John Watson

Reading Psychology is Good for You

Psychology gets a bad rep these days. Go to a random physics department somewhere and start talking to people, and odds are it won’t take long to find someone who looks down on psychology as not a “real” science. I distinctly remember deciding to take an introductory psych course as a freshman in college, only to have multiple people, who I ordinarily looked up to as intelligent and discerning people, wonder aloud in a not-so-subtle way why I was wasting my time on a “bullshit science” such as psychology. After all, there are plenty of good hard sciences that I could learn, like chemistry or biology.

However, this somewhat less than stellar reputation for ease and lack of rigor couldn’t be further from the truth. Despite the fact that people all over the country seem to constantly be promoting STEM courses as best for teaching rigorous critical thinking skills, I honestly feel that I learned more about being a critical thinker in my introductory psychology course than all the science, math, and even philosophy classes I took put together. And most of that, I believe, came from just reading the textbook.

STEM classes are overrated

Now don’t get me wrong, hard sciences are fascinating and absolutely essential to holding our world together. So are math, engineering, programming, and all the aspects of the Science-Technology-Engineering-Mathematics collective. But for teaching critical thinking skills? I’m not sold. I’m convinced that academic psychology is better for thinking critical thinking skills and developing a skeptical, scientific mindset than the STEM fields. Why is that? I believe it’s mostly due to the fact that the subject matter is so much more ambiguous, so much less cut and dry, that it forces you to instinctively be skeptical and think critically, just to understand the material.

Think back to the last science textbook you cracked open. I’m guessing that it had its fair share of conceptually difficult ideas that it may have taken you some time to wrap your head around (I’m looking at you, totally unintuitive modern physics). It probably also had some tricky formulas that you got to work your math chops on. Heck, it may have even been the hardest class you’ve ever taken. But, at the end of the day, unless you’re working in theoretical physics or some other really cutting edge area of research, there was probably a right and a wrong answer. You either got the right number of square feet per second or you didn’t. You used the right formula or you didn’t.

And if you were lucky enough to get a historical background that discussed groundbreaking experiments, such as Galileo’s inclined planes experiment, the experiments were significant because they pointed to a specific formula or interpretation of the world as true, while ruling out others as false. Galileo’s experiments were important because they proved, in a pretty cut and dry manner, that the old Aristotelian view of physics was factually incorrect (don’t write me hate mail if this technically isn’t 100% correct, please).

Sure, if you want to do well in science, especially as a researcher, you need to have creative thinking and intuition to help you see the world in new and interesting ways. But in the end, and especially if you’re just taking a class and trying to pass, the results are still fairly black and white. It’s possible to learn the material just through rote memorization of facts and formulas.

Psychology is different

But with psychology, our hero of the day, it’s an entirely different matter.

Why? Because it deals with people, and that makes research far more difficult. There are a couple different reasons for this.

First of all, the experiments themselves are far more subject to debate. The results of the experiments are frequently unclear and can be interpreted in a variety of different ways, some of which may even be contradictory. These interpretations can be hotly contested and practically become battle grounds for differing views on psychology. For example, experiments on language became one such battleground between behaviorists such as B.F. Skinner and cognitivists such as Noam Chomsky (that’s right, before he wrote politics, he was a highly influential psychologist/linguist). Even the validity of a given experiment is often far more problematic and difficult to establish in psychology than in other fields. It’s relatively easy to measure how far a rocket can travel – what’s often far more difficult is measuring something like the average person’s susceptibility to subliminal messages.

For this reason, whenever you read about an experiment in academic psychology, odds are it will be followed with any one of the following:

  • a critique of its methodology
  • a discussion of its underlying assumptions
  • whether any conclusions the authors drew are accurate, or whether there are alternate interpretations of the results
  • how easy or difficult the results are to interpret with any one of a variety of theories

For example, I opened up my introductory psych textbook more or less at random, and came across a perfect example of this in action. It’s a passage in the chapter on social development that is discussing what’s known as the strange-situation test. In a nutshell, this test involves putting a baby in an unfamiliar room filled with toys to play with, while the child’s mother moves in and out of the room, in order to see how the baby reacts to the separation. Does the baby handle being alone just fine, and continue playing with the toys? If so, the baby is said to have a secure attachment with the mother. If the baby starts crying quickly, and continues to be upset even after the mother returns, then the baby is said to have an anxious attachment with the mother. This attachment style turns out to have a variety of interesting implications for later life. For example, securely attached infants tend to be more sociable and have fewer emotional problems later in life.

Now if this were a Malcolm Gladwell book, the story would end there. But since this is a psychology textbook, we get all sorts of delightful discussion about the strange-situation test:

Like most measures of psychological attributes, the strange-situation test has limitations. The test assesses fear-induced aspects of attachment but fails to capture the harmonious caregiver-child interactions that typically occur in less stressful situation (Field, 1996). Moreover, the test is designed to assess the infant’s reactions to the caregiver in a mildly fearful situation, but for some infants, because of innate temperament (Kagan & others, 1992) or past experience, the situation may be either too stressful or insufficiently stressful to induce the appropriate responses. Some researchers in Japan have concluded that the strange situation is not a valid measure of attachment in their culture (Nakagawa & others, 1992; Rothbaum & others, 2000). Japanese infants are rarely separated from their mothers, even briefly, and their abandonment in the strange situation leads many of them to become inconsolable by the time the mother returns – and to present the superficial appearance of a high rate of anxious attachment.

Secondly, it’s frequently unclear what an experiment, or set of experiments, can even teach us about human psychology. The section from my old psych textbook above can provide us with a good example of this. After discussing various other experiments of infant-mother attachment and their implications, as well as aspects of adult life that can be predicted by the type of bond the infant has with its mother, there is a nice discussion of how important these statistical associations actually are:

Secure attachment in infancy clearly helps predict positive development later in life. Again, however, correlation does not tell us about the direction of causality. While it seems logical that secure attachment would help produce the positive later effects, other explanations of the correlation are possible. Perhaps the correlation derives from the child’s innate temperament. The same temperament that predisposes secure attachment in childhood might also predispose successful social interactions later in life. Or perhaps it derives from the continuity of parental behavior. Parents who are affectionate toward their children typically remain so throughout their children’s development (Levitt, 1991), and the continuing emotional support may be more influential than the quality of infant attachment in promoting positive development. Consistent with this view are many observations showing that children who were emotionally deprived during infancy and adopted later into affectionate homes can develop warm relationships with their adoptive parents and adjust positively to life’s subsequent challenges (Chisholm, 2003; Tizard & Hodges, 1978).

Lastly, unlike with physics or chemistry, one single experiment is rarely sufficient to prove or disprove a theory of human psychology. As a result, as which much of medical research, there is much more of an emphasis on the body of existing evidence as a whole that leads to careful, qualified claims, and a wariness of sweeping generalizations. I’m reading a book on nutrition right now that puts this aspect of research nicely:

[C]onflicts and contradictions are the way science works. Men and women carry out studies and report their results. Evidence accumulates. Like dropping stones onto an old-fashioned scale, the weight of evidence gradually tips the balance of favor of one idea over another.

This is something that I’m assuming most hard science majors would acknowledge, but unlike in, say, chemistry, this sense of caution and limited results is built into the very fabric of modern psychology. You can’t read a chapter of a psychology textbook without being confronted with this and really internalizing its importance.

And if you’re not sick of examples yet, take this passage from my old psychology of personality textbook talking about whether Freud was right or wrong on the idea that we’re constantly repressing painful thoughts and memories that only a trained analyst can help us come to terms with:

In sum, research on repressors has identified an important individual difference variable that appears to capture some of Freud’s fundamental concept of repression. Some people do seem to employ repression as a coping strategy more so than do others, and this difference in people is associated with measurable outcomes with respect to everyday information processing, autobiographical memory, and even physical health. However, the research leaves open the question of just how common and important repression is for everybody. While Freud argued that repression is a universal fact of life, research on repressors suggests that people differ rather substantially with respect to how extensively they employ repression as a way of dealing with anxiety and stress.

All these combine not to make psychology sloppy or easy, as people often think social sciences are, but difficult. This makes empirical research often extremely difficult, as there are often a multiple plausible theories for explanation any given finding. The question often comes down to determining which one offers the most explanatory power, and which one is the most consistent with the current body of evidence. It may not be as straightforward as writing a program and seeing if it either crashes or runs successfully, but that doesn’t mean it’s not rigorous.

As a result, as you can see from the example above, academic psychology is carefully worded, frequently qualified, and always has a sharp eye for what is logical and what isn’t.

The end result is: reading material that is perfect for helping you prepare for the GRE! If you can follow page after page of this sort of reading, then you’ll be fine on the GRE. The samples I gave above are basically what you’ll see on the reading comprehension parts of the verbal reasoning sections. Read psychology, and you’ll be in good shape for the GRE.

Moreover, as an example of analytical writing, it can provide you with some good guidance on how to write your essays effectively. Think of it like learning a language. Just by exposing yourself to quality analytical writing, you’ll learn to recognize it, and become better at it yourself without even realizing it.

And of course there’s always the added bonus that psychology is interesting. This is a wild guess, but just based on the people I know, I’d be willing to bet that 90% of the people in the world will find psychology interesting. After all, it’s basically studying yourself, and what makes you tick. What could possibly be more relevant to your everyday life?

Still not sure if you could really get interested in human psychology? Check out some of these links. I’m guessing you’ll find them fascinating, and with any luck they’ll pique your interest a bit:

For those of you who are wondering what the picture at the top is all about:

Or if you’re in the mood for a video:


Okay fine, I’ll go read some psychology. But where I can find textbooks??

If you’re looking to drop a couple hundred dollars, go buy some textbooks on Amazon. For the rest of us normal people, they’re probably too expensive to buy if you’re not getting them for a class you’re taking. That leaves: libraries.

If you’re in college, great! They should have plenty of psychology textbooks in the school library for you to check out. Go give them a look, and see which one intrigues you the most. If you’re not sure, get an general introductory one, as it’ll cover all sorts of different areas.

If you’re not, then try your local library. If you’re lucky they might have some older ones there for you.

If all else fails, try finding older editions on Amazon. A ten year old edition may not be as up to date, but it’ll almost certainly be cheaper, and there’ll still be plenty to learn in it.

And if you’re feeling really crazy, try renting a textbook somewhere. I know you can do this on Amazon, but I haven’t ever done that, so I can’t vouch for it at all. But if you do some googling there might be some more options out there. Textbooks are insanely expensive, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are some startups out there trying to get textbooks to people for cheap.

One word of caution though – older psychology books may indeed be pretty unscientific, especially if they have a really psychoanalytic bent. So to be careful, I’d avoid anything from earlier than the 2000’s. The 1990’s is probably fine too, but it might not be as rewarding, as you’d be missing out on a whole two decades of research, at a time when psychology was really exploding as a legitimate empirical discipline.

Happy reading!


4 thoughts on “Reading Psychology is Good for You

  1. Mike

    Reblogged this on MGM Variety and commented:
    I’ll second the title of this post! Psychology may not be an exact science. But then again, no two individuals are made up of the same formula. [Life experiences = infinite variables]. So read on and discover something about yourself!


  2. Yvan Ung

    As a particle cosmologist, all preparation I really did for the general GRE was taking full-length practice tests; while reading academic psychology texts (textbooks, research articles) may help you with the skills, sometimes it’s the subject matter of the texts in the GRE that can trip people up.

    So, OK, you shoukd read psychology (psychology is just one topic that appears in reading assignments on the GRE) but you should also read other texts in other topics that may show up on the GRE.


  3. Matt Post author

    I agree, that’s a good point. I definitely wouldn’t recommend sticking to only one single subject, but I just felt that going through my old psychology textbooks was particularly helpful for getting me in the zone for analytical reading and writing.

    Plus it might be especially helpful for people without as much background in reading academic papers or material.


  4. Pingback: Want to Do Well on the Verbal Section? Read Scientific Papers | How To Ace the GRE

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