Not just nice looking - there's depth too

Discovering Psychology. Second edition - Psychology for A2 Level. First edition - Psychology - Psychology - Psychology
November 30, 2001

Something is stirring in the world of psychology textbooks. For decades, we have seen them following a standard format - prescribed for US texts, and conventional for UK ones - with enhancements and improvements mainly taking the form of text "decorations", or the inclusion of slightly newer material.

It seems that recently there has been some dramatic rethinking. Psychology : Frontiers and Applications begins with levels of analysis, incorporating history into psychological perspectives, where it makes most sense. The authors are not afraid of throwing things up in the air and letting them sort out differently as they come down. The result is sensible and educationally useful, particularly in the biological and conditioning chapters. These are are up to date and well explained, with plenty of modern examples, including immune-response conditioning, neural networks, prospective memory, and affiliation, love, and motivation at work in the motivation chapter. At this point, I was impressed.

Unfortunately, this is a book of two halves. The treatment of development and social psychology is very limited; and the rest was pretty run of the mill. Other chapters have their bright spots, but they are nothing like as sparkling as the first few. The lack of European research in the final chapter, on intergroup conflict, is disappointing, particularly since the authors manage to include European research in the cognitive chapters, and the topic is so extensively researched in Europe. The perfectly usable US psychology text is not yet here - Jbut it is not as far away as it used to be.

Psychology : Themes and Variations , another US text, is strong in the parts that the first book doesn't reach. The author aims to integrate the text using a series of almost European themes, including theoretical diversity and socio-historical context. Remarkably, this is done consistently throughout. The text is particularly strong in the personality and psychotherapy chapters, and it even has a good social chapter. But the learning chapter is restricted to conditioning and a short section on observational learning, and the biological chapters are similarly limited.

The core text has a clear narrative style that flows easily, but there is an awful lot of supplementary material in each chapter, which gives the book a "bitty" feel. It is lavishly illustrated, and each chapter ends with several pages of supplementary material - Jranging from study help ("Finding and reading journal articles") to critical appraisals, real-world applications and examples. Put in supplementary questions, advance organisers, key terms and just about anything else you can think of, and the main text is sometimes a little overwhelmed.

Discovering Psychology is more balanced, but more conventional in content. It does not have the lavish production of the previous two texts, preferring full-colour illustrations to colour photographs, for example. But it is well presented, and its supplementary material brings it to life. The introductions to the chapters are expressed in an unpretentious and relevant way, having the flavour of anecdotes from friends and family rather than contrived sequences from some idealised version of student life. And unusually, these examples are revisited and explained in the relevant section of the chapter.

The narrative is clear and friendly, and the examples interesting and often unusual (J. B. Watson's second career in advertising, for example). The cultural and social discussions are often challenging and thought-provoking, raising issues of direct relevance in the modern world. The authors are not afraid to be controversial, and the consistency with which the avowed principles are applied in each chapter is commendable.

There is an accompanying specialised Study Guide by Cornelius Rea, which prepares students for detailed learning of the material. Terminology, definitions, associations, true-false appraisals and multiple-choice questions are all there, and one has the impression that any student working methodically through all of these questions would have left no sentence of the text untouched. As ever, however, one is left wondering just where the higher-order integrative skills required in essay writing might be introduced. As Paul Ramsden has pointed out, superficial assessments lead to superficial learning. But no doubt the study guide is appropriate for its target market.

Having explored the US texts, it comes as quite a shock to encounter the text-dense Psychology for A2 Level . It is a British text, and it shows: limited use of colour, and only a sprinkling of cartoons and illustrations. Although the authors have clearly made an effort to supplement the narrative with activities, discussion boxes and key studies, the overall effect is still heavy. This is unfortunate, because the material is sound and well structured; and it does exactly what it was designed to do. It provides teachers who are teaching a particular syllabus for the second year of an A level with everything they would need; and students with all that they need to pass the exam, including guidance on specific sections of the paper, how to approach questions, and even samples of essay writing.

Even its apparently innovative structure reflects that set of syllabus specifications. Since research methods, history of psychology and psychological perspectives come at the end of those specifications, they come at the end of the book, and there is no introductory chapter. Instead, readers find themselves in a detailed discussion of attribution theory on the very first page of chapter one. This slavish following of the specifications may help to position the book for its target market, but it has the regrettable side-effect of making it entirely unsuitable even for other A2 courses, let alone any other course in introductory psychology.

The fourth edition of Psychology : The Science of Mind and Behaviour , on the other hand, is bound by no such limitations. The decision to reorganise the book completely has produced recognisable sections but smaller, more specific chapters. The revision allows the author to devote specific chapters to topics such as parapsychology and substance abuse; and to widen the coverage of established topics. The sections have been brought up to date and strengthened (although there is still no comparative psychology), and each section ends with an applied chapter. With only a few lapses, the language used in the core text has become much more accessible, and the result of the restructuring is a strong and effective text.

It is enhanced with photos, illustrations, discussion boxes, supplementary activities, critical comment and all sorts of other devices. Even though the photos are black and white and there is still only one additional colour used in the printing (it is British, after all), the overall effect is attractive.

I would be hard pressed to pick the best of this selection. Each book has strong and weak points and is suitable for different groups of students. But I am intrigued by the changes occurring in the American texts, and in particular the heightened awareness of what they now seem to call transcultural psychology.

As someone who came into this field as a textbook writer because the US texts simply were not serving the educational needs of British students, I am seeing for the first time some signs that this may be changing. It is early days yet, but as my grandmother would have said, "it wants watching".

Nicky Hayes lectures in social psychology at the University of Bradford.

Discovering Psychology. Second edition

Author - Don H. Hockenbury and Sandra E. Hockenbury
ISBN - 1 57259 966 9
Publisher - Worth
Price - £37.99
Pages - 542

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