"The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Psychology, Third Edition," Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D.

Pros: In-depth treatment; practical application; personality and anecdotes to keep things lively
Cons: Maybe not as light a read as some expect from CIG books
Rating: 5 out of 5

Review book courtesy of Alpha Books

I have a long-time interest in psychology, and was well on my way to obtaining a degree in the field when I moved away from the college I was attending. I’ve continued to read books in the field, however, ranging from self-help books to college textbooks. I wasn’t sure what to expect from Joni E. Johnston’s “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Psychology, Third Edition,” when I started reading it. Psychology is a broad and complex subject and I was afraid any sort of overview meant for “the masses” would fall into one of two categories: too complex and dry to be considered appropriate for a Complete Idiot’s Guide (CIG), or too superficial to be considered a decent overview.

I was amazed to find that this book was neither.

Instead of dumbing down or over-simplifying her topic, Dr. Johnston instead chose to make it interesting by writing with personality, wit, and style, illuminating her points with anecdotes and illustrative examples, and making her points relevant to everyday life. This book strikes a surprising balance between covering the theories and history of psychology and applying it to things everybody cares about. It’s much easier to remember all the theories and information about eating disorders, for example, when it’s accompanied by interesting facts, real-life anecdotes, and practical advice for how you can help a loved one you suspect has an eating disorder–not to mention, for parents, how you can raise a child to be less likely to develop one!

Make no mistake–this isn’t an afternoon’s beach reading. It took me some time to get through this book because it’s fat with information on everything from language development to schizophrenia. Unfortunately I expect this will turn some folks off from the idea of reading it, which is a shame, because there’s just no other way to treat the subject with any realistic depth. For anyone with an interest in studying psychology this book would make a fantastic introduction; I find it much easier to remember information about such figures as Jung and Freud when it’s made relevant to modern and everyday affairs than when it’s simply written as history. This book would also make a perfect resource for parents, as it delves quite a bit into how we develop as people, and how parents and childhood both do and don’t influence us–including plenty of practical tips.

This book is also wonderful for pretty much anyone who could use some help coping with stress or figuring out how to deal with their troubles, or who wants to better understand a mental illness they suffer from. It’s hardly a substitute for a qualified therapist, obviously, but there’s some very good advice in here (including advice on finding the right therapist and therapy for you). In particular it would be handy for folks who might not need the full help of a therapist but who could use some tips for healthier living, or people who want to know how to cope with a loved one’s illness.

Dr. Johnston has some strong feelings about certain issues, such as mental health advocacy and cultural attitudes regarding mental illness. She uses this attitude to get across good information, without allowing it to overwhelm the information she’s presenting or maker her strident:

Wise up. Mental illness is not a character flaw, a lack of willpower, or a luxury. People with mental illness are much more likely to be victims, not perpetrators of crime. And people who suffer from a mental illness can be just as effective as people with a physical illness. (Do the names Winston Churchill and Abraham Lincoln ring a bell?)

I was surprised to find out, for example, that patients with schizophrenia who live in developing countries are more likely to have a full recovery (and to recover faster) than patients in, for example, the US. You’d think that with our more advanced and available medicines the opposite would be true, but:

One possible explanation for this difference in recovery patterns is the different cultural attitudes toward mental illness. Family members in developing countries are more accepting of a family member with schizophrenia–and so is the culture in which the family lives. They are much less likely to label the person as “sick” or to think of schizophrenia as a permanent condition. …

Perhaps more importantly, the social organization common to non-Western cultures provides more support for a person suffering from schizophrenia and for his or her family.

Given the statistics on how many people will suffer from a mental illness in their lifetime, pretty much everyone could benefit from reading this book. If you don’t eventually develop any of these problems yourself, then it’s virtually guaranteed that someone you care about will–and don’t you want to be able to understand and help them?

But lest you think this book is all about mental illness, nothing could be further from the truth. Whether you want an overview on the nature vs. nurture debate, the brain vs. mind delineation, issues of memory, emotions, motivation, stress, self-concepts, personality, or the difference between “normal” and “abnormal” behavior, it’s covered in here–and it’s covered in a fascinating and detailed manner.

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One comment on “"The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Psychology, Third Edition," Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D.
  1. I came across your wonderful review of my book and just wanted to thank you for taking the time to write. It means a lot.
    Joni E. Johnston, Psy.D.

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