Book Reviews – Consilience between psychology and books I read.

One think I often do on this blog is write about books I’ve read and how they relate to psychology studies.

A long time ago, I attended my favorite event in Los Angeles, the LA Times Festival of Books, and picked up the book Consilience, by E. O. Wilson. Consilience literally means the “jumping together” of knowledge and Wilson talks about how there is a potential orderliness or unity of knowledge that is possible across academic disciplines.  I was attracted to this book because it captures an overarching theme about how I have come to view the world. Everything I read these days jumps together into some grand puzzle, always incomplete, but not unsolvable, and social psychology, the field I am trained in, is a natural glue (not the only possible glue, but a useful one for me). Almost anything can be studied by social psychologists…culture, health, gender, marketing, politics, morality, sports, poverty, love, justice, religion and death are all prominent topics that social psychologists study. I dare say that list includes most any big question that people care about.

That being said, “if all you have is a hammer, everything seems to be a nail”, and psychologists often fall prey to this saying in thinking that the use of statistical methods is the only valid way of examining the world.  A well designed experiment can tell us that something can happen (under often artificial circumstances), which is important knowledge, but a good book about someone’s life can tell us unequivocably what actually has happened, at least to one person.  And a lot of times, we care as much about what happens to individual people as we care what happens to the “average” person, as we happen to be one of those individual people.

A Booth at the Book Fair on "Happy Science"

Consider an age old question like ‘what makes people happy?’. To be sure, it’s a vague question that scientific/quantitative methods can make more precise. But the people at the booth from the book fair in this picture (left) probably have a reasonably well thought out perspective on what makes people happy as well. Philosophers probably think the answer lies in contemplation. English majors might think the answer is revealed by great literature. Neuroscientists and biologists seek answers in brain chemistry. Religious scholars in religious texts. Psychologists randomly assign people to do things and see if it makes them happier. Who has the answer? I would say nobody…and everybody…Just as any psychological finding is made more robust by the convergence of findings using multiple methods by multiple researchers in various settings on diverse individuals…so too is any greater theory about the human condition more easily believed through the convergence of knowledge across disciplines…or consilience.  So I will often write book reviews on this blog linking what I’ve learned from the book with what I have learned in particular psychology studies.

For those who embrace this convergence, it’s an exciting time. People are generating far more quantitative data as every facebook interaction, google search, credit card swipe, & GPS location can be mashed up into some application or graph that provides some evidence of the human condition. People are generating far more qualitative data as well, in the form of countless public blogs, forums, tweets, and facebook posts. Logic, statistics, & the scientific method can be used by people of any discipline to take this wealth of data and produce convergent knowledge.

I still plan to focus on posting graphs about quantitative findings that relate to psychological theories on this blog.  But one of the main purposes of this blog is for me to store my own thoughts. My thought processes about the psychology of anything would be incomplete if I didn’t have a place to store experiences that didn’t explicitly have any data component to them…the random news article, observation, book review or quote that provides external validity to anything psychologists study. It is one thing to see something in a psychological experiment.  But sometimes you only know it is real when you see the same thing exhibited in a character in a novel, in a quote from a politician, or in an essay by a philosopher.

Book Reviews:

Other Consilience posts:

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