Book Reviews

Positive psychology; Bayesian rationality; violent video games; and more

The science of positive psychology

Oxford Handbook of Methods in Positive Psychology by Anthony D. Ong & Manfred H.M. Van Dulmen (Eds.) (Oxford University Press; 2006;Hb £49.00) Reviewed by Stephanie J. Morgan

At a recent positive psychology conference, one of the questions pinned on the notice board was ‘Which is the best method?’. This book certainly explores a broad range of methods used in positive psychology, and in a very engaging way – by integrating research, concepts and method; even some of the advanced statistics could be grasped by a wide audience. The editors have achieved a great deal by bringing together some excellent studies, all very readable and covering both intra- and inter-individual variability. However there is an absence of editing in some ways: I missed the ‘lead’ into the different sections, or the summing up of the various chapters as each of the five sections finished. On the other hand, in most cases they do speak for themselves and the quality of writing is excellent – perhaps the editors felt that was sufficient.

I really liked the emphasis on dynamic process, as so much research seems to consist of cross-sectional surveys – not so in this book. Here we find everything from structural equation modelling to nonlinear dynamics, spectral analysis and latent growth curve models. Clear advances in method were emphasised throughout. For example the importance of distinguishing between the experience of flow and conditions for flow when operationalising (in this case, using the experience sampling method), and of using a multilevel model were highlighted in the chapter by Schmidt, Shernoff & Csikszentmihalyi. Method and measurement issues, with concepts such as character strengths and emotional intelligence, were also discussed in detail, which I felt to be most welcome critiques.

I also found the table at the beginning very useful, along with the index, in helping me to dip into the book for specific topics. My main complaint is that although qualitative analysis is mentioned in the introduction, there is very little evidence of this in the chapters. For those who wish to emphasise positive psychology as a ‘science’ this may be welcome, but some of us believe science can include a broader range of methods.

This book will not only be of interest to those already convinced of the value of positive psychology, but also to anyone wishing to learn more about well-being, emotions, social relations and strengths.

It is an excellent reference book although with so little discussion of qualitative and interpretive designs I feel the ‘best method’ question remains unanswered – perhaps it always will.

- Dr Stephanie J. Morgan is with the University of London and Crosslight Management Ltd.


Everyday human reasoning

Bayesian Rationality: The Probabilistic Approach to Human Rationality by Mike Oaksford & Nick Chater (Oxford University Press; 2007; Pb £29.95). Reviewed by Cedric Ginestet

Are humans rational? Research in cognitive psychology has invariably found that, by logician’s standards, human beings are mostly not rational. For Oaksford and Chater, this apparent paradox is easily resolved. Human beings are not logically rational, simply because deduction is ill-suited to our everyday environment. The authors argue that our reasoning abilities are more likely to be based on induction; that is, we derive general rules from our experience, but these rules are adaptive and may be modified in the face of new information.This type of interpretation naturally lends itself to a probabilistic framework. Bayesian statistics are particularly apt for this form of approach, since knowledge updating can be modelled using conditional probabilities.The first chapters contain some excellent incursions into the philosophy of science. After evaluating the viability of the logician and probabilist positions, Oaksford and Chater describe three main areas of applications, where the use of a Bayesian perspective has proved to be more fruitful than a deduction-based approach. They review the literature on the use of conditionals, uncertain syllogisms, and how people revise their hypotheses. The discussion is then rounded up by a lively dialogue between an advocate of the Bayesian approach and a sceptic.

Given that one of the main objectives of the book is to propose an approach to everyday human reasoning, one might deplore the authors’ choice of examples (e.g. vending machines). Some applications to social interactions or linguistics might have been more persuasive.

Overall, however, Oaksford and Chater make a very strong case in favour of a probabilistic view of human reasoning. This publication is therefore highly recommended to any cognitive psychologists, and particularly to master’s or doctoral students doing research in this field.

- Cedric Ginestet is at Imperial College, London.


The road to hell… and back again

Nervous System: The Story of a Novelist Who Lost His Mind by Jan Lars Jensen (Icon Books; 2007;Hb £12.99). Reviewed by Jeanette Carlsson

Just prior to having his first novel published by a prestigious publishing house, Jan Lars Jensen starts to have serious doubts about the consequences of the publication of his book. He starts to fear that his fantasy novel will break religious taboos, and his anxiety slowly starts to break through the boundary into paranoid delusions, with him fearing that the book will ultimately cause the end of the world. The resulting stress and sleeplessness precipitated a failed suicide attempt. Jensen found himself admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The book is an open and very lucid account of his experiences at the ward and his road to recovery. It is phenomenally well written with a dark sense of humour that, despite the difficult subject matter, gives both a moving and entertaining insight into the daily routine at the ward and the following attendance at the Day Program and the Depression Group. His writing style is such that it is easy to identify both with him and his ordeal.Of particular interest to psychologists will be his lack of direction in the absence of a diagnosis of any kind. When the word ‘depression’ is suggested to him by a ‘gum chewing night nurse’ on the night of his re-admission, it gives him something to hold on to and later when he encounters ‘catastrophize’ in self-help books it helps him to normalise his own thinking pattern. ‘I hung on to the word and waited to use it, monitoring my thoughts. Catastrophize? You are catastrophizing again? The existence of the word helped me diminish the syndrome it described.’ Jensen’s account of the subjective experience of the side-effects of his medication is also both harrowing and enlightening.

This book deserves a wide readership, particularly for demystifying mental health issues, but also for giving such an insight into the world of paranoid delusions and what a frightening place the world can be when in that state. Jensen strikes me as a very accomplished author and I would not be surprised to see his name in future prestigious book awards. I will certainly keep a look out for further publications from him.

- Jeanette Carlsson is an independent educational psychologist.


Wanted: Super thinking wizards in-training!

No More Stinking Thinking: A Workbook for Teaching Children Positive Thinking Joann Altiero (Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2007;Pb £11.99). Reviewed by Karen Bailey

This ingenious workbook, designed for use by psychologists, teachers or parents, is highly visual and interactive and could beneficially be used with individuals and groups of children. Based on the CBT approach, it encourages children to explore their negative thinking patterns which in turn enhances their ability to cope with daily challenges. The author has cleverly used the world of magic as a backdrop to each session, and children are enticed to become ‘super thinking wizards’ as they learn to outsmart negative thinking. The facilitator may wish to adapt the various American phrases used in the book for the British audience.

- Karen Bailey is an educational psychologist at West Berkshire Educational Psychology Service.


An Integrated Approach to Family Work for Psychosis: A Manual for Family Workers by Gina Smith, Karl Gregory & Annie Higgs (Jessica Kingsley Publishers; 2007; Pb £18.99). Reviewed by Phil Self

This is a practical manual for family work in psychosis designed for professionals with interest but limited experience in the area.  Drawing on their own extensive experience, the authors provide a clear and well-structured guide to implementing their approach.  Those who are familiar with other psychological interventions might find the coverage of psychological theory rather superficial and the balance of process over content disappointing. However, the authors don’t claim to be comprehensive, and  they do offer useful suggestions for further reading.

Their approach draws heavily on psycho-education, ‘Expressed Emotion’ research and, yes, the medical model. They go to some lengths to distinguish this from systemic family therapy, which is criticised for blaming carers, yet they themselves resort to linear explanations which also fail to adequately address the politics of guilt and blame around psychosis. 

Nevertheless, this is a useful practical guide that should have a place in every community mental health service.

- Phil Self is a clinical psychologist with the Specialist Team for Early Psychosis in North and Mid Devon.


War games – what are they good for?

Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents: Theory, Research, and Public Policy by Craig A. Anderson, Douglas A. Gentile & Katherine E. Buckley(Oxford University Press; 2007; Hb £17.99). Reviewed by Melanie Adkins

This is a shocking but necessary read for anyone working or living with children or adolescents. In fact the information contained within the book is a must read for anyone who knows anyone who plays video games, whether the games played appear to be overtly violent or not. Anderson, Gentile and Buckley combine reviewed and ongoing research, conceptual viewpoints and implications for public policy to address the issue of increased aggressive behaviour as one of the negative effects of exposure to violent media, particularly video games. The findings and conclusions drawn in this book have significant consequences for the future, especially considering the increase in examples of aggressive incidents, such as knife-crime and school shootings, and the government’s emphasis on the physical and emotional well-being of all children.

The layout of this book contributes to the strong case posed for the necessary actions needed in response to the research. Violent Video Game Effects on Children and Adolescents begins by including background material, effects of exposure to violent media, outlining previous research and introducing the general aggression model, which is used to make sense of the findings in Part 3. Part 2 builds on
this foundation by outlining new research studies that fill the gaps left previously and explores other risk and resilience factors that affect consequences following exposure to violent entertainment media. The third part of the book focuses on making sense of these findings with particular emphasis on public policy and ways of reducing the harmful effect of such games.

After reflecting and discussing the contents of this book with fellow psychologists, I was struck by the overwhelming amount of research involving multiple methods that currently exists in this area, the impact of supposedly ‘happy’ games involving light-hearted music and cartoon characters and the unwillingness of the game industry to take responsibility for the findings and warn game players and, where relevant, parents of the possible effects of short-term and long-term exposure. Although this is a controversial subject, this book successful opens the reader’s eyes to the psychological, sociological and political implications of violent video games for the mass population.

- Melanie Adkins is an educational psychologist in Luton.


Under-explored model

Integrative Therapy: A Practitioner’s Guide (2nd edn) by Maja O’Brien & Gaie Houston (Sage; 2007;Pb £18.99). Reviewed by Deborah McQuaid

A word of warning – the recommendation on the back of this book suggests I should be more impressed. Rather than being focused on integration – that is, ‘cross-fertilisation’ between therapeutic models – this is largely an exploration and discussion of therapist skills, which would sit well in any introductory text book. The focus seems to be on how to bring together the scientist practitioner and reflective practitioner models rather than on psychodynamic and cognitive theory in formulation, for example. The main positive aspect of the book is the assertion that theoretical positions and practices can inform each other and do not need to be exclusionary, if we are all working for the benefit of our clients.

First-year trainee counselling/clinical psychologists may find it a useful introduction to the topic, but may want to do further reading if they are looking for a full exploration of an integrative model.

- Dr Deborah McQuaid works as a clinical psychologist in Glasgaw.


The use and abuse of a theory

Attachment and the Perilsof Parenting by Helen Barrett (National Family and Parenting Institute; 2006; Pb £24.50). Reviewed by Cathy Wood

This is a thoughtful, very readable and entertaining critique of the Bowlby/Ainsworth theory of attachment. Barrett begins with a reflective skip through Bowlby’s early life and considers how it might have influenced his development of attachment theory. She goes on to critique the theory in the context of a broad range of topics, such as autism, postnatal depression and stress. The book ends with a plea for a greater tolerance of diversity and for more efforts to be made to understand minority group attachment patterns. I couldn’t agree more.This is definitely a book about theory.

It is not a ‘how to’ book. Despite the title, Barrett does not elaborate on what the perils of parenting may be and how they can be avoided. However, she does critique some of the ways that attachment theory has been used and abused to inform interventions and social policy.

- Cathy Wood is a trainee clinical psychologist on the Liverpool course.


A clear outline

Variation in Working Memory by Andrew R.A. Conway, Christopher Jarrold, Michael J. Kane, Akira Miyake & John N. Towse (Eds.) (Oxford University Press; 2007; Hb £52.00). Reviewed by Luke Koschalka

Working memory is a major contributor to general intellectual functioning. Understanding individual variation in working memory can be key to understanding differential abilities of reading, planning, reasoning and problem solving, amongst others. This book provides a generally clearly presented outline of the major theoretical and experimental perspectives in contemporary understanding of working memory. The text contains sufficient discussion of ‘the basics’ to make itself understood by a wide range of psychologists, whilst not eschewing higher-end theory. On top of which, the decision to ask each research group to answer the same set of four theoretical questions from their individual perspective, contributes a coherent spine to the book that perhaps makes it easy for less-experienced (or more time–pressed!) psychologists to understand and compare the central tenets of each theoretical approach. However, this approach is also sufficiently flexible to leave each group with enough leeway to explore their own ideas in greater depth.

Overall, this is a book of interest that is of use both to the expert cognitive psychologist, as well as to their less expert peers, as it offers sufficient flexibility to be devoured by the former, but still usefully picked at by the latter.

- Dr Luke Koschalka works in the NHS in Glasgow.



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