Book Review: Psychologists Defying The Crowd

Psychologists Defying The Crowd:  Stories Of Those Who Battled The Establishment And Won, edited by Robert J. Sternberg

This book is a bit less than 300 pages and contains a variety of psychologists writing about their own personal lives and stories.  These psychologists are all portrayed as being iconoclasts, but in many cases their iconoclasm is overrated simply to gain outsider cred.  That isn’t to say that the research and perspectives of these psychologists is all bad–some of it is quite good in fact–but there is a lot of angst and whining here about the price that has to be paid for going against the stream even when all one is doing is opposing behaviorism or cognitive psychology or some other orthodoxy that no one cares about outside of the field.  This is the sort of book that overly sensitive people make to encourage themselves that some cool crowd of hipsters likes them even if they get a lot of unfriendly article reviews from mainstream psychologists.  To be sure, this book has an obvious market and an intended reader among those who want to fancy themselves iconoclastic (which I suppose would include this reader), but its appeal is limited by the tone of many of the articles and the self-absorbed nature of much of the material.

This book is nearly 300 pages long and is divided into sixteen different essays, almost all of which amount to autobiographical sketches of the author and his (or her) experience in dealing with the psychological establishment in universities, meetings, and journals.  Most of the time the authors show a rather insular perspective that tends to focus on personal research, how the author came to be a psychologist in the first place, and discussion about university politics and the prestige of positions and journals that one is looking for publications for.  The authors, of course, speak very highly of their own point of view and their own insight and comment knowingly about the problems in the establishment that they criticize for being narrow-minded.  Some of them note that it is better that not so many people are outsiders because it gives them a niche to do research that gives them distinction because it is different from the norm, and many of these writers appear to have an oppositional approach that leads them to be hostile to any orthodoxy even if their views become more popular with time.

What does it mean for psychologists to defy the crowd?  Much of this book contains rants about a few subjects, such as the tendency for psychology to be attracted by fads that limit the sort of problems that are of interest, and the way that the funding of research is easily politicized when one receives federal grant money.  I have a great deal of respect for the researcher who was aware that his research interests were not the sort likely to get grant money, as I can respect someone who is willing to do research without demanding taxpayer money to do so, and less respect for the whiny researcher who complained about how hostile press coverage about her golden fleece award wrecked her marriage to a journalist husband who kept on trying to excuse the behavior she received at the hands of journos.  A few people are here for pioneering social psychology or for opposing intelligence and personality tests, and one gets a sense that these people feel the need to find like-minded souls in order to encourage their iconoclastic tendencies.  But I suppose that is the case for us all.  Creativity and innovation depend on having an infrastructure that includes encouragement and support, and that is no less true for psychologists than the rest of us.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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