December 24, 2014


Psy-Q: Test Yourself with More Than 80 Quizzes, Puzzles and Experiments for Everyday Life. By Ben Ambridge. Penguin. $16.

     One intriguing way to define humans is as our planet’s only perpetual pattern recognizers. Yes, other animals come to figure out patterns in some circumstances: dogs, for instance, quickly learn that the sound of a can or container being opened means they are about to be fed – or even that a person putting on a particular pair of shoes is about to take them out for a walk. But humans seek patterns constantly and just about everywhere, even making them up when they do not exist: pictures in the clouds, numerological investment secrets in the Bible, haruspicy (predicting the future through patterns in animal entrails), and so forth. Patterns are crucial for human survival and, arguably, one major reason that our species has established dominance over others. But they also lead us astray, far more frequently and in far more ways than most of us realize – and that is what Ben Ambridge delves into in a thoroughly fascinating book called Psy-Q.

     From Rorschach tests, with which the book begins, through statistical and epidemiological patterns that can save lives and produce great benefits – or make matters considerably worse – to explorations of predisposition, bias and prejudice, and the many things that we only think we know, Ambridge explores psychological studies that highlight the predilections, perspicacities and peculiarities of human thinking and the ways in which our apparently innate pattern-making habits very often lead us badly astray.

     Much of the research detailed by Ambridge, a senior lecturer in psychology at the University of Liverpool, is quite serious, but some seems worthy of the Ig Nobel Prize. In the latter category is a study finding that 68% of people hang toilet-paper rolls with the loose end far from the wall (the “over” position), while 32% prefer the end close to the wall (“under”) – but among respondents making $20,000 a year or less, 73% prefer “under.” This observation comes with an analytical explanation, apparently not tongue in cheek, from someone who calls himself a “relationship expert,” stating that those who prefer “over” like taking charge and favor organization, while those preferring “under” are laid-back and dependable – and those who do not care “aim to minimize conflict [and] value flexibility.”

     Well, all right; so be it for matters of the commode. Other studies presented in Ambridge’s always-breezy style are indeed for everyday life, per his book’s subtitle (the toilet-paper-one is better described as from everyday life). For example, there is a problem involving four cards with a letter on one side and a number on the other; someone says that “every card that has a D on one side has a 3 on the other”; the question is how many cards you need to turn over to determine if this is true – and which cards you must pick. Ambridge shows why this is a difficult thing to understand and figure out when the cards’ upward sides show D, K, 3 and 7 – but much easier when the cards represent four people in a bar, the question involves whether everyone drinking is over 18, and the cards show beer, cola, “24 years” and “15 years.” The whole discussion becomes one about confirmation bias, a crucial component of our pattern making that frequently leads us astray and can become distinctly harmful: “Why, for example, do many people believe in homeopathic remedies, which countless studies have shown to be ineffective? At least part of the answer is confirmation bias. People who believe that homeopathy works actively seek out opportunities to confirm that belief…and ignore evidence that might disconfirm it…”

     Ambridge’s book is participatory throughout – the card-choice problem is one of many – and this is a major strength. He warns readers about this, always good-humoredly: “Now, I’m afraid this one is going to require a little bit of homework,” for example. The self-tests are worth taking. One replicates a study in which people did slightly better on a general-knowledge quiz if they first spent five minutes imagining the traits of a typical university professor than if they spent the same amount of time imagining the traits of a football (soccer) hooligan. This gets into a discussion of the perception-behavior link, in which we tend unconsciously to imitate behaviors or mannerisms that we observe in others – becoming, in effect, part of a self-created pattern. Also in Psy-Q is a defense of IQ testing and a way to test your own that is, to the extent possible, unbiased and free of culturally determined factors. And a discussion of conspiracy theories (yet another form of pattern recognition, whether or not a pattern is actually there). And one about sound-shape correspondence, based on looking at two irregular shapes and deciding which should be called a bouba and which a kiki. And what those same shapes might taste like. And many, many other fascinating explorations of varying utility in everyday life, but unending fascination. There are plenty of really serious issues raised in Psy-Q, involving morality, male-female interactions, linguistic determinism (one basis of George Orwell’s terrifying 1984), various sociopolitical issues, even a method used by forensic psychologists to search for a person who has committed a series of violent attacks. There is also much of lesser importance but equal interest, interspersed with brief comments and jokes designed to force readers to confront their own biased everyday patterns: “What do you call a female psychologist?” “A psychologist, you sexist.” (Answer printed upside-down at the bottom of the page.)

     Not everything in Psy-Q is accurate. Some mistakes are minor, although they are ones that a trained psychologist should not make: for example, he calls the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders “DSM-V,” with a Roman numeral, when it is actually DSM-5, with an Arabic number. But other errors are more serious. A particularly embarrassing one lies in Ambridge’s reference to the only known recording of Sigmund Freud’s voice: the author even gives a location on the Web where readers can hear it (one of his many “Web Links and Further Reading” entries). Ambridge comments, “I don’t speak German and so didn’t understand a word…but found him surprisingly soft-spoken, even timid sounding.” But Freud is speaking in English, not German, and the voice quality is directly related to his incurable jaw cancer – he died less than a year after the recording was made – and to the dozens of jaw-rebuilding surgeries he had undergone.

     Despite lapses like these – thankfully, there are not too many of them – Ambridge’s interests are wide-ranging and his style is amusingly accommodating. The titles of the book’s sections show this clearly; among them are: “Quoth the Raven’s ‘What’s My Score?’” “Reading and Righting.” “Hitler’s Sweater.” “Getting All EmotIQnal.” “Cake Addicts?” “Can Psychology Save the World?” The answer to that last one is pretty definitely no, even though the optimistic Ambridge thinks that, “with a little help from an early-evening game show,” it could happen. But even without being Earth-saving, psychology, considered as it is in Psy-Q, can prove rather earthshaking as it shakes up readers’ many underlying assumptions, conscious or unconscious, about the patterns that they only think rule the world and their lives – and shows some of the patterns that actually do.

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