One Sheep, Two Sheep…zzz

Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad
Richard Stephens
Hachette Australia
July 2015

BlackSheep_smUnfortunately, Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad is a book entirely deserving of the shadowy mist of obscurity. It’s hard to think of another popular science book so disorganised. Richard Stephens is so enamoured to show us the hidden benefits of being bad, that he writes a book filled with flawed research, unsupported conclusions, referencing that wouldn’t get through a first year lab report, and dumbed down explanations of scientific concepts (“This is what we call replication”). No doubt he’s a man who can sell himself; it’s just a shame he seemingly can’t deliver. Being bad? ‘Bad’ has more than one meaning, and Richard Stephens may not have achieved the sort of bad he wanted to.

On the surface, Black Sheep pulls us in with the promise of vice justified. There’s a certain cool factor associated with bad behaviour; it embodies defiant rule breaking in opposition to social norms that try to constrain and define us. By being bad we signpost our independence. After all, don’t we know that those who break the rules are ultimately the ones who change the world? There’s something seductive about the idea; that small, everyday bad behaviour is simply a precursor to wider participation in the great waves of social, organisational and technological change.

It’s only a pity that Richard Stephen’s book goes off the rails so thoroughly. On paper, Stephens seems to be the person for the job; his research on swearing and pain tolerance is an ideal example of physiological benefits of socially discouraged behaviour, and is great fodder for dinner conversations. Simply put, a shout of “Fuck!” will likely make your next stubbed toe less painful. This is the research that likely got Stephens his book-writing gig. Unfortunately, the potential of the idea may have outstripped the execution.

Right from the start Stephens fails to even define what he means by “being bad” or the associated “benefits” and then spends most of the book wildly off topic based on any sensible definitions. The chapter on speeding seems to confirm the hazards rather than the benefits of the activity (though, admittedly, his references are unreliable even by his own acknowledgement). And the chapter on near-death experiences is just inexplicable. Firstly, how is death “bad”? Secondly, a near-death experience as a “benefit” represents a fairly substantial leap of association. Thirdly, let’s not forget that the fairly obvious risk of death is that it’s permanent.

The inexplicable and unrelated material makes this book excessively padded. Stephens seems to pull kernels of information from all over the place (including Wikihow) in order to justify his position. At one point, in trying to establish the benefits of alcohol consumption, he reaches into history and the once-prevalent practice of doctors prescribing alcohol for medical purposes. You know what else doctors also used to prescribe? That’s right, heroin. Also, cigarettes. Leeches for the veins of the arms. Have you heard of rotational therapy? What about a nice course of depletion therapy? Anyone? No? Well, anyway, the lack of critical assessment used by Stephens in selecting his sources and key points is incredibly disappointing.

If you do pick up Black Sheep: The Hidden Benefits of Being Bad (and the cover is tempting) your best bet is to flick straight to the reference section for each chapter. Stephens does include some quite thoughtful papers (including research that links messiness with creativity; at last, validation!), even though it seems that only a quarter of them are relevant to his topic. Other than that, the book would make an excellent example for psychology students in how not to write.

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