Tag Archives: Psychology

My 2017 Rational Thinking Book of the Year

3 Dec

At the beginning of 2017, having been bed-ridden with pneumonia, I discovered the wonderful world of podcasts. I’ll write a separate post about why I love podcasts, and what my favourite ones are, but this is the story of a book I discovered after listening to an episode of the excellent Freakonomics Radio podcast.


In this particular Freakonomics Radio episode, Stephen Dubner interviewed the economist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz about his work and his new book “Everybody Lies: What the internet can tell us about who we really are”

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If you’ve read anything else on this blog, you’ll know that I’m fascinated by behavioural economics, and Stephens Davidowitz’s work in particularly interesting as during his economics PhD he hit on the idea of using Google Searches to study human behaviour. If you listen to the podcast you’ll get a good feel of the idea, but put simply, it addresses two problems that dog a lot of psychology research. Firstly, Google’s almost monopoly position means that they have an enormous volume of data from populations all over the world (addressing psychology’s issues both with relatively small samples and over reliance on student participants), and secondly people’s on-line behaviour is more reflective of their actual views than might be the case in face-to face discussion (The ‘social acceptability’ problem). Stephens-Davidowitz nicely illustrates this point with is discussion of racism. In traditional face-to face psychology research it is very unlikely that participants will explicitly express racist views, and yet by looking at Google searches for obviously racist terms one can access a sea of information that would be otherwise hidden.

“Everybody Lies” is written in an entirely accessible style, so would be comprehensible for a non-social scientist, but I’d hugely recommend it to anyone interested in psychology, sociology or indeed politics. Indeed, given the omnipresence of Google it maybe ought to be required reading for anyone interested in the future and the currently fashionable topic of ‘big data’. Certainly, if your looking for a Christmas present for anyone of an ‘academic’ disposition this is the book to go for.

Finally, for the more scientifically inclined, my own conclusion from reading ‘Everybody Lies’, was that there maybe a paradigm shift coming in how science works. I’ve grow up with the idea that science begins with ‘theory’, and one collects data to test that ‘theory’. My thought was that ‘big data’ does away with theory i.e if we can conclusively demonstrate from the data that A is related to B do we any longer need to thing about WHY A might be related to B ? As it turns out this is not the most original of thoughts, but is is intriguing to think that in the future scientists job might be the ‘why’ part of the question, because ‘big data’ analysts will already have demonstrated the ‘what’.


Reflecting on teaching the ‘Psychology of Evil’

14 Feb

I’ve just finished two weeks of teaching ‘The Psychology of Evil’, and I thought a few reflections might be in order:

1) The students (250+ of them) seemed to really engaged with some quite hard-hitting material i.e. holocaust, children killing children, Rwandan genocide US School shootings etc

2) I was extremely pleased that the material seemed to shift students thinking. At the beginning of the first lecture students clearer saw the soldiers in the notorious Abu Ghraib pictures as being ‘Evil’,  but by the end of the second lecture their views had clearly changed to seeing the ‘system’ as being the ‘Evil’ component. There is an excellent HBO documentary, ‘The Ghosts of Abu Ghraib’ that seemed to be the turning point.

3) Having taught the material for the first time, and reflected on it subsequently it’s really interesting that the ‘take home message’ was ‘don’t trust single explanations of complex human behaviour’.  It led me to thing that actually if students take that one point away from the lectures it would have been quite successful, and any resultant learning of bit of social psychology or mental health material is an added bonus.

All in all a really rewarding teaching session that makes me think that teaching really ‘big ideas’ and then attaching the research to it subsequently is a much more productive approach than the usual theory-driven model.

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