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Test Your Psychological Intelligence

Ben Ambridge

(London Times)

THE initial impression given by this book's bright orange and green cover and shouty strapline ('You know your IQ - now test your psychological intelligence') is of a pop psych-trivia quiz. Sure enough, when you open it, Psy-Q has dozens of inter-active puzzles, tests, puns and visual illusions aimed at guiding readers through the history of research into human emotions and desires. The questions that leap up at you have a cheerfully magazine-like flavour - do your blue eyes make you more or less trustworthy? Are women really better at multitasking than men?

Brightly written though it is, there is much more to Ben Ambridge's guide than this description might suggest. Behind the breeziness, what he turns out to be doing for psychology is rather like what Freak-onomics did a few years ago for the dismal science - blowing the cobwebs off the reputation of a discipline that in many people's minds is stuck in a murky past.

Psy-Q starts with the Rorschach test (a 1921 technique measuring personality by the shape you see in an inkblot) before briskly revisiting the most frightening early testing - the Milgram experiments of the 1960s, whereby volunteers were asked to administer painful electric shocks to people in another room, which they obediently went on doing even after their subjects started screaming; and Philip Zimbardo's 1970s research, which gave volunteer prison guards control over helpless 'prisoners'. Both were investigations into how power turns ordinary people into torturers. Ambridge also goes back further in time to Freud’s interpretation of dreams (which he then boldly dismisses as 'not even wrong' because unprovable).

But the book also deals, with a light hand, with various vexed questions of modern living, the kind you might define as philosophical or political as much as psychological. It quietly slips in a new bit of scientific terminology every page or two in arguments about whether men and women think differently (yes, but less so than you might expect); whether religion and stupidity are linked (quite possibly); how psychology can help solve the obesity crisis (if you cultivate an analytical rather than an intuitive thinking style, you’ll be better at saying no to cake); or whether we're deluded about art (it seems so, as we tend to think a picture is better if it is done by someone with an exotic name).

Ambridge is senior lecturer in psychology at Liverpool University, and as I read I found myself wishing I had studied with him, because he is clearly a master at engaging an audience. This beautifully constructed book grabs the attention from the first page. The surprising, thought-provoking and genuinely challenging tests dotted through the text, meanwhile, strip away any smugness a modern reader might feel when confronted with earlier experts’ more primitive thinking. The tests demonstrate how often we are all still wrong today — how the things we feel most certain about tend to be opinions we have formed through flawed reasoning, and how irrational most of us are precisely when we think we are at our sharpest.

In one test, The Vanishing Ghost, readers are asked to look at a picture featuring a ghost on the right and a dot on the left. You cover one eye, put the page close to the other eye and stare at the dot, then gradually move the page away, keeping your uncovered eye on the dot. When the picture is about a foot away, the ghost appears to vanish. This, Ambridge explains, is an illusion. The ghost's image has fallen, inside the eye, on your blind spot, where the optic nerve lies.

It is our blind spots - in our thinking, mostly - that Ambridge is using his psychology toolkit to identify. Attentive readers may end up not just understanding the rudiments of his science, but also knowing their own psychological limitations better. Clever, broad-minded and fun, Psy-Q, despite its cover, is not in the least trivial.

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