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.”

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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.

 

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.

The Knowledge Illusion, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.

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Try this out on a friend. Ask them these questions:

  1. On a scale of 1 to 7, rate how well you understand how a zip works.
  2. How does a zip work? Describe in as much detail as you can all  the steps in a zip’s operation.
  3. Now, on the same 1 to 7 scale, rate your knowledge of how a zip works again.

They will almost certainly give a lower estimate the second time, becuase the task has revealed to them how little they actually understand about a zip. This is called the Illusion of Explanatory Depth. The truly terrifying thing is that we are all subject to this illusion, about all of our knowledge. None of us actually know a fraction of the stuff that we think we know.

The reason for this is that we confuse other people’s knowledge with our own. Because other people that we trust understand stuff, we think that we understand that stuff ourselves. We are all prey to this confusion, from A-level students (and teachers), to scientists, politicians, and “experts” of all kinds.

Sloman and Fernback argue that this is because our minds are equipped and optimised for thinking in groups, rather than individually.

The ideas in this book are related to the ideas of Tversky and Kahneman, which are outlined in Thinking Fast and Slow. Thinking Fast and Slow is a longer and more scientifically dense book, but The Knowledge Illusion is also a really fun read, and much shorter.

The World Until Yesterday, by Jared Diamond.

coverwuyPre-industrial societies are very different from ours. Some of them kill grandparents when they get to a certain age. Individuals are often fluent in ten or more languages. They feast when food is plentiful, but are happy to go without for several days if there is nothing to eat.

Until a few thousand years ago, all humans lived in this way. It is what we evolved to do. This book is a fascinating account of Jared Diamond’s lifetime of observation of pre-industrial people from around the world. It is long, but packed with packed with intriguing stories from tribal societies.

Not surprisingly, Jared Diamond thinks that we have a lot to learn from these people.

Connectome, by Sebastian Seung.

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This one is in my top three psychology books for A level students to read this year. It is exciting because it sketches out some future directions that cognitive neuroscience is going to take in the coming years and decades.
When Galileo pointed his telescope at the night sky, he saw for the first time the machinery of planetary motion. This laid the foundations for our modern understanding of astronomy. The same is happening today in brain science. The ongoing improvement in brain scanning is driving new understanding of how the brain actually works. This book is a guide to the road ahead.
Not only that, but the first few chapters are a brilliant primer on the basics of neuroscience and biopsychology, and will be great revision for this part of the exam.
A really interesting read, and very accessible.
“A connectome is the totality of connections between the neurons in a nervous system.”
“In the nineteenth century, the American psychologist William James wrote eloquently of the stream of consciousness, the continuous flow of thoughts through the mind. But James failed to note that every stream has a bed. Without this groove in the earth, the water would not know in which direction to flow. Since the connectome defines the pathways along which neural activity can flow, we might regard it as the streambed of consciousness.
The metaphor is a powerful one. Over a long period of time, in the same way that the water of the stream slowly shapes the bed, neural activity changes the connectome. The two notions of the self – as both the fast-moving, ever-changing stream and the more stable but slowly transforming streambed –  are thus inextricably linked. This book is about the self as the streambed, the self in the connectome – the self that has been neglected for too long.”