Shaping Psychology: A book review

‘Shaping Psychology: Perspectives on Legacy, Controversy and the Future of the Field’ is a book by Tomasz Witkowiski and aims to do a review of the field of psychology by interviewing prominent psychologists that have had a seminal influence on the field. The 15 interviewees included in the book include such diverse stalwarts as Daniel Kahneman (behavioral psychology), Naom Chomsky (linguistics) and Michael Posner (neuroscience of attention etc).

The fact that the list included some of my favorite people like Joseph LeDoux (a mutual friend on twitter/FB), Roy Baumeister (whose master class on self control I was fortunate to attend courtesy Ben/MentorCaoch) and Robert Sternberg was enough to pique my interest. Inclusion of others whose work I was already familiar with like Elizabeth Loftus, Robert Plomin, Susan Blackamore and Jerome Kagan was enough to convince me that the selection is not only wide ranging but also authoritative.

I was eager to learn about other featured psychologists including Brian Nosek whose work on Open Science I was familiar with, but also people like Erica Burman, Carol Tavris, Vikram Patel and Scott Lillienfeld which were somewhat stranger to me (despite being fascinated by psychology for so long). And I must say I was rewarded adequately, for I found the interview with Vikram Patel utterly fascinating and providing me with a different perspective and odes of inspiration.

Each interview/psychologist is one chapter in the book. The chapter starts with a very brief profile of the psychologists work (and here I think Tomsaz could have done better) followed by an edited transcript of Tomasz’s interview with the psychologist. If you are already familiar with the work of the psychologists then some of the questions and answers make more sense as compared to when you have little knowledge of psychologists background / research interests. There are some questions that he asks almost all of them in way or the other- including advice for young psychologists joining the field, role models they would suggest to them, what they think is their major accomplishments, and what they see the future of the field.

The above are usual questions you would expect in an interview; what sets this book apart is also some relentless questioning around the replication crisis in psychology, or say the relevance of AI to the field in coming years. And it is here you see a divergence in views; When he asks Roy Baumeister about replication crisis, esp in light of the fact that ego depletion has also been questioned despite 100s of studies around it, one gets interesting insights when Roy admits that at one time p-hacking was actually an accepted practice amongst psychologists in the not so recent past. On the other hand, the interview with Brian Nosek provided another insight that current trend for more power and larger samples has tilted the filed towards self -reports and M-Turk samples at the cost of small sized studies that measure say behaviors.

Lest it sound as if the book is all about dull methodological debates/ controversies, it spans other controversies too like false memory/ eye witness testimony research of Loftus, or the allegations of social Darwinism/ eugenics against Plomin to the controversial concept/ theory of memetics.

Some of the chosen psychologists have a bent toward skepticism and it is apparent Tomasz is a skeptic too. Some of the chapters like the one on Erica Burman were clearly beyond my capacity and went over my head- still scratching my head to understand ‘child as a method’ concept. Others like the chapter on Vikram Patel were god send – bringing much clarity to issues of global mental health about which I am quite passionate.

The chapters also reflected , to an extent, the featured psychologist’s personality. Some were drab and to the point, while other more humane and humble in their tone. It definitely provided a window not only on the subject of psychology but also on some of the key players who have shaped it and are continuing to shape it.

I would readily recommend this book to anyone interested in, and slightly familiar with, the field of psychology and who cares about its future and is interested in its recent influences. It would be time well spent.

Full Disclosure: I received a free electronic copy of this book for review.

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