Saturday, July 11, 2015

Book Review: "Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad" by Richard Stephens



Senior lecturer in psychology at Keele University and fellow blogger Richard Stephens has a new book out. Aimed at a general audience, it concerns the hidden benefits of bad things, from drink to sex to death. To be fair, the review won't be totally unbiased when the author does cite a review paper I published with Andy Smith, but I hope it will be informative.

Stephens has not been one to stay on a single research topic, so the diversity of the book takes in varied subjects Stephens has researched. This includes his Ig Nobel-prize winning research on swearing, which found that swearing increased people's tolerance for pain (particularly people who habitually swear less; save it for a special occasion). He also covers work looking at whether chewing gum can alleviate stress (to be honest the jury's still out on that one-it seems to be better at maintaining alertness). The chapter on alcohol also makes reference to his ongoing interest in hangovers, and how those who are prone to alcoholism are counter-intuitively prone to worse hangovers.

The net does widen to some weird and wonderful stuff that Stephens (to the best of my knowledge) has not been directly involved with, This includes attempts to go beyond retrospective accounts of near-death experiences to prospectively examine a large number of patients with conditions that might lead to a near death experience prior to having one. (Quite a tall order, and one that unsurprisingly hasn't proved successful so far). He also covers classic research on whether inducing a state of (non-romantic) fear makes men more likely to ask someone out on a date, and the intriguing topic of boredom.

For a book teeming with different ideas, at times it feels as though Stephens does have to make an effort to keep things under one overall, unifying theme. It's a good skill to have when one has restless interests, although perhaps it's a bit regrettable in our postmodern age that theses and monographs have to conform to always having their own "grand scheme of things". The breadth of human experience, even within a single aspect of cognition, doesn't always lend itself to a unifying theory.

Despite the tongue-in-cheek "bad to the bone" posturing, this is a prosocial book. Stephens does not only want to create an enthusiasm for science, but also to make it more approachable. This book is also an attempt to defend psychological science in particular, and especially any such science which does not smack of the "harder" science end of psychological research ("but where was the fMRI scan???"). Stephens is careful to bring the non-psychologist along with him whether he is discussing theory or comparing double-blind experiments to short online surveys. If the book gets the broad audience it courts then I'd be surprised if a few of its lay readers don't feel motivated to begin their own pursuit of psychological research.

Related posts:
Book Review: "Predictably Irrational"
The Perks of a Pack of Gum
The Hangover

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