A blog about problems in the field of psychology and attempts to fix them.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

What should an Intro Textbook do?

The last post highlighted points from a 2008 article in which I suggested several things were wrong with introductory psychology courses, at least as they are commonly taught in the US. The context of the article was an issue of Journal für Psychologie, dedicated to discussing curriculum and 'paradigm' in psychology, with some emphasis (I was told) on pushing back against the broad trends towards Americanization of the European educational system. Hence, the mostly negative tone of the article.

I am not saying that everyone in the US teaches a bad intro psych class; I have seen some very good intro-psych instructors, and I have seen some adventurous teaching ideas that I suspect lead to very good classes. On the other hand, I am willing to say that there are no great textbooks for intro psych, at least not in the current US market, and that most instructors here follow the textbook. Sure, some of the textbooks are better than others, but frankly even the better ones do not, in my opinion, do a very good job. We tend to think that lower level classes need not be fussed over as much as upper level classes, and this attitude is understandable based on the way our profession prioritizes, and the reward structures we set up. However, as was pointed out, a single semester of Introductory Psychology is the only exposure most students will ever get to our field, and an amazing percentage of US students receive that brief exposure. Graham asked if I could say something more about what I would like to see in an introductory textbook, and I have received similar inquiries from others. I'm not sure I can answer that, exactly, but I can say a bit about what I think the responsibilities the author should be. Hopefully others will join in.

The author of an intro textbook is serving as a representative of our field, a delegate if you will. They must have a vision of the field as a whole. It must be a positive vision, and it must be presented in a way that makes others share that positiveness. The author should strive to simplify whatever complications in the field have resulted from historic accident, and should emphasize well-established findings over tentative findings, now-rejected findings, and trivial-but-attention grabbing findings.

The field as a whole
 One of the biggest problems with intro textbooks is that, in their attempt to have mass appeal, they do not represent a particular point of view. If you want to convince students that psychology is a disjointed set of barely connected activities, that is a good way to do it. The attempts to present several approaches to psychology, with each approach demonstrated in each chapter, doesn't help much. The idea that you can unify simply by continuously talking about the 'scientific method' doesn't help much either. Somehow, or another, the Into author needs to make it clear why the same course would talk about neurons, eye-balls, brain waves, rats pressing levers, Piaget, introversion, compliance, and anti-social personality disorder. Scientific method applies equally to so many other topics, and thus an emphasis on science does not, on its own, answer the question, "What makes these things Psychology?"

Of course, I have a bias about what the best way to unify the field is, but that's not the point. There are many ways this can be done, many I have considered, and presumably many more I have not yet been exposed to. I'm currently working on a project with authors representing around 20 possible options. I would be far happier with a textbook built solidly around my least favorite of these options than the generic works that the text-book reps try to sell me. I believe it is the responsibility of the Into Author to have a point of view, and to see it through.

When I am in the middle of teaching Into, I could probably give many examples of missed connections. The worst offenders, in my opinion, are: 1) That the discussion of "locus of control" in the personality section is separated by 150 pages from the discussion of "attribution" in the social-psychology section, with no mention that the two concepts might be relate. 2) That memory and forgetting are not brought together into a coherent whole. For example, how can so many of the books discuss pro-active and retro-active interference as if they were unrelated to primacy and recency effects? 3) Why is 'learning theory' not connected to 'development'? This is just loopy, and might be a big part of why learning theory appears ever-less central to the field.

I fully understand how our field could have different terms, developed in different sub-disciplines, that describe the same phenomenon. I also understand that, for example, the sub-discipline that calls itself 'developmental psychology' developed separately (and often in contrast with) the sub-discipline that calls itself 'learning theory'. However, it is the Intro author who is in an (unfortunately) unique position to view the field as a whole and to make those connections. To me, this seems like one of their primary obligations.

Well-established findings
One problem psychology has, as a field, is our continuous focus on the future. We desperately need a textbook that lays out established findings, even if just to show incoming students that we have established findings. Because of my background, most of the studies I can think of are about perception-action linkages and developmental psychobiology - breeding maze-bright and maze-dull rats, dark-rearing animals, controlling levels of visual experience and locomotor control, etc. It is exactly this type of research, the research that few people do any more because we answered the big question, that should be highlighted in intro texts. I am confident that all of the major sub-disciplines have similar hard-fought research trajectories that ran their course, from which a strong moral was gained, and which students could learn. I believe it is the responsibility of the Intro Author to seek out these past gems.

And, on a highly related topic: When the textbooks do discuss well-established findings, they need to treat them as such! Stop calling it 'trichromatic theory' and 'opponent processing theory', as if there are still battles over which 'theory' is correct. When presenting the evidence each system, don't present it as if we are still waiting for one side to emerge victorious. We know full well that the different types of processing occur at different points in the nervous system. Present it that way.

Do not include trivial but attention getting findings, or now-rejected findings
This is another case in which I know I have more examples while in the middle of class, but I can offer only a few here. 1) I challenge anyone to tell me what critical insight into psychology was gained by the Stanford Prison Experiment. 2) Why are Freud's theories being treated in great detail? I'll be the first to admit that many of Freud's insights are now (professionally) mainstream, but why not just talk about those? 3) What do students get out of learning about Little Albert, that more recent research doesn't demonstrate far better and with less scandal? I believe it is the responsibility of the Intro Author to make the hard decisions about removing material that is not helping, even if it is traditionally present, even if people enjoy talking about it.


Having written out what I think the obligations of the Intro Author are, I can see a way to rewrite it as in a more goal oriented way: I am convinced that it is possible to write a textbook with a point of view; one that minimizes the number of repetitive-but-disconnected concepts; one that is filled with results that are well established, and not likely to become outdated any time soon; one that has a minimal number of sexy-but-trivial stories.

At the moment, that is probably the best answer I can give for the "what would you like in a textbook" question. I am amazed that so many people read the last post, and I am grateful for the opportunity to get feedback on my attempts at a satisfactory answer.


  1. Rephrasing again based on some feedback I have gotten:

    If you are in a functional, reasonably coherent field, that agrees upon the base knowledge of the discipline, then you should probably write a textbook that reflects the public appearance of the discipline. In this scenario, there is little reason for the discipline to want new textbooks, except perhaps to upgrade the "pedagogical tools" in the book or to nuance the presentation.

    On the other hand, if you are in splintered field, without a strong sense of coherence, and with deep disagreement about what base knowledge new students should have, then you are obligated to try to pull things together, to struggle for coherence, and to boldly state the base knowledge that is essential under the vision you have created. In this scenario, there are many reasons members of the discipline should want new textbooks.

    My general feeling is that psychology is in the second state. If I am correct, then textbooks that faithfully mirror the current disarray will only serve to recapitulate our problems for another generation.

  2. On one hand, ouch. On the other, agreement. Agreement first: Totally agree with the need to stop treating Freud as though his work adds to well-established findings. Same with trichromacy. I don't present it as "trichromatic theory," but rather as TRICHROMACY. We know there are three types of cone cells in existence and we know their maximal sensitivities.

    Now the Ouch Moment. Eric, I love talking about the Stanford Prison Experiment to my Intro students. I'm not sure the degree to which it furthers the discipline of Psychology, but it does serve a pedagogical purpose by making students more aware of the degree to which social situations influence behavior. Most Intro students are fresh out of high school and enter Intro Psych classes with the bravado of the individualism of their actions. They don't think about institutional effects. The SPE also provides a crucible within which class discussion can challenge that individualism by asking of students the old "What would you do" question (to which almost all students declare they would play well with others, just like they all swear they'd never deliver perceived harm to a stranger).

    -Jim Jackson

  3. Jim,
    I've been trying to figure out what to do with social psych for a while, with no success. It is, for the most part, a series of experiments about how horrible we all are, and how easy it is to manipulate us. Now, I'm all for that lesson, but it does seem like there is something more to social psych that the intro treatment misses.

    The problem with the Stanford Prison experiment is that while it is so very good at creating those discussions, it didn't really test anything, and so it there are no real conclusions to draw out of it. All we really know is that students in the early 1970's, who were placed in a pretty safe setting, and offered money to act like prisoners and guards, did, as instructed. They acted like the early '70's stereotype of prisoners and guards. One group of impressionable students, 6 days, in 1971, in the geographic hotbed of civil unrest.

    In contrast, the Milgram study has been done countless times with countless manipulations and controls, the Asch study has been done countless times with countless manipulations and controls. Hell, if you wanted drama, manipulations, and replications, then Sherif's Robbers Cave has it all.


    At any rate, I would never fault anyone for discussing the Prison experiment in their class, or for using whatever means are necessary to get students to discuss the material. (The videos are especially good.) I am more specifically faulting the textbook authors for continuing to treat this experiment as if it was one of the most crucial scientific investigations ever performed by a psychologist. Think of all the lines of research that painstakingly answered questions over decades, but are not mentioned once.

    When I was taking organic chemistry, physics, and biology, some of the professors were painfully boring, but most professor had lots of stories, demonstrations, and discussion gimmicks intended to keep us interested. In contrast, the textbooks tended to stick with stuff that scientists had figured out.

  4. Eric, you're right when noting that the SPE, and other experiments, served to highlight how horrible we all are. Maybe I'm soft on the SPE because Phil Zimbardo's such a nice man LOL. And even he, when asked by Gordon Bower about what the SPE was supposed to be testing, really didn't know how to answer. As you have said elsewhere, it and Milgram's experiments seem to be asking little more than "Would we?" and concluding "Yes, we would."


  5. i have a of psychology subject in my bachelor which is terribly hard to understand for me as a business student. there are lots of experiment without giving full example of relevant thing. the author of psychology textbook should focus of giving more example while describing the topic.

  6. Thank you I am glad about the encouragement! I love your site, you post outstanding.Psychologist Robi Ludwig