Popular Psychology Books

I’ll admit to a real love/hate relationship with popular Psychology books. On the one hand, they are always thought provoking. On the other, they generally don’t explore the state of the science: whether the research has been reproduced, whether causation and correlation are being confounded, and so forth.

I was excited to pick up Drink Tank Pink by Adam Alter in part because the book is written by a practicing academic in the field. I was hoping that would mean that the book would treat individual academic studies skeptically, which is appropriate. One study doesn’t prove anything; only a body of research does.

I’m enjoying the book but, alas, I don’t generally see the skepticism I was hoping for. The title of the book and the opening chapter are about the research suggesting that painting jail cells pink will calm prisoners down. Alter describes the original research asserting this phenomenon, along with subsequent applications and asserts that subsequent research has found the effect, even if not as strongly as the original research. Fortunately, he even includes end notes with pointers to original research.

All good, but what I want him to do is to point out that the original research was not double blind and therefore susceptible to unwitting bias on the part of the experimenter. No biggie of course if a large body of better designed subsequent research has provided better evidence for the hypothesis, but it’s not clear that’s the case. The best available study I found in a cursory search seems to suggest the effect is not observable in carefully controlled studies. This research came after the publication of Drunk Tank Pink, so Alter couldn’t have included it, of course, but that doesn’t absolve him of task of analyzing the rigor of the available research, similar to what it appears the author of the above study did.

Because his book is based on research, what I really want him to do is to show evidence that he’s sought out disconfirming evidence and that he has viewed research through a critical eye.

I know why he didn’t do this, of course. The text would be denser and fewer people would buy the book. To be clear, I’m not accusing him of writing in bad faith, but I would trust him more, and therefore would enjoy the book more, if I could get a better sense of how critically he was treating the body of research he is basing his book on.

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