained either minimally, leaving the issue a matter of faith, or there is a common but erroneous explanation that significance tells us "the probability that our results have occurred by chance".

Market competition seems to demand that the US texts include an almost identical order of chapter headings. They all, even the European Neil Carlson et al text, come with a vast array of technological add-ons including course management and design software and one or more websites with password access to an even more bewildering variety of student resources and discussion areas. In fact, each "preface" is a sales pitch to the tutor demonstrating just how "fully loaded" the book is.

James Nairn's text has eight pages of such "preface" for the "instructor" and just half a side for the student. Each topic is presented as the solution to an "adaptive" or conceptual practical problem in human daily life. This serves to introduce each topic in an interesting and often light-hearted manner. Following each topic introduction, the rationale for which may not be understood by all readers, the material develops as in most other texts. The overall style though is one that mostly remembers to invite the reader into the thinking and uses plenty of classroom tricks. There are integrated links to the accompanying CD-Rom, embedded definitions on each page, useful suggestions for further reading and many valuable internet references.

This text is generally weak on theory evaluation, with conditioning models presented as "alternatives" and just two pages on other (observational) learning. Some areas are more thorough, such as Piaget's theory and critical studies. Apart from the "adaptive" angle, there is no other central theme in the text and little attention to the fact that this is American/western psychology. The term racial is used uncritically in the brief, non-controversial visit to the IQ race debate, and issues of ethnicity and culture bias are not emphasised. But, overall, the text is highly accessible and attention grabbing.

This is also true of David Myers's textbook. It cheats a little in selling its integration of three themes within the text: evolution and genetics, gender issues, and multicultural experience. Some of the pages advertised as covering the issues of multiculturalism do no more than mention US surveys repeated in "Europe". Still, the preface's reference to an "increasingly global perspective" is a positive step. Most such texts could do more to alert readers to the fact that the majority of their content is in fact white American psychology and that culture must permeate all study of people. This textbook does a little better on learning theories than the average glossy, with sections on "Updating (Pavlov's/Skinner's) understanding", which offers a stab at critical evaluation, and with E. C. Tolman's cognitive maps well described. Ethics are rather briefly covered.

Myers's technological add-ons include free access to WebCT, where tutors can create their own website for students with such features as bulletin boards and discussion forums. Myers's text is studded with teachers' gems - odd stories and concrete analogies - probably developed through years of excellent teaching. Although part of me frowns on all the distractions that the US reader seems to require to keep interested, I do love just browsing though these margins for quotations, definitions, stories, cartoons and, intermittently, directions to other reading. The text does not give suggested reading, internet sites or even a self-test, but there are "Review and reflect" boxes dotted throughout.

John Santrock's text is in Myers's league but not quite so amusing. Its main aim is to answer readers' calls for psychology made relevant to everyday life. It has several theme boxes for this purpose throughout each chapter containing fascinating content (horoscopes, the sex life of tigers). Of great value, but more for the US reader, are the "Resources for psychology and life", with directions to internet sources, agencies, organisations, journals and such. The book is lively throughout and has many links to its associated website.

Again, conditioning theories are presented factually as the major ways in which we learn. Cognitive factors merit half a page, and it is even suggested that learning to drive might be achieved mainly through observation. There are no post-Piagetian critical studies. Memory theories are pick 'n' mix. There is good recognition of culture. The descriptive statistics are above average, notwithstanding the general approach already described.

The chapters include just about every form of start and end summary and review and revision technique possible, and the maps of each chapter section could prove useful as a visual aid to the organisation of material.

Robert Sternberg's text is more serious than the previous two and covers more ground. It is just as colourful and box-ridden (I liked being "in the lab" of (some famous psychologist)), but it goes further towards evaluation than most glossies. There is plenty on Piaget-critical studies and neo-Piagetian theories. L. S. Vygotsky's zone of proximal development appears along with information-processing theories of cognitive development. Sadly, the conditioning models are just presented as ambiguous "alternatives" to one another.

However, cultural issues are well embedded throughout, and the intelligence chapter has no truck with the race debate (though it is irritating to see Robert Herrnstein and Charles Murray cited as the source of data on African-American/"Caucasian" differences). Just before this section, there is a fascinating piece on the ways in which different cultures perceive intelligence - much more useful, practical and educational.

There are no directions to reading and resources, though these may appear on the book's website. Generally, Sternberg's text comes closer to UK theory requirements but is still very American.

That is what one would expect to say of the Carlson text on first impression, though the fact that it was a softback should have alerted me, along with the fact that I found my own name in the index. This is a "European" version of the US format, and it includes an impressive array of work we are familiar with here. Spelling and grammar are adjusted, though terms such as "recess" (playtime) slip through.

Levels of processing theory are given quite a good airing, and theories are treated as adversaries - but strangely, there is very little on post-Piagetian studies. Evaluation of conditioning models is virtually non-existent; conditioning models are presented as fact, Tolman's cognitive maps are not included, and cognitive objections are given a dismissive paragraph, so this would be unsuitable for A-level studies. Furthermore, I cannot see how it could be used at undergraduate level without a supplementary text.

"Race" is again accepted uncritically. In the discussion of race IQ differences, we have a rather diffident critique of the race position in which it is claimed that there are "considerable within-group differences that may even be larger than between-group differences". It is a shame that, given its attempt to de-Americanise for this edition, the book does not have a strong cross-cultural theme. There are only two content-based references to culture in the index. The text has the same dabbling with statistics and the usual incorrect interpretation of significance. The purely American Myers and Sternberg texts probably do better on critical evaluation.

An alternative is to go entirely British. Michael Eysenck's accessible and clearly explained two-tone text contains cartoons, drawings, case studies, key terms, reviews, suggestions for further reading and a lively style - and it has all the depth and evaluation you could ask for. It has vastly more content than the glossies divided into smaller manageable chapters. Four of these, for instance, cover the broad range of abnormality. There are two excellent A-level-standard chapters on research methods, and statistics with an accurate account of significance (at last). Vygotsky and information-processing theories of learning get good coverage, and, of course, the cognitive content is deep and thorough. Conditioning models appear in a strong chapter on (animal) behaviour analysis, and in this chapter's "Personal reflections", Eysenck got my vote in claiming that Skinner was "probably the most overrated psychologist of all time".

I almost leapt to my feet in the sections on controversies and ethics. How refreshing to see a general text discussing sensitively but thoroughly the issues of culture, race, sexual preference bias and many more within the world of active contemporary psychology. For me, the significance of this particular author's conclusions on the ethics of conducting race-related research was poignant, but I think both these sections as a whole will serve to provide excellent classroom discussion material. It is a strong contender as a standard undergraduate text but not yet, apparently, supported by technological aids or a study guide.

Eysenck's book is slightly too large and floppy and will be easily damaged. Nicky Hayes scores here and over her second edition of just two years ago. The changes are almost all in the production and presentation. The now two-tone text includes, in place of mere chapter summaries, a useful set of self-study features. An additional strength is the set of internet links and directions to the book's own related website - a rarity in UK texts.

The content is mainly that of the second edition with plenty of evaluation. Theories and models are set in context and in competition (conditioning takes its place alongside cognitive models of skill learning), and there is empirical evidence in abundance. Piagetian concepts are treated in depth and with excellent clarity. Comparative psychology is included, and Hayes's idiosyncratic inclusion of parapsychology (at this level) will, I am sure, be much appreciated by tutors needing a hook and by mystically oriented readers. Methods are managed well, but statistics are omitted. The section on prejudice is one of the strongest in texts at this level and very useful in applied teaching. Hayes's style is highly accessible while getting across the depth. The spartan second-edition index has thankfully been upgraded to normal.

Finally, I liked William Glassman's third edition, even though it is monotone with few figures. Glassman does not lean in the contemporary direction of over- simplification and "pally" reading to motivate and hold the interest of TV and internet-wise youngsters with minimal attention spans. It beats any book on perspectives in psychology hands down, but it is too large and expensive to buy just for this area. Although it is not quite a comprehensive textbook for A level or undergraduate introductions, it offers the solid grounding in theory conflict that such courses often lack. It should be required reading on any "perspectives" module, since nowhere else is there such thorough coverage of the major perspectives in their historical context. Glassman's clear, consistent and utterly coherent style provides interest through anecdotes, fables, everyday experiences and concrete psychological research examples. It has a weakness in social psychology where only aggression and altruism are covered, giving the naive reader little sense of the true range of social psychology. It is strong on methods and statistics in its coverage of topical issues and in its outline of the four major perspectives as they apply to areas such as development and abnormal behaviour. I would have been happier to see culture tackled from the beginning rather than added to the penultimate chapter.

Overall, then, from the US the usual gripping colour, content and technology, along with lightweight evaluation and weakness in methods and statistics, and from the European texts good-quality evaluation and breadth, suitable for A level and undergraduate work, and with movement towards transatlantic production quality. Glassman alone provides rare depth on psychological perspectives.

Hugh Coolican is senior lecturer in psychology, University of Coventry.

Psychology: Sixth edition

Author - David G. Myers
ISBN - 1 57259 791 7
Publisher - Worth
Price - £24.95
Pages - 689

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