Psychology Textbooks Are Spreading Urban Legends. What are the best introductory psychology textbooks? (Plus how to buy them for cheap and even turn a profit.)

What are the Best Introductory Psychology textbooks, and are they telling us the truth? I looked up the Psychology textbooks used at the top programs across the US and talked to Professor Chris Ferguson, author of Education or Indoctrination? The Accuracy of Introductory Psychology Textbooks in Covering Controversial Topics and Urban Legends About Psychology, about his recommendations for the most accurate textbooks.

When Chris Ferguson, a professor at Stetson University, was trying to choose a textbook for his introductory psychology course, he realized his own field of study, videogame violence was being mis-portrayed in some textbooks:

“It’s an area that’s really controversial and the data isn’t consistent or clear, but at least some textbooks seemed to be trying to report it as if the research was more clear than it actually was.”

It intrigued Ferguson, so he decided to research it systematically and publish a paper on errors in textbooks. Errors went beyond over-simplifications that glossed over controversies in the field and murky data, sometimes text books including examples that were flat out wrong:

“I would catch in them urban legends, stories that are untrue… that it’s been documented that they’re untrue… and nonetheless are being reported in textbooks as if they’re true, typically to highlight some idea… The idea that the Columbine killers designed a level that looked like their high school, that is untrue, that’s an urban legend. Things that get reported in the news often times are false and then sometimes psychology textbook writers will … continue to report it, as if it were true, for sometimes years and years after [it’s] been debunked.”

His paper looked at twenty-four leading textbooks, and surveyed their treatment of controversial topics (including the narcissism epidemic controversy which I’ve blogged about previously), whether they contain urban legends, and whether they dispel popular misconceptions.

Screen Shot 2017-06-04 at 3.37.33 PM

Even, some of the most celebrated, classic experiments in social psychology, Ferguson says are usually vastly oversold. Take the Stanford Prison Experiment, say Ferguson:

“Awful, awful experiment. The experiment itself is bullshit… It’s not even really an experiment, there’s no control group… he told them to be assholes.”

And Ferguson isn’t the only one with this opinion, a few years ago textbook author Peter Gray, wrote an article explaining why he doesn’t include the experiment in his textbook.

But Ferguson doesn’t want controversial areas to be removed from textbooks. In fact he thinks that controversies in psychology can be a great way to teach young students scientific literacy. He concludes his paper:

“What we are arguing for is textbook writing that may be, in some respects, less satisfying insofar as it would eschew purporting to have ‘the answer’ for hot-button questions students are interested in. We know many students have questions such as ‘Is spanking really harmful?’ or ‘Are men really better at math?’ Naturally students want ‘the answer’ and textbook writers may be eager to give that answer (or perhaps particularly the answer that is politically correct in the field). But often the honest answer is that ‘it’s complex and we’re not entirely sure.’ But that is science, particularly the science of the human mind. And that is what we must faithfully report.”


Do any textbooks meet Ferguson’s standards? None are perfect he says, but he recommended four:


Scott Lilienfeld’s, Psychology: from Inquiry to Understanding, which is also used by a top-ranked Psychology program, the University of Minnisota.

Coon and Mitterer

Coon and Mitterer’s Introduction to Psychology, which is the textbook Ferguson uses in his own course.


Krause and Corts’s Psychological Science: Modeling Scientific Literacy, which as the title implies emphasizes the experimental nature of psychology as a practical, modern science.


King’s The Science of Psychology: An Appreciative View – (which, if you listened to the interview, you’ll be glad to know, indeed does still have an orange on it’s cover for some reason, but hey don’t judge a textbook based on it’s fruity cover)

What books to top programs use?

Surprisingly, none of the introductory psychology textbooks used by top institutions in the US, only the textbook used by the University of Minnesota, Lilienfeld, came recommended by Dr. Ferguson.

Textbook Number of institutions* Ferguson-Approved ? Amazon Review New* Used* Rent* Kindle* Previous Ed. Used*
gleitmanGleitman, et al. 2 – Stanford and UPenn N/A*** 4.3 $152 $53 $22 $120 $17.45
KosslynKosslyn & Rosenberg  2 – MIT and Harvard N/A*** 4.4 $197 $29 $14 ? ?
LilienfeldLilienfeld 1 – U Minnesota Yes 4.0 $186 $36 $28 $131 $9
KalatKalat 1 – Berkeley N/A*** 4.2** $133 ? $14.97 $119 $57
MyersMyers 1 – UCLA No 4.3 $134 $88 $21 $122 $16
schachterSchacter, et al.  1 – U Michigan No 4.6 $49 $29 $19 $109 $7
GrayGray, et al. 1 – Yale No 4.0** $65 $52 $18 $123 $5
bernsteinBernstein, et al. 1 – U Illinois Urbana-Champaign No 4.4** $124 $118 $31 $119 $8
Coon and MittererCoon & Mitterer  0 Yes 4.2 $131 $67 $18 $119 $34
KrauseKrause & Corts 0 Yes 4.1 $169 $84 $31 $128 $13
KingKing 0 Yes 4.4 $78 $36 $18 $178 $10
* All prices are as of 6-4-2017 ** New edition had few reviews, so used reviews from previous edition *** Wasn’t evaluated in Ferguson’s study


And finally, If you want to buy textbooks for cheap, now’s a good time! Used textbooks hit a low around June 10th. If you buy a textbook now and then resell it in September, you should be able to make a small profit (as long as a new edition doesn’t get released). 


From Cannon and Brickman, 2015 (I think I’m going to start a textbook arbitrage business.)

If you need a textbooks for next semester, email professors to check if syllabi are available, buy them now, and then resell them next January. Plus, if you want to be a nerd, you can leaf through interesting sections and get a head-start on the upcoming semester.

And if you’re looking to study psychology on your own, as I was researching this post, I found that Yale offers a free introductory psychology course, which uses the Gray, et al. textbook. Only listened to the first couple lectures, so can’t speak to the course, but figured it might be of interest.

If you enjoyed this post and the interview with Dr. Chris Ferguson, please help share it. Thanks so much!


3 Responses to “Psychology Textbooks Are Spreading Urban Legends. What are the best introductory psychology textbooks? (Plus how to buy them for cheap and even turn a profit.)”


    What an interesting article!
    My major was Psychology. I wish I could have known it at that time!
    I will definitely follow your blog from now on.
    I really like it 🙂


  2. 3 David Kuebrich

    I’d like to see a similar analysis of how u.s. military interventions are presented in basic college texts. I think the bias rating would be would be remarkably high.


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