Brilliant Psychology, Twilight and tips for happy living
Psychologist and author Louise Deacon on her efforts to bring the joys of psychology into everyone's lives, and why a Twilight romance might not be a good idea.
Psychologist Louise Deacon has an enviably varied career. As well as writing entertaining books that help ordinary people use psychology to improve their own lives, she also lectures at the University of Surrey, supervises postgraduate researchers and helps undergraduate students to navigate their clinical placements in the NHS.
Her first book - Twilight, True Love and You: Seven Secret Steps to Finding Your Edward or Jacob - gave women of all ages the tools to recognise the early signs of a potentially destructive relationship.
"The point is to help women make sensible, safe boyfriend choices," says Louise. "It's about how to spot dangerous, unhealthy relationships or signs of dangerousness in men, and what to look for in terms of having healthy happy relationships."
To make the book more fun and easier for younger women to identify with, Louise referred to the plotlines and characters of Twilight, Stephanie Meyer's series of stories about a girl who falls for a very dangerous guy - a vampire. "They live happily ever after, but my book explains how that doesn't actually work in real life," warns Louise. "I use Twilight to illustrate the difference between the psychological reality and our fantasy of how we'd like relationships to be. You can enjoy the fantasy of romantic novels and films, but real love doesn't work like that."
"I use Twilight to illustrate the difference between the psychological reality and our fantasy of how we'd like relationships to be"
The book isn't just an entertaining and useful guide. According to Louise, it's also a basis for serious research. "One of my trainees is doing a research project on it," she reveals. "She's going out to schools in the southeast of England, giving teenage girls the book to read and comparing their perceptions of boys before and after with those of a group of girls that haven't read the book to see if it has had any effect."
Do women really find dangerous men attractive? "Lots seem to," thinks Louise. "And they don't realise that they might perceive signs of dangerousness as being exciting or romantic. They might interpret a guy being possessive and controlling as a sign he really loves them, when actually it's a warning sign of possible violence or danger to come."
Having dealt with the perils of young (and not so young) love, Louise broadened her horizons considerably for her next book, Brilliant Psychology: How to Understand Yourself and Other People.
"One of the things that marks us out as being human is our great intelligence and the capacities of our mind, but that leaves us vulnerable to problems," Louise explains. "We have this ability to stand and predict and think, but we've still got our basic emotional nature. The two often don't marry very well, so we are prone to all sorts of psychological problems. I wanted to do an introduction to psychology that was easy to understand and would help people to use psychology in day-to-day life."
That was a stiff task, because psychology has so many branches. "It's a very academic subject with a scientific basis," she explains. " You go from the neuroscience at one end to perhaps the more dubious pop-psychology at the other, so I was trying not to go too far one way or the other. Trying to get a flavour of that while making it fun and accessible was quite challenging. I wanted to keep it rigorous, yet not let it become turgid or a hard read."
"Watch out for the 'dark triad' of personality traits"
Brilliant Psychology has a practical slant to help illuminate everyday life. Aimed at the general public rather than academics, it covers topics such as intelligence, how the mind works, emotions and personality before moving on to explore the way we interact with each other through friendship and relationships. Louise also looks at the dark and difficult side of how we treat each other and why we lie, betray, cheat, and fight, but ends the book on positive psychology with a look at happiness.
Having built a fascinating career from using psychology to improve our lives, what is Louise's tip for happy friendships and relationships?
"Watch out for the 'dark triad' of personality traits," she warns. "Narcissism - people with huge egos who just think of themselves. Machiavellianism - people we'd recognise as users and manipulators. Psychopathy - people who don't have empathy, don't have the usual feelings of guilt and pro-social emotions.
"Those three personality types are the ones to look out for. You see them everywhere..."
Twilight, True Love and You: Seven Secret Steps to Finding Your Edward or Jacob (Summersdale, 2011)