Mining for myths

Our editor Jon Sutton dips into a new series from Routledge, 'The Psychology of Everything'. With links to extracts, plus an update on the second batch of titles.

There are 11 books in this series, each little more than 100 pages long. But the aim is a bold one – to ‘make you look at everything in a new way’, by debunking ‘the myths and pseudo-science surrounding some of life’s biggest questions’. With each offering written by an expert in the field, research-based knowledge is compared with popular wisdom, and a focus is the potential of psychology to enrich our understanding of humanity and modern life.

So, how to review 11 books in one go… with one magpie eye for shiny myths, and the other on whether I really do end up looking at ‘everything’ in a new way.

(1) Where better to mine for myths than The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, by Jan-Willem van Prooijen. It’s a rich seam: did you know that many people believe Prince was murdered for singing about chemtrails? Deeper in, van Prooijen counters the myth that conspiracy theorists are right-wing, tinfoil hat wearing loons. Such theories are widespread, rooted in common and functional cognitive processes, in perceived intergroup conflict, and strong ideologies of whatever political persuasion. Ingenious studies, including the author’s own, back up this social and cognitive framework.

(2) The Psychology of Performance, from Stewart Cotterill, takes a usefully broad contextual view of its subject. The section on deliberate practice and the ‘10,000 hour’ myth gave me a glimmer of hope for my guitar playing… maybe I’ll be one of the lucky people who reaches an expert level of performance without large volumes of practice…

(3) Sex, by Meg-John Barker, is a bang-up-to-date reminder of how our views of ‘normal’ and ‘proper’ sex have been shaped by the cultural and personal assumptions of a surprisingly small number of individuals, often psychologists. An update to sociologist Gayle Rubin’s charmed circle, illustrating the sex hierarchy perpetuated by psychology, medicine, laws, religions and mass media, was a useful visual prompt to critically engage with the topic.

(4) Do people trust the police? Do even the police trust the police? For me, this was an interesting and timely part of Ken Rotenberg’s offering, The Psychology of Trust. Turns out that the police report higher beliefs that they will refrain from emotional harm and demonstrate honesty than they think the community at large will; and these trust beliefs are associated with their own wellbeing and low stress in the workplace. [Read our exclusive chapter]

(5) Talking of Working Life, Toon Taris includes a very well-written chapter on ‘The seventh day: Recovery from work’ [which you can read here]. He counters the myth that you’ll get more done if you work more hours; studies show associations with lower levels of wellbeing and health, higher injury and accident rates, and a decreasing efficiency of production. Taris doesn’t ignore the caveats and cautions in the research, but I’m with many policy makers in deciding to ‘err on the safe side’.

(6) Some strange people recover from work by Gardening: to me, it’s just outdoor housework. Perhaps I just haven’t got a ‘gardening personality’: or is that a myth? The research cultivated and pruned by Harriet Gross’s green fingers prompts me to speculate that my ‘need for structure’ is out of step with my skill as a gardener, and I am destined to forever serve what Monty Don calls ‘a forced apprenticeship of drudgery… I didn’t know any of the interesting bits.’

(7) When bereaved, do we have to ‘do our grief work’, confronting the experience in order to come to terms with the loss and avoid negative impacts on our health? Richard Gross looks at the shortcomings of this hypothesis in Grief: definitions, evidence, and whether the concept is gender- and culture-bound. In fact, it seems, people naturally ‘oscillate’ between a focus on loss and on restoration – a more practical focus on a now-changed world.

(8) In last month’s issue, we spoke to Carolyn Mair about her book on Fashion: my favourite part of which recounts research from Dr Phillipa Diedrichs to bust the myth that men are less bothered than women are about their bodies, flaws and media depictions of style and beauty.

(9) Addiction covers an area shot through with entrenched myths, and Jenny Svanberg’s approach to busting them is a book that ‘mirrors my own learning curve’ with Glasgow Addiction Service and Forth Valley Substance Misuse Service. It’s from the heart, persuasive and unafraid to pose the big questions. Svanberg concludes that ‘addiction isn’t a weakness, or a moral disorder, but a learned adaptation to distress, isolation or dislocation, and one that each one of us might have faced’. [Read our exclusive chapter]

(10) You’ve got to be pretty brave to attempt to traverse the ever-shifting, hazardous landscape of Gender in 90 pages… Gary Wood seeks to ‘shake things up – to cast a critical eye over the gender-club rule book.’ The chapter ‘Gender stories, backwards, forwards and sideways’ uses fairytales, science fiction and re-readings of cultural history to reflect on how gender schemata can have mythical roots.

(11) If any of the topics particularly suit a slim volume, aimed at a wide audience, peppered with practical tips and humour, then it’s Dieting. Jane Ogden is on inspirational form with an evidence-based argument that there is no ‘miracle diet’: we overeat and are underactive because of what’s in our heads and the triggers in the environment.

The ‘public understanding of psychology’ is often put forward as a desirable end-point these days, but the pessimist in me points to just three stumbling blocks: what we mean by ‘public’, ‘understanding’ and ‘psychology’. So Routledge’s optimistic take is to be applauded. If we can go mining for psychology in everything, anywhere, this series is a fine view of the strata. The challenges are familiar: if portraying psychology as evidence-based is your priority, as it should be, then it can be easy to end up preaching to the converted. And I do think the books will find an audience that is already fairly scientifically literate – the mythical ‘Brenda in the chip shop’ may have needed a few more take-home messages and practical tips pulled out. Or maybe not… I picture her at a train station, picking one of these up on impulse in the shop, devouring it in one go and alighting at her destination with, as promised, a ‘psychological lens’ to view everything through. 

- Discover more at https://www.routledge.com/The-Psychology-of-Everything/book-series/POE and read our exclusive chapters via the links above.

Our editor Dr Jon Sutton will be chairing a discussion panel at the launch event in London on 15 March.

UPDATE: The second batch in the series has now been released, featuring:

The Psychology of Climate Change, by Geoffrey Beattie

The Psychology of Vampires, by David Cohen

The Psychology of Chess, by Fernand Gobet

The Psychology of Music, by Susan Hallam

The Psychology of Weather, by Trevor Harley

The Psychology of Driving, by Graham Hole

The Psychology of Retirement, by Doreen Rosenthal and Susan Moore

The Psychology of School Bullying, by Peter Smith

The Psychology of Celebrity, by Gayle Stever

Click on the links for exclusive chapters, and keep an eye on @psychmag on Twitter for your chance to win copies of the books.

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