My Manager and Other Animals – Richard Robinson ***

It might seem odd to feature what seems like a management book on a science website, but what Richard Robinson cleverly does is to explore the science, particularly My_Manager_and_Other_Animals__Amazon_co_uk__Richard_Robinson__Booksthe evolutionary psychology, behind workplace behaviour.

Early on, the book identifies three key behaviours – harmony, antagonism and chaos, with harmony illustrated by the lives of ants and also the impact of mirror neurons on our behaviour and those of other animals. Antagonism is given to us with the ape as typifier, while a special type of successful chaos belongs to ants… but a far worse kind is in the hands of MBAs.

We also meet the concepts of evolution, wevolution and mevolution. The first you’ll be familiar with. Wevolution is the adaptive behaviour that gave us science and technology, agriculture and writing. And mevolution is the way we as individuals adapt to specific circumstances – say the office environment. All this is rather cleverly done, weaving in behaviour in the animal world and the workplace to give us some excellent insights into the psychology of working life. And there’s the original concept of the ‘social fractal’ likening the scale independence of social behaviour to the science of fractals.

My only significant criticism up to page 92 is that Robinson does have a tendency to breeze through topics in a way that doesn’t quite give you enough. What this means is that the reader’s obvious questions don’t get answered, as we’ve already wafted on to the next topic. So, for instance, early on we learn how bacteria started to cooperate as a survival mechanism, forming stromatolites – this is true, but I immediately thought, ‘Yes, but what about the vast majority of bacteria that don’t do this – they still survived pretty well’? Later on we hear about a manager who can detect by subtle body tells across the factory floor whether a worker has financial difficulties or has had a domestic. Really? That raises my bullish*t detector. Has anyone tested this ability in controlled conditions, or are we just taking what the manager says as fact? I suspect it’s anecdote rather than data.

If the book had continued this way, this would have been no more than an odd mild irritation. I can’t emphasise enough what an enjoyable and different book this starts out to be, bringing the spotlight of biology, often using comparisons with animal behaviour (hence the title) to bear in a way that gives a real insight into good and bad workplace behaviour. It was solidly heading for four stars, but then suddenly, at page 92, it shifts.

From here on in it’s one of those ‘funny’ management books, giving us a long saga of how an MBA dropped in as a manager will mess things up, and the Peter Principle, and Parkinson’s Law and Murphy’s law and so on. There is the occasional passing reference to the ant and the ape to try to tie it back in to the earlier part, but this second half is a very different book and not as good as the first half. It’s an entirely acceptable ‘why everything goes wrong at work’ type humorous business book, but it loses the interesting science and, frankly, some of the interest overall.

Seen as a whole, this is a good book, worth reading – but it could have been so much better.

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Review by Brian Clegg

You Are the Music – Victoria Williamson ***

Although there’s quite an industry now in debunking claims that something or other is what makes us human, I’ve some sympathy with the slightly different twist in the subtitle of Victoria Williamson’s book: ‘how music reveals what it is to be human.’ You may not have to be human to be musical, but it certainly gives us some interesting insights into our brains.

You_Are_the_Music__How_Music_Reveals_What_it_Means_to_be_Human__Amazon_co_uk__Victoria_Williamson__BooksIn a detailed exploration of the psychology of music, Williamson takes us into the fact and fable of claims like the old chestnut that listening to music (particularly Mozart) can improve your child’s intelligence. The simple answer is that listening doesn’t, but learning to play an instrument or sing does make a small difference in some very specific brain functions, like being able to distinguish sounds. However it’s worth pointing out that, unless the real aim is to learn how to play or sing, the amount of effort required is totally out of proportion to the gain. And if children aren’t young enough for our voyage into the capabilities of music, even see if music can influence the unborn child.

Later on there’s an in-depth look at music in our adult life and the relationship between music and memory – including the remarkable factoid that 30 percent of people can correctly identify the name and artist of a popular song after hearing it for only 0.4 seconds, a tiny snippet of sound. Interestingly, though the people tested were young adults, they found it easiest to identify 1960s and 1970s tunes. Williamson suggests (probably tongue in cheek) that music was better then. I’d suggest it might be more a combination of being the kind of music their parents would listen to – so the music the test subjects were brought up with – and an effect of the way that distinctive tunes were more common back then, in an age without sampling, rapping and song-free dance music.

I am reasonably musical – I sang in a Cambridge college chapel choir – so I expected to be absolutely delighted with this book… but though there is lots of lovely material in there, I felt a little let down. In part it is because the style is a little flat – the book felt about twice as long as it really is – but mostly I suspect it is because music psychologists and professional musicians think that music is more important than it really is. Yes, it plays a pivotal role in our teens, but for most of our lives it’s just something to stick in if you are bored in the car or gym or while doing the washing up – or that is very effective at eliciting emotions in the background in films (the music that swells under the ‘Daddy, my daddy!’ sequence in the Railway Children is enough to make me cry without the visuals) – which is immensely powerful, but still not really a of major significance in our lives.

So a brilliant idea, with plenty of really interesting content – and a must-read for anyone that interested in music or the workings of the human brain – but not as enjoyable as I hoped it would be. It’s quite possibly because I was so looking forward to it that it was inevitably a bit of a disappointment – so I do recommend you try it for yourself.

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Review by Brian Clegg

UFO Investigations Manual – Nigel Watson ***

Buying a Haynes manual is a rite of passage for young car enthusiasts in the UK. These detailed illustrated guides tell you how to service a particular make and model of car. But of late 51LgGvfV6RL._SY445_there has been something of tendency to spread the field into entertainment, with manuals on the likes of the USS Enterprise and the Death Star, and more bizarre how-to subjects, including the Zombie Survival Manual.

So, almost inevitably, we get the UFO Investigations Manual. In a sense it is a bit of misnomer. Although there are a couple of pages of appendix on how to make a UFO report, this primarily isn’t a how-to guide at all, but rather an illustrated assessment of UFO history and attempts to explain them.

I ought to say straight away that this less wide-eyed and trusting than UFOs Caught on Film, which merely shows photographs and comments on them with little attempt to rule out alternative causes. There is a section here on non-extra terrestrial causes, for instance. But it doesn’t stop the book repeatedly showing pictures with decidedly overdramatic captions (‘Glastonbury Tor: is it a portal into other dimensions’) and quite often very obvious explanations are not well explored. So, for instance, there is a section on mysterious ‘waves’ of sightings without making the obvious suggestion that people see things because they have heard other people see things. Similarly, the totally discredited concept of hypnotic regression is cited a couple of times as helping people recall abduction incidents without pointing out there is very strong evidence that the technique creates memories rather than restoring them.

1977 28 August Flying saucer over Aviemore 2

One of my UFO fakes

Similarly, though there is quite a lot on the latest ways that UFO photos can be faked (there’s an app for that – really), there is very little about why and how many of the ‘classic’ photos that weren’t simply misunderstood natural phenomena or planes could easily have been faked. I did my own bit of UFO photo faking in my teens just for fun and it very obvious (though I didn’t see it mentioned in the book) that the very easy approach of throwing a metal disk tends to produce exactly the sort of odd flight angles often shown for flying saucers. I have included one of my own efforts here – it is a metal camping plate, thrown frisby style.

Most important of all, the manual lacks the feeling of that old science mantra ‘data is not the plural of anecdote.’ It gives no suggestion that extreme theories require extreme evidence, where Occam’s Razor makes the obvious assumption that UFOs aren’t extra-terrestrial without good evidence that they are. So as science it doesn’t do very well – but it is an entertaining subject, put across in an appealing and entertaining way in this well illustrated volume. Read it like the Zombie title and you are fine – but don’t take it as seriously as you would the Ford Fiesta 1995-2002 manual, because it just isn’t that sort of book.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Extra Sensory – Brian Clegg ****

As a subject, extra sensory perception, ESP, psi or whatever you want to call it hovers on the frivolous edges of science. And yet there certainly is something for science to Screenshot_27_05_2013_16_45investigate, whether it is an actual physical phenomena or the oddities of the human mind that make it susceptible to believing in such possibilities.

The editor of this site, Brian Clegg, has decided to take the scalpel of science to areas of the paranormal where an attempt has been made to make a controlled and scientific assessment, limiting himself to those areas that could have a scientific explanation, as opposed to those that rely on the supernatural. So we are talking about the likes of telepathy, telekinesis, clairvoyance and remote viewing.

I had always got the impression that the first to take a really scientific approach was Rhine in the 1930s – in reality it seems that athough these early investigators employed the trappings of science, a lot of the tools, particularly the controls and the maths were applied rather carelessly. What’s more this seems a common theme in much of the subsequent scientific exploration of mental powers.

All the way through, Clegg makes the book very approachable, using an introductory story to get into each chapter, looking at possible scientific explanations and exploring the attempts of academia to get to grips with everything from Uri Geller to bizarre experiments straight out of a David Cronenberg movie with half-ping pong balls taped over the subjects’ eyes. He opens up all the means of deception, whether accidental from misunderstanding statistics to explaining the tricks used by magicians and mentalists to give the appearance of having psi abilities.

The only reason I don’t give the book more stars is that there really isn’t a huge amount of science in it – which is hardly Clegg’s fault, it is just the nature of the subject. Inevitably his attempts to provide possible scientific explanations for the likes of telepathy are a little speculative, but overall this is a refreshing attempt that unusually for this subject treads the tightrope of proper scientific enquiry. It is neither the total denial of the ultra-skeptic who will not even consider any evidence (Clegg quotes Richard Dawkins saying ‘I am not interested in evidence’) and the feeble acceptance of any old rubbish made by those who never question whatever they are told by psychics. Good stuff.

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Review by Peter Spitz

Please note, this title is written by the editor of the Popular Science website. Our review is still an honest opinion – and we could hardly omit the book – but do want to make the connection clear.

Paranormal Equation – James Stein ***

I  really wish I had my hands on a copy of mathematician’s James Stein’s book Paranormal Equation when I wrote my own Extra Sensory, as there is some fascinating Screenshot_09_06_2013_10_09material here taking a whole new slant on the supernatural that I have never seen before. It wouldn’t be too much to say that Stein has developed a whole new theoretical approach for dealing with supernatural phenomena (with a proviso), based on his mathematical background – and that is quite a feat.

Having said it would be useful, the two books are actually addressing almost unconnected areas of thought – ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ as Stephen Jay Gould might have put it. I deal with aspects of the paranormal that could have a natural explanation – I don’t cover the supernatural at all – where Stein is focussed on events that don’t have a possible natural explanation.

After giving us a fair amount of information as to how most paranormal events can’t happen, Stein provides a loophole with a fascinating conjecture that I’ve never seen before. Since the mid twentieth century, mathematicians have been aware that there are some propositions in the mathematical system we use that can never be proved. We think some of them are true, but it has been proved that they can’t be proved. This is a bit like a mathematical version of the logical knots that arise from dealing with the statement ‘This statement is false.’

The great Alan Turing came up with a similar concept to Gödel’s incompleteness theorem for computing – but Stein goes further. He considers the possibility that in an infinite universe (something that may well be the case), there could be a similar concept in physics. There could be phenomena that it is impossible for physics to explain. Ever. And these arguably would be supernatural by definition. This doesn’t mean, of course, that this makes telepathy, say, possible – and Stein doesn’t say this. But it is a truly fascinating bit of thinking on his part.

There are two reasons that this important book doesn’t have more stars. One is that much of it is more about the philosophy of science than science itself, and some of the content is as airy and difficult to pin down as a paranormal event. The other is that it isn’t the easiest of books to read, although it is well worth the effort. (And one or two of the facts quoted outside the main thrust of the book are a little iffy. Stein comments ‘It is certainly true that humans generally use about 10 percent of the brain.’ This is a myth so well established it has its own Wikipedia page.)

However this is without doubt the most original and fascinating book I have read about supernatural phenomena in many years and a highly recommended work for anyone who wants to take an open-minded scientific view of the paranormal.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Paranormality – Richard Wiseman ****

The subtitle here is ‘Why we believe the impossible’ or ‘Why we see what isn’t there’ (depending on your edition) emphasising that this a book not so much on parapsychology – the study of paranormal capabilities of the mind – but what you might call metaparapsychology – the study of why human beings incorrectly think that they have paranormal capabilities of the mind.

This is a very entertaining, lightly written book that takes a storytelling approach to introducing some of the strange and wonderful claims that people have made for supernatural mental abilities, only to pull them apart.

We begin with that most dubious of paranormal topics, psychics, with a UK psychic roundly failing in controlled tests and another psychic admitting exactly how he used cold reading tricks to fool his clients. Many books have debunked cold reading, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen before such a clear list of the six key techniques with a demonstration of how they were used in a specific reading. It’s superb.

Next under the microscope are out of body experiences (and for some reason the spurious idea of a body losing weight on death), which prove rather dull, and then moving things with the mind. There is interesting material on a specific case, though I found the ‘five psychological principles’ that make people believe this kind of act a touch heavy handed after we’d already been through the six for cold reading, especially as by the time we get to the fifth there is not one, but two asides in the middle of explaining it.

Next up is the table shifting/rapping/Ouija board style of spirit medium. There’s some nice historical introduction with the Fox sisters (who made ‘raps’ by clicking their toes) and some practical guidance on the do-it-yourself use of involuntary movement effects to jiggle tables or spell out Ouija messages (with perhaps a bit of cheating thrown in). We then move swiftly on to some entertaining ghost hunting tales (and thoughts on why we imagine ghosts exist), mind control and future gazing. All very readable, entertaining and often enlightening.

Although as a whole I liked the book, there was something about it that put me off a little (otherwise it might have made 5 stars). It was a touch gimmicky – I’m not sure, for instance, I particularly liked the used of QR codes to direct the reader to find out more online. In principle this should be a good thing, but these 3D barcodes were so large and obtrusive that they ruined the look of the page every time they were introduced.

The gimmickry also extends to some extent to the way the book is written, with chapters jumping around their subject and introducing little ‘tests’ that are supposed to show the reader the effect being discussed. (I’m pleased to say I avoided choosing the shape combination most people come up with when asked to think of one geometric shape inside another*.)

However, that’s just a personal thing – I think many people would like this kind of messing about in format, so it shouldn’t count against what I think is a really interesting book on a topic that isn’t really called metaparapsychology, but ought to be. If psychics, ESP and the world of the paranormal interest you, this book is an essential balance to your library – and if you are a sceptic, it will give you plenty of chances to raise an eyebrow and have a chuckle at the gullibility of the rest of the world.

* The usual choice is apparently a circle in a triangle or a triangle in a circle. I went for a triangle in a square.

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Review by Brian Clegg

How Pleasure Works – Paul Bloom ****

I have to start this review with a confession and an apology to the author. When the book arrived for review in 2010 (no, not a typo), I was totally fed up with books about different human emotions. We had been absolutely drenched with the things, many of them rather tedious. So I put it to one side and forgot about it. A few days ago I needed a book to read, had nothing else to hand and discovered I’d made a big mistake – because the book is brilliant. So my apologies to Paul Bloom: the only thing I would say is that as an author I appreciate reviews however late they come and I hope he will too.

Bloom makes a wonderful exploration of what pleasure is and why we appreciate everything from basic animal desires like food and sex to much more complex enjoyment like reading a book or looking at an artwork. In doing so he digs into the real attachments we have – why, for example, we appreciate a ‘real’ original painting more than a perfect copy, even though the artwork itself is identical. And why we value a tape measure owned by J. F. Kennedy (one sold for $50,000) more than just an ordinary one off the shelf in a hardware store.

At the heart of Bloom’s argument is the rather philosophical concept of essences. Human beings have a tendency, he argues to associate invisible intangible essences with objects that change their value to us. The fact that in an objective sense these essences don’t exist doesn’t matter to us – and so from a psychological viewpoint they are important and real. If this sounds a little dull and philosophical don’t worry – Bloom’s writing is light and interesting and he makes all this stuff… a pleasure to read.

You may wonder when I think this book is so excellent why it has only got four rather than five stars. This is primarily because the subject, though fascinating, is frankly rather woolly. There is a lot in here that isn’t so much science as philosophy and guesswork (there’s  difference?). Because of that, I hesitate to give it the full whack. But it is a great read, there is fascinating material in there, and I’d really encourage you to give it a go. With the proviso of not giving it to anyone who’d be shocked by the description of S&M etc. it would make a great present too.

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Review by Brian Clegg

Loneliness – John T. Cacioppo & William Patrick ***

“For the last five centuries or more, Western societies have demoted human gregariousness from a necessity to an incidental.” This bold claim is the starting point for an in-depth survey of our human need for “social connection” and the perils that await individuals and societies that do not meet this need. The authors do well to narrow down this impossibly broad theme and bring it within the range of recent psychology, neuroscience, and ethology (the study of animal behaviour). The result is comprehensive and in many ways convincing. Loneliness, it seems, contaminates everything from our diet to our DNA transcriptions.

The lead author is John Cacioppo, a psychology professor at the University of Chicago and Director of Chicago’s Centre for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience. As you might expect, Cacioppo takes the science seriously. And he and his co-editor William Patrick keep the narrative moving along with plenty of personal anecdotes and literary references. The result is a book that is rarely dull and usually rigorous.

Does Loneliness make a convincing case for social connectedness? By and large, yes. There are three parts to Cacioppo’s argument. The first part deals with all the ways that loneliness damages the overall health of an individual. If Cacioppo is right, loneliness is a major psychological toxin, with symptoms ranging from a lowered IQ and poor self-control to unhealthy diet, loss of sleep and elevated blood pressure. The second part deals with the ways that loneliness impairs our ability to connect socially. Lonely people, it seems, respond less well to social cues than non-lonely people, take less pleasure in company, and exaggerate their own social incompetence. As Cacioppo points out, these feedback effects are what makes loneliness, in the worst cases, such a corrosive and long-lasting condition.

The last part of the argument is about the health of communities rather than individuals. In lizards and in bonobos, and therefore in humans, mutual aid and self-sacrifice is a great survival strategy for a group. In general, “the more extensive the reciprocal altruism born of social connection, the greater the advance towards health, wealth and happiness.” Even if our interests are purely economic, the authors argue, we are better off banding together than splitting into factions.

Tacked on to this economic/sociological/evolutionary claim is a polemic against “global capitalism” and its accompaniments: social atomisation, the breakdown of neighbourhoods, and the reliance on meagre substitutes such as pets, mega-churches, and the internet. The critique of capitalism is half-baked, but the statistics about social isolation make for grim reading. They also make the second-to-last chapter of the book – a recovery guide for the lonely – an important resource. If the statistics are right, most readers will benefit from the author’s suggestions on how to restore their sense of social connection. The self-help style of this chapter – complete with quotes from the Dalai Lama and a 5-step programme summarised in a cute anagram, EASE – may be off-putting for some. But by and large this chapter, like the rest of the book, delivers sensible advice without waffle or sentimentality.

For readers who are already paragons of social connectivity, Loneliness still has plenty of material not directly related to loneliness. There is the obligatory introduction to evolutionary theory, with a socially-oriented twist. There are sections on mirror neurones, confirmation bias, and attachment theory. And, for those who wonder how psychologists find stuff out, the studies in the book embrace a wide range of investigative techniques, from brain scans to highly controlled laboratory studies to surveys that follow a group of individuals over multiple years.

One problem with Loneliness is its over-reliance on evolutionary arguments. Aside from the fact that socio-biology is no longer young and exciting, and that it is outside the author’s expertise, there is the uncomfortable fact that we owe most of our adaptive features to millennia of brutal competition with other species and with other individuals in our own species. With this background, tales of co-operative lizards and compassionate bonobos seem like so much cherry-picking. Also, the authors tend to blur the boundaries between analogies and shared causes. Female bonobos masturbate when they meet, as a sign of good will; humans gossip. In both cases co-operation is aided by sharing information. But are we seriously meant to believe that human gossip has the same genetic basis as bonobo masturbation? And if there is no such causal link between these analogous behaviours, what purpose does the analogy serve?

Another defect in the book is the old problem of causes and correlations. If people who suffer from condition A also suffer from condition B, how do we know that A causes B and not the other way round? The authors do not answer this question at all in their flagship study on loneliness in an Ohio population. They show, for example, that lonely people tend to have more run-ins with neighbours and a higher rate of divorce. But this on its own does not show that loneliness causes the run-ins and divorces. The point is not just academic. If loneliness is not the cause here, then making people less lonely is not going to make them less prone to run-ins and divorces.

My last complaint is that the book lacks spark. It stands out from the current crop of books on positive psychology and social relations, but only for the rather dull reason that it is more thorough and down-to-earth. For all the anecdotes and personal stories, none of them really lose the stiffness of case histories. For a book about social connection I felt too little real connection with the authors – at any rate, too little to give it more than 3 stars.

When reading popular science books on psychology, I waver between pity and admiration. Pity because often a long string of careful experiments seem only to confirm, in a highly artificial setting, what we all know from ordinary life. Admiration because the human mind, especially the social mind, is so complicated that only the very brave and skilful are likely to find out anything new about it. I’m pleased to report that after reading Loneliness I felt more admiration than pity for Cocioppo and Patrick. Lonely readers will find plenty of reassurance and helpful advice in this book, not least from the knowledge that many others share their condition. And non-lonely readers will be reminded how lucky they are to live socially well-rounded lives – even as they are reminded of how much they have in common with bonobos and lizards.

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Review by Michael Bycroft

What’s Luck Got to do with It? – Joseph Mazur ****

Joseph Mazur’s aim in this book is to expose the “diabolical con” of the voice in the gambler’s ear that tells him he can win. To attack the “gambler’s illusion” Joseph Mazur brings out some big guns of modern science, from the mathematics of probability to the psychology of cognitive biases. Preaching is not his style, however, and there is much more in the book than arguments against gambling. The book sometimes loses its way through thickets of sociology, reportage, literary analysis and personal anecdotes. But the end results is Mazur an eclectic, personable introduction to the topic.

The first third of the book is a potted history of lotteries, casinos, shares trading, and theories of probability. Mazur takes us from eighteenth-century Bath to nineteenth-century Mississippi, from the Iliad to modern-day Monte Carlo. Inevitably some important developments are left out. For example, the rise of private life insurance in the late 18C, and its origins in a middle class anxious to protect its newly gained wealth, gets short shrift. Mazur pushes the story along with succinct scene-setting, judicious borrowing from historians of the topic, and tales of lost riches.

Modern-day gamblers will be glad to know that they are in good company–even, or especially, if they are massively in debt. Past gambling debtors include writers such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, wealthy plantation owners in the American South, well-heeled dandies from the London coffee-house scene, and the entire royal court of Louis XIV. Women as well as men made disastrous flutters. Consider Francis Baddock, the accomplished 19C heiress who hung herself with gold and silver girdles after wasting her £24,000 (£2 million today) fortune in a month of high-rolling.

From history Mazur moves on to his area of expertise, mathematics. Statistical concepts are notoriously hard to get across to laypeople, and Mazur uses plenty of examples, diagrams and anecdotes to help the medicine go down. Most interesting is a chapter on the “truly astonishing” law of large numbers; most useful, a summary of the mathematics of poker, blackjack, sports betting, lotteries, and slot machines. The aims of the other maths chapters are less well-defined, but a patient reader will find colourful introductions to significance tests, normal distributions, Pascal’s triangle, the statistics of the Wall Street crash, and more.

Next up, psychology. This third of the book, like the third on mathematics, has problems of organisation. Chapter 12, sub-titled “psychomanaging risk”, seems like a chapter of left-overs, with an analysis of “Deal or No Deal” thrown together with a study of George Eliot’s Daniel Deronda and the sad tale of a minister and psychotherapist who ruins himself in a Nigerian email scam. More purposeful is a chapter on 20th century psychologies of gambling–although Mazur concludes that general theories about why people gamble, starting with the Freudian theory that gamblers have a subconscious desire to lose, are in a sorry state.

More promising is the psychology of specific errors of reasoning. Mazur draws on those darlings of popular social science writing, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, in a chapter on the so-called “hot hands fallacy”: the belief that lucky streaks are more likely to continue than not. Reports of other gambling fallacies are scattered through the third on the book on psychology, from the house money effect (gamblers take more risks with their winnings than with their own money) to the Monte Carlo fallacy (after a string of reds, bet on blue). By showing that our statistical intuitions are not to be trusted, this material is at least as powerful an antidote to gambling behaviour as mathematical arguments.

If we count all these psychological effects, there is not one gambler’s illusion but many. Mazur is never very up-front about this problem, and one consequence is that the “gambler’s illusion” he describes in the introduction (the hot hands effect) is the opposite of the “gambler’s illusion” that appears in the book’s conclusion (the Monte Carlo fallacy). Another weakness is that Mazur never properly debunks the Monte Carlo fallacy. If a fair coin has come down head 60 times in 80 throws, surely we can expect the next 20 throws to have more tails than heads? Mazur’s rebuttal is that “we all know” that coins do not have memories; the chance of heads on a fair coin is always 50/50, irrespective of past throws. But this rebuttal is no use insofar as it does not reconcile our “no-memory” intuition with the equally strong intuition–the one behind the Monte Carlo fallacy–that fair coins should give half heads and half tails in the long term. This intuition is a version of the law of large numbers, which Mazur discusses — but not in enough detail to show why this otherwise sound law is misapplied in the Monte Carlo fallacy.

Gambling is a sad topic. For every lucky winner there are many forlorn addicts, like the women Mazur meets at casinos feeding coins into one-armed bandits at 5am. And along with the jackpots there are the suicides, like the London man who sunk his life savings on 24,000 lotto tickets in one week and came away with nothing. Stories like this are perhaps the best medicine for would-be gamblers, and Mazur’s book is full of them. But the book has an upbeat tone nevertheless, thanks to Mazur’s anecdotal style and passion for mathematics.

For gamblers, What’s Luck Got To Do With It? is a non-preachy introduction to the reasons for quitting, even if it leaves open some logical loopholes. For non-gamblers it is a sweeping tour of the seedy, sad and grandiose world of games of chance, with Mazur as a well-informed (if sometimes disoriented) guide.

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Review by Michael Bycroft

Introducing Psychology: a graphic guide – Nigel C. Benson ***

It is almost impossible to rate these relentlessly hip books – they are pure marmite*. The huge Introducing … series (a vast range of books covering everything from Quantum Theory to Islam), previously known as … for Beginners, puts across the message in a style that owes as much to Terry Gilliam and pop art as it does to popular science. Pretty well every page features large graphics with speech bubbles that are supposed to emphasise the point.

Psychology is a difficult topic for this site because, to be honest, it’s not clear that it’s science. If this book is anything to go by, the reason it has a problematic image is that it is a mix of science and philosophy, and all too often the philosophy has too much weight.

Nigel Benson provides a useful summary of the different approaches to psychology (another indicator of its lack of modern scientific credentials – you certainly get disagreements about specific theories in physics, but you don’t get different ‘schools’, always an indicator you are drifting away from science and into philosophy). It was fascinating to see how much certain aspects of modern thinking are influenced by particular aspects of psychology – for example, how behaviourism seems to dominate education and particularly the sort of ‘Super Nanny’, how-to-deal-with-problem-children TV show. I was surprised how much content there was on Freud, all stated without any feeling this was arbitrary made-up rubbish with no scientific basis, with just a paragraph or so saying many don’t consider Freud useful anymore. Puzzling.

As a book it was quite approachable, but it was rather too bitty to get provide an ideal introduction. Now and again there would be some flow of the text, but often it seemed to be made up of a whole series of definitions. The illustrations were also a mix of useful and not. I really had no idea why the first part of the book is narrated by a figure wearing a Hannibal Lecter mask, but then he suddenly disappears. It’s not a particularly pleasant image and I really didn’t feel it helped. (There was extra confusion because the masked face used to be on the cover of the book, and is referred to as such inside, but it isn’t anymore.)

Overall, certainly not one of the best in the series, but will give a useful background on psychology if you want to get a quick fix on what the subject is about.

*Marmite? If you are puzzled by this assessment, you probably aren’t from the UK. Marmite is a yeast-based product (originally derived from beer production waste) that is spread on bread/toast. It’s something people either love or hate, so much so that the company has run very successful TV ad campaigns showing people absolutely hating the stuff…

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Review by Brian Clegg