A majority of two-year and four-year college students enroll in Introduction to Psychology as a required or elective course. It is an enormous market with a significant number of competitive textbooks. Reviews published in Teaching of Psychology divided current Introduction to Psychology textbooks into three categories; “full-length” (Griggs and Jackson, 2013a, 13 books), “brief” (Griggs and Jackson, 2013b, 9 books), and “concise” (Jackson and Griggs, 2013, 5 books). This last category represents an attempt to address the fact that instructors are only able to cover approximately two-thirds of the larger books in a single semester. Psychology: The Science of Human Potential is designed to fit the characteristics of the third category.
As one would expect for a successful scientific discipline, knowledge accumulates over time and understanding of the basic phenomena and theoretical issues evolves. This inevitably results in the need to “cull trees” and “reshape forests.” Existing textbooks tend to bury the reader in trees, resulting in the forest being indistinguishable. Addressing length by creating brief editions has been criticized as simply creating diluted versions of the full-length textbooks. I believe my integrative, cohesive approach to the subject matter should result in a more coherent narrative arc.
All introduction to psychology textbooks share the objectives of presenting psychology as an empirical science by providing a survey of the different content areas. It would be difficult to differentiate among them based upon an examination of their tables of contents. Introductory material describing the early history of the discipline and research methods is followed by chapters dedicated to “psychology as a natural science” (e.g., biological psychology, perception, learning, and cognition) and “psychology as a social science” (e.g., developmental psychology, personality, abnormal psychology, and social psychology). Psychology: The Science of Human Potential shares these objectives and conforms to this traditional format.
The first chapter provides an overview of the textbook and reviews the history of psychology and its methodology. Psychology is described as a science studying how hereditary (nature) and experiential (nurture) variables interact to influence the thoughts, feelings, and behavior of individuals. The remainder of the text will be organized in sections entitled “Mostly Nature” (Biological Psychology; Sensation & Perception; Motivation & Emotion), “Mostly Nurture” (Direct Learning; Indirect Learning (i.e., observational learning and language); Cognition), and “Nature/Nurture” (Human Development; Personality; Social Psychology; Maladaptive Behavior; Professional Psychology and Human Potential).
A different criticism made of Introduction to Psychology textbooks is that they lack cohesiveness. There is the need to develop an overarching schema for organizing and integrating the material in a meaningful way. A reviewer of a biological psychology textbook once remarked that beginning the book with a discussion of the neuron was akin to beginning a book about airplanes by describing a screw. The implicit suggestion was to describe the airplane at the beginning, making discussion of the neuron meaningful within a larger context. The issue of cohesiveness is magnified and made more complicated by the higher-order need in Introduction to Psychology textbooks to integrate the different content areas. It is difficult enough to create “rudders”, “wings”, and a “fuselage” for each content area let alone an “airplane” for the entire discipline. I attempt to establish cohesiveness in four ways, by:
- providing an overarching schema relating the different content areas to the theme of human potential;
- writing in a linear style resulting in a momentum-building narrative arc;
- incorporating recurrent images and themes;
- describing self-control applications of the principles covered in appropriate chapters.
An overarching theme for the textbook will be how nature and nurture relate to fulfilling human potential. For example, how does our nervous system, ability to sense the environment, and learn, enable us to understand and fulfill our potential as individuals and a species? As a didactic tool in my Adaptive Learning text (Levy, 2013), I frequently contrasted the human condition of a Stone-Age nomadic tribe with that of cultures living under technologically-enhanced conditions. By moving similar material to appropriate sections of an Introduction to Psychology textbook, a helpful and meaningful perspective consistent with evolutionary psychology is established. For example, how are perception, learning, and cognition involved in adapting to human conditions as diverse as the Amazonian rainforest and a modern metropolis? Maslow’s human needs pyramid is applied to nomadic Stone-Age individuals and to college students throughout the book, creating flow and an arc within and across chapters.
Another recurrent theme throughout the book will be the power of the scientific method in helping us understand and develop technologies to impact upon nature. A picture contrasting how Manhattan Island (New York City) appeared before the Dutch explorer, Henry Hudson, arrived in 1609, and as it appeared 400 years later, dramatically demonstrates how the Scientific Revolution enabled humans to transform the planet. A picture of a contemporary child who, until recently, lived the same nomadic Stone-Age lifestyle as his ancestors had for thousands of years, reminds us of the impact of this transformation. As a species, we evolved to adapt to the left side of the image of Manhattan. We now must adapt to a human-constructed world. These pictures and themes will reappear across chapters.
The majority of students take Introduction to Psychology during their freshman year. Frankly, many of the textbooks seem better designed to serve as GRE preparation for senior psychology majors rather than introduction to the discipline for mostly freshmen non-majors. Psychology: The Science of Human Potential is written in an informal style geared to a diverse freshman audience. The Introduction to Psychology course may serve to help students adjust to the transition to college. The effectiveness and relevance of psychological principles will be demonstrated through self-control exercises provided in appropriate chapters. These will address time management, study habits, test-taking, and other college adjustment strategies. I have been advising college students and assigning self-modification projects for 40 years. Such exercises are excellent vehicles for teaching students about the application of psychological principles, thereby demonstrating the effectiveness of the discipline in addressing meaningful real-world issues and problems. They also require students to implement many of the fundamental skills of a professional psychologist including collecting, compiling, graphing, summarizing, and interpreting behavioral data. I believe asking students to “act like a psychologist” by conducting self-modification exercises will be an intrinsically motivating and effective way to introduce them to the important and fascinating discipline of psychology.
Griggs, R. A., & Jackson, S. L. (2013a). Introductory psychology textbooks: An objective analysis update. Teaching of Psychology, 40, 163-168.
Griggs, R. A., & Jackson, S. L. (2013b). Brief introductory psychology textbooks: An objective analysis update. Teaching of Psychology, 40, 268-273.
Jackson, S. L., & Griggs, R. A. (2013). Psych Lite: Great price, less filling. Teaching of Psychology, 40, 217-221.
Levy, J. C. (2013). Adaptive Learning and the Human Condition, Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.