30-Second Psychology: The 50 Most Thought-provoking Psychology Theories, Each Explained in Half a Minute - Christian Jarrett 2011


Christian Jarrett

The familiarity of psychology’s subject matter sets it apart from the other sciences. After school, few of us will set foot in a chemistry laboratory, we’re unlikely to peer down a microscope and the closest that we’ll get to a black hole is watching Star Trek. By contrast, we all have a mind of our own, and we spend every day interacting with others. So the focus of psychology — on minds and behaviour — is familiar to everyone. In a sense, we’re all amateur psychologists.

However, we should be careful not to confuse familiarity with mastery. Just because we have our pet theories for other people’s motives and actions, doesn’t mean they are accurate. Psychology is about setting aside our intuitions and using the objective tools of science to discover how the mind really works, why people really behave the way they do.

Such an endeavour met resistance from the outset. Questions of the mind used to be the preserve of philosophy. And even after the first laboratories demonstrated the feasibility of a psychological science, a movement within the discipline argued that only observable behaviour, not inner thoughts, should be studied. The first section of this book, Old School, New School, charts how these arguments were resolved and how psychology became the thriving and respected science that it is today.

A topic that provokes particularly strident lay beliefs is that of child development. Just how does a screaming, helpless, newborn child mature into a fully formed, self-conscious adult? The section on Growth & Change introduces you to the pioneers in this field and concludes with the theory of neuroplasticity — recognition that our brains are flexible and never stop changing and adapting until the day that we die.


The mind turned inward Psychology is the scientific study of ourselves and why we behave the way we do. Intuition is put on hold and cool-headed experimentation is the order of the day.

A focus of psychology that is of extreme practical relevance is how to optimize the decisions people make for the good of themselves and society at large. Decision Making & Emotions provides an overview of some of the biases that affect our thinking. As you will see, emotions, as well as providing the foundation of our humanity, also influence our decisions and so the two topics are dealt with together.

Whether in gangs or companies, sports teams or political parties, we humans are intrinsically social, forever forming groups to serve our needs and interests. Social Psychology deals with the issues that naturally arise when we mix and merge, including leadership and prejudice. The chapter also features some of the most famous experiments in psychology including Zimbardo’s insights into tyranny and Milgram’s ’shocking’ research on obedience.

The next two sections, Ways We Differ and Disordered Minds, feature theories that perhaps most closely resemble popular beliefs about psychology: from personality and intelligence to insanity and psychotherapy. The last section, Thoughts & Language, deals with those theories that delve inside our heads, beginning with the placebo effect—the power of the mind to affect the body — and ending with consciousness, the miracle and mystery of how flesh gives rise to mental life.

Each of the book’s 50 entries provides a plain English 30-second introduction, a 3-second ’psyche’ for when you’re really in a rush, and a 3-minute analysis, which probes a little deeper. The chapters also include biographical profiles of some of the luminaries in this field, including Sigmund Freud and William James. Whether you choose to dip in or to study the book from cover to cover, you are about to learn about the most complex entity in the universe — the human mind. Have fun!


A new science Psychology is relatively young — its first laboratories weren’t established until the late nineteenth century. Yet there are already many important and controversial psychological theories. Allow our team of talented writers to introduce you to them.