November 01, 2007


Quirkology: How We Discover the Big Truths in Small Things. By Richard Wiseman, Ph.D. Basic Books. $26.

Great Kids: Helping Your Baby and Child Develop the Ten Essential Qualities for a Healthy, Happy Life. By Stanley I. Greenspan, M.D. Da Capo. $22.95.

      Richard Wiseman is a wise man. And he has a marvelous job: he is the first and only Professor of Public Understanding of Psychology at the University of Hertfordshire in England. In connection with that wonderfully titled position, Wiseman has spent two decades running experiments that illustrate what Freud called the psychopathology of everyday life – and demonstrating that there’s nothing pathological about most of it. Wiseman looks at human behavior and observes the psychological benefits or difficulties that arise form it. For example, if you use your dominant hand to trace the letter Q on your forehead, and the tail of the letter goes to the left, you are probably a better liar than someone who makes the tail of the letter go to the right. The reason: drawing the Q to make it readable by someone else means you are more aware of how other people see you – and are probably better at lying. Another example: is there a scientific basis for love at first sight? Probably. Wiseman had men look at two nearly identical photos and decide which was more attractive. Most chose the photo that had been digitally enhanced: the woman’s eyes were larger than in the other picture. The pupil of the eye enlarges when we see something or someone we like – and we respond in kind, tending to like people who like us. So enlarged pupils lead to other enlarged pupils, leading to attraction literally at first sight, for entirely unconscious reasons. (Or perhaps conscious ones: 400 years ago, women used a plant extract that dilated their pupils to make themselves more attractive. Hence the plant’s name, belladonna: bella donna is Italian for “beautiful lady.”) Quirkology is full of this sort of information, all discussed very entertainingly after Wiseman describes the fascinating experiments through which he has demonstrated various psychological truths. This book is amazingly varied: it explains why jokes are funny and which ones are the funniest, explores real-world explanations for paranormal phenomena (low-frequency sound waves, for example), shows how to tell a real smile from a fake one, discusses why women’s personal ads would get more replies if men wrote them (but men’s would not get more responses if women wrote them), and a great deal more. This is one of the cleverest, most entertaining, and, yes, wisest popular-psychology books in recent years – and one of the most enjoyable to read.

      Stanley Greenspan’s books on family issues are always worth reading, and Great Kids is no exception. But there is something more important about it: it offers useful advice on helping children develop, over time and in small doses, qualities that will make their lives healthier and happier – and it does not demand that busy parents drop out of the work force and spend all their time giving their kids carefully apportioned doses of particular forms of enrichment and enlightenment. Greenspan’s “Ten Essential Qualities” are not particularly new: engage your child; model empathy; encourage curiosity; foster communication; balance your emotions so your child can learn to balance his or hers; build self-esteem; encourage self-control and persistence; support initiative and imagination; help your child develop logical thinking; and instill a sense of ethics/morality. But what is important in this book is not novelty. Greenspan explains why these particular qualities are indeed essential for a child’s future happiness, and then shows parents how to foster them in everyday life – not by setting aside special learning (or indoctrination) times, but by living in a way that allows the qualities to develop and strengthen naturally. The “balance emotions” concept, for example, is a complex one, but Greenspan’s approach is not: express a range of emotions to your child, always with an eye toward making him or her feel secure – but counter more-extreme emotions by leaning the other way. This means offering warmth and reassurance when your child is withdrawn and sad, and becoming calmer when he or she is overexcited. To take another example, Greenspan’s idea of building self-esteem has nothing to do with giving phony awards and praising even the most rudimentary success to the skies. He recommends encouraging a child to figure out how to get what he or she wants by using gestures or words or by taking action directly; praising him or her for doing something better than the day before; and constantly raising your expectations – while emphasizing the importance of your child being satisfied with his or her own accomplishments, not with praise from others. This is a way of looking at child-rearing that is attractive, intelligent, and quite within the capabilities of most families – whether single-parent households or two-earner ones in which the amount of time available for interaction with children is more limited than parents would like it to be. Greenspan is a knowledgeable guide – but just as important, he is a pragmatic one.

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