March 17

I decided to take a look at the Introductory Psych textbook (written by Dr. Zimbardo) before tomorrow’s final. Since the book is ridiculously over-priced, I never bought it and so I go to the bookstore and take a copy off the shelf and read it there. I am sort of glad I never read the book — it’s written for complete idiots.

Chapter 11, Motivation:

Your alarm clock went off… you dragged yourself right out of bed. Why?

A dramatic photo of a mountain climber accompanies the text. Caption: “What different motivational questions might be asked of this individual’s behavior?”

I am reminded of Richard Feynman’s experience reviewing textbooks for the state education board:

[T]here was a book that started out with four pictures: first there was a windup toy; then there was an automobile; then there was a boy riding a bicycle; then there was something else. And underneath each picture it said, “What makes it go?”

I thought, “I know what it is: They’re going to talk about mechanics, how the springs work inside the toy; about chemistry, how the engine of the automobile works; and biology, about how the muscles work.” …

I turned the page. The answer was, for the wind-up toy, “Energy makes it go.” And for the boy on the bicycle, “Energy makes it go.” For everything, “Energy makes it go.”

Now that doesn’t mean anything. Suppose it’s “Wakalixes.” That’s the general principle: “Wakalixes makes it go.” There’s no knowledge coming in. The child doesn’t learn anything; it’s just a word! …

But that’s the way all the books were: They said things that were useless, mixed-up, ambiguous, confusing, and partially incorrect. How anybody can learn science from these books, I don’t know, because it’s not science.

Feynman, of course, was no slouch — he wrote his own physics textbook. the contrast with Zimbardo’s is striking. It has no bright colors and no silly photos (except for one in the preface of the author playing the bongos). The text is clear but demanding.

Chapter 11, Vectors:

In this chapter we introduce a subject known technically in physics as symmetry in physical law. The word “symmetry” is used here with a special meaning and therefore needs to be defined. When is a thing symmetrical — how can we define it?

Feynman’s examples are not at all insulting:

Suppose we build a complex machine in a certain place, with a lot of complicated interactions, and balls bouncing around with forces between them, and so on.

The equations begin a couple paragraphs later. It’s hard to get a real sense of the books from the quotes provided, but I will say that I’m sucked in to Feynman’s, totally tempted to keep reading, whereas Zimbardo’s book bored me so much that I started writing this.

What causes the difference? I think it’s because Zimbardo’s book is at some fundamental level insulting. It says “this topic is so boring and you’re so stupid that we have to give you some stupid example about alarm clocks and mountain climbers”.

The effect is even clearer in person: A teacher starts telling a bunch of kids about wakalixes, the kids don’t care and ignore the teacher, the teacher makes a desperate attempt to grab their attention by lying to them and saying wakalixes power their videogames or something. (I mean, it’s true that videogames run on wakalixes, but not in the way the kids are led to believe.) Now the teacher either has to keep lying about wakalixes, which isn’t educational, or else tell the truth, causing the kids get angry (because they were lied to) and even more bored. It just never works.

With small kids, at least you can claim to justify it by claiming you were just trying to do your best to get the kids’ attention. But you can’t really do that with college students. I mean, these are supposed to be smart kids and they chose to take this class. If they’re not actually interested in the subject, they can drop it. There’s no reason to lie to them.

Psychology is intrinsically fascinating. Everyone wants to know what makes people tick. The fact that you have to resort to these childish tactics means something is terribly wrong. Let’s see what.

Continuing in the Psych textbook, skipping past several pages of alarm-clock-style examples (including an absolutely absurd paragraph about what motivates Lance Armstrong), we get to theories. There’s just one problem: they’re wrong.

I have never understood why psychology is so eager to teach discredited theories. True, others’ missteps can sometimes be educational, but the mistakes Freud, Skinner, and Hull (the man behind the bogus theory of “homeostasis” described in this chapter) aren’t educational, they’re just wrong — and for obvious societal reasons. Yet they continue to be taught, perhaps on the belief that it’s better to teach a wrong theory than no theory at all?

The evidence-free theories continue on throughout the chapter. Usually they’re not endorsed explicitly, but they’re rarely explicitly refuted either. (The closest it comes is when it cites an experiment showing the theory is wrong in some respect, while no theories are cited to show the theory is right in some respect.) Simply including them in the book, then, acts as a tacit endorsement. And since evidence for the theories is rarely given, they’re basically impossible for the student to question or refute.

When textbooks are divorced from fact like this, they become mere repositories of social prejudice. Barbara Ehrenreich has documented how Cold War sociology textbooks were a haven for negative stereotypes of the lower classes:

The lower class, … everyone from drifters and marginally employed slum dwellers to blue collar union members, was characterized by a lack of discipline and perspective. At worst, the lower-class person “Sedulously avoids work, responsibility, and the consequences of tomorrow.” …

[Working class people are] so “inarticulate” they were not even worth listening to. To engage the working-class person in conversation was to risk being seriously bored, since he was “comparatively insensitive to differences in perspective between himself and the listener, and often fails to realize his story is neither understandable nor interesting to the other person.”

So perhaps it is textbooks for subjects with few facts that succumb to this disease. If this theory is true, then the physics textbooks should be immune. I decided to see what physics textbook Stanford used — I imagined myself asking the author “Do you really think you’re better than Richard Feynman? No? Then why did you write a physics textbook?” — but I see that they use Feynman. [Wonderful! I guess I better take physics at some point.]

posted March 26, 2005 07:37 PM (Education) (6 comments) #


Stanford: Private Meeting
Stanford: My So-Called Terrorist Life
Stanford: Schoolwork
Stanford: To the Hypnotist
Stanford: Stop Hiring Me
Stanford: Textbooks for Idiots
Stanford: Feats of Memory
Lessons in Capitalism #3: Sycophancy
Stanford: Spring Break
Home: Spring Break
Stanford Interactive: What classes should I take?


Feynman’s textbooks will give you definitive answers.

Q: What is the speed of light? A: Light always travels at a speed of 299,792,458 meters per second, no matter how its speed is measured.

unlike psychology where often times there are not definitive answers.

Q: Why did you get out of bed this morning? A: I was hungry, I had to go to physics class, I could feel the onset of bedsores, etc.

I think it is easier to compare psych to quantum/particle physics vs. classical physics:

Here are a bunch of different theories for “The Theory of Everything” We don’t know which one is right, but this is all we know right now.

Here are a bunch of theories of Motivation, we don’t know which one is right, but this is all we know right now.

That said, the Zimbardo may be insulting, I don’t know I have never seen it. But you also need to remember it is an INTRO class, they skim over all the subjects lightly. If you want more info, take a higher level psych class, or go to the bookstore and flip through a higher level book.

posted by Derek at March 27, 2005 12:19 PM #

My objection isn’t that psychology doesn’t have the answers, it’s that it sugarcoats the material and the material itself it stale.

posted by Aaron Swartz at March 27, 2005 12:38 PM #


I know exactly what you mean. In my first quarter in college I had a sociology class and textbook that was just like your psychology book. It was so simplistic and McDonalized-perfect bite-sized chunks of sociology “knowledge”- that it turned me off of the subject for years.

I majored in psychology in college. It always drove me crazy when people would bring up Freud when they learned my major. I had this whole speech about how Freud’s been discredited and the psychology I was studying was based on solid evidence not just a few case studies.

The best examples of really good empirical and scientific psychology I pointed to was the research on decision making, heuristics, biases, etc. Kahneman and Tversky’s papers (collected in 2 volumes) are worth reading if you want to see psychology that is as rigorous as any other science. Although I haven’t read it, Scott Plous’ The Psychology of Judgment aand Decision Making has a good reputation as a summary of this research. Two other very good books are Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing which is more focused on the biology and Keith Stanovich’s How to Think Straight about Psychology. These books don’t talk down to the reader and actually fan the spark of interest in the subject rather than crush it.

posted by Psych Major at March 27, 2005 11:41 PM #

Indeed. Even if it’s an introduction book, it has no excuse. It’s an introduction book for college students, for crying out loud!

I’ve seen books titled something like “Introduction to Algorithms”, and they’re actually very succint and detailed.

posted by bi at March 28, 2005 01:18 AM #

I am a first year Physics & Maths student. I really think you should take a course in either subject: you seem to have too much free time, and those are very hard work, intellectually challenging and very rewarding. Physics is somewhat fresher, in my opinion.

By the way, Feynman didn’t actually write his books, they are based in recordings of his lectures. That gives an idea of his genius.

posted by Su at March 29, 2005 05:15 PM #

Interesting. In my (admittedly limited) experience, young children are interested in real things. How things really work.

“Where does the water go when you pull the plug out of the bath?”

“If we are playing trains, where are the buffers?”

Also, young children know when they are playing along, and when something is serious. Serious stuff is interesting!

posted by Robert Brook at March 31, 2005 09:20 AM #

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