The Myth of Freedom, by Yuval Noah Harari.

An article by the author of 21 Lessons for the 21st Century on Free Will, in which Harari explores the political consequences of the scientific consensus that free will is illusory. He argues that we would be better thinkers if we came to terms with the fact that we don’t have free will.

Harari holds that if we grip on to our belief in free will, it makes us too selfish. We are constantly focussed on ourselves. If, on the other hand, we accept that we are slaves to the stimuli around us, then we focus on those instead. “It is like when you have a conversation with someone. If you focus on what you want to say, you hardly really listen. You just wait for the opportunity to give the other person a piece of your mind. But when you put your own thoughts aside, you can suddenly hear other people.”

“Governments and corporations will soon know you better than you know yourself. Belief in the idea of free will has become dangerous.”

“How does liberal democracy function in an era when governments and corporations can hack humans? What’s left of the beliefs that ‘the voter knows best’ and ‘the customer is always right’? How do you live when you realise that you are a hackable animal, that your heart might be a government agent, that your amygdala might be working for Putin, and that the next thought that emerges in your mind might well be the result of some algorithm that knows you better than you know yourself?”

The Myth of Freedom, by Yuval Noah Harari.

The Guardian, Saturday 15th September 2018, Review p. 32-35


Jung A Very Short Introduction, by Anthony Stevens.

Jung belongs to the Psychodynamic Approach, and his work builds on Freudian Psychology. Through extended introspection and exhaustive dream self-analysis he constructed a highly complex theory of the self. “Archetypes” are psychic structures which Jung held to be common to all cultures throughout history. He also pioneered the concept of the collective unconscious: a psychic layer beneath Freud’s unconscious, which is shared by all people. He believed that our dreams contain images and ideas from a psychic substratum, which also underlies all myths and fairy tales.

Modern scientific psychologists would argue that this arcane and mysterious theory results from too much deep introspection, and too little empirical contact with observable behaviour. It reminds me of Isaac Newton’s attempt to rediscover the occult wisdom of the ancients. Lock a brilliant mind into a hall of mirrors, leave it there for a few years, and it will come up with some esoteric and unhinged ideas.

But great fun to read, and fascinating background into the history of Psychology.

War Games, by Leo Murray.

When bombarding an enemy position in Italy, allied forces subjected it to a sustained artillery barrage for a period of many hours. Afterwards, the enemy emerged spoiling for a fight. The allies then bombarded the same position with intermittent shelling, with regular three minute gaps. When they subsequently attacked the position, they found it deserted. The predictable gaps in the attack had given the enemy an opportunity to run away.

Leo Murray examines the conditions under which soldiers fight more or less effectively, and argues that wars can be won through “tactical psychology”: creating the circumstances under which the enemy is more likely to surrender or to run away.

This book doesn’t contain much rigorous psychology, so it’s probably not going to be top of your reading list in preparation for university. But it’s fun to read, contains some thundering war stories, and is a good example of the practical application of psychology in the real world.

“Morality is all well and good, but this book is about winning wars.”

The 7 Deadly Sins of Psychology, by Chris Chambers.

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Psychology likes to think of itself as a rigorous science. We like to think that we are employing the same scientific methodology that has proven to be so successful in the physical sciences. This book explains the ways in which we may be deluding ourselves, and promotes an agenda for change.

Psychologists, Chambers claims, are routinely torturing statistics until they give the desired outcome. This, along with publication bias, means that the textbooks are riddled with type 1 errors: false positives.

Also, the public can’t read the psychology that it has paid for. Have you ever clicked on a link to a psychology paper only to discover that the full text of the article is behind a paywall? The scandal is that we have already paid, via our taxes, for the article to be written, and now we are being asked to pay again to read it.

This book is going to be – or should be – really influential in the coming years. Put it high on your reading list if you plan on studying psychology at university.


A Revolution in our Sense of Self, by Nick Chater.

Nick Chater believes that the “hidden depths” of the mind are illusory. If we perceive our actions to have motivation, or suppose ourselves to have beliefs and desires, then we are wrong. He holds that we generate our beliefs, values, and actions as we go along.

“Thoughts, like fiction, come into existence in the instant that they are invented and not a moment before. The sense that behaviour is merely the surface of a vast sea, immeasurably deep and teeming with inner motives, beliefs and desires is a conjuring trick played by our minds. The truth is not that the depths are empty, or even shallow, but that the mind is flat: the surface is all there is.”

This position rejects psychodynamic theory, and validates cognitive behavioural therapy which, in attempting to change behaviour and belief in the now, is attempting to manipulate something more fundamental that an imagined unconscious self.

Chater has written an entire book (The Mind is Flat: The Illusion of Mental Depth and The Improvised Mind) on this idea. This article for the Observer is a neat summary.


The Psychology of Terrorism, by John Horgan.

Image resultPeople have very high expectations of what psychology can tell us about terrorists. Politicians and security forces want us to identify a “terrorist personality”, so we can identify those who might be attracted to terrorism before they become active. In fact terrorists come in all psychological shapes and sizes. Just like there are musicians with different personalities, and police officers with different personalities, and shopkeepers with different personalities, so there are terrorists with many different personalities, and it is impossible to predict from a personality assessment whether or not someone is likely to become involved in terrorism.

One of the problems of research into terrorism is sampling. Terrorists do not typically volunteer for psychological investigations. Those that do tend to be in custody, and have long ago disengaged from terrorist behaviour.

Horgan argues that the psychology of terrorism is in fact pre-paradigmatic, and that psychologist should focus for the time being on accurate and precise descriptions of terrorist behaviour, rather than attempts at explanation.

This is a hard book, which is definitely aimed at an undergraduate level or above. It will reward those who want to persevere with some advanced reading. That said, there are some highly readable bits and pieces. The snippets of transcriptions of interview with terrorists are fascinating.

The Cyber Effect, by Mary Aiken.

cybereffectMary Aiken describes herself as a “cyberpsychologist”. She has spent her career investigating the effect that continual exposure to internet-connected devices has on the human mind. She describes how the addictive nature of phones and computers leads to deviant sexual behaviour, risk-taking, and crime. She is a scientist, but she also believes that we should go beyond science in our understanding of the modern world, because the nature of social interaction is changing so fast that we have no time to wait for carefully controlled longitudinal studies.

“A great, important book – a must read” – Steven D. Levitt

“Fascinating and accessible” – Alexandra Frean, The Times.

“A social alarm bell” – Sunday Times, Books of the Year.