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Best book review

Psychology students dive into old Jesuit collection

“Nothing gives the human machine such an impetus as a supreme belief in one’s own abilities.” This is one of the life lessons as described in The Human Machine (1925). Miriam Engels, a third-year psychology student, picked this book to write a review about - see below. Engels was one of the honours programme students sent to the cellar of the University Library to browse through the 260,000 books of UM’s old Jesuit collection. Her review, published below, was judged the best according to the lecturers Harald Merckelbach and Rob de Vries.

Why The Human Machine? “I was looking for the oldest book about health psychology. It’s surprising how topical the lessons, written by the English psychologist E.R. Thompson, still are. They were originally published as columns in a local London newspaper. I bought a copy myself on Amazon. It’s nice to read when you’re in need of positive words.”


Maurice Timmermans

The Human MachineSecrets of Success, E.R. Thompson (~1925)

Revealing Secrets of Happiness


These “Secrets of Success” were revealed to less people than they should have been! E.R. (Edward Roffe) Thompson, was an English psychologist and sometime editor of the City of London's local newspaper “John Bull” that was published weekly from 1820 to 1960. Starting as a regular column in this magazine in the early 1920s, the little articles on how to live a successful life were later (around 1925) collected and published in a book called “The Human Machine”.

Surprisingly, E.R. Thompson is almost unknown to the world wide web today: the only entrance about him is a link to the Amazon webpage where you can buy his book. The ideas found in “The Human Machine” resemble those of today's Positive Psychology (1990s), that is grounded on works of well-known humanistic psychologists as Erich Fromm (1950s) and Carl Rogers (1940s). The present book fits well into this rubric of self-help in the pursue of happiness, although the main movements in Thompson’s era were those of psychoanalysis and early behaviourism. It seems to be a unique and forgotten work, presumably due to its non-scientific writing style and the small readership.

Reading the book is like watching a TV-series: Once you started, you are captivated and you cannot stop. It is easy to imagine being a reader of the magazine and awaiting eagerly for the next column of advice week for week.  His advice is given in little pieces, a new key rule on every page, some more challenging lessons (“How to concentrate”) extended over a few weeks. Thompson is interacting with his readership, sometimes quoting letters to him and giving personal guidance for one special case that he then generalises for everybody. The topics cover most important aspects of human emotion and cognition, that are still studied extensively today, but none of the claims he makes seem to be proven wrong over the last 90 years. A large proportion of the articles describes the interaction between the body and the mind.

The concept of “self-efficacy” was introduced by psychologist Bandura in the 1970s and research has shown that strong confidence in your own abilities can enhance your performance in almost all behavioural domains. A lot of Thompson's pieces include statements about this concept without explicitly naming it - “Nothing gives the human machine such an impetus as a supreme belief in one's own abilities”. It is fascinating that he makes use of this key idea, that has been given an official terminology much later in the field of psychology.  The human brain is described as a machine with “indefinite potential to adapt accurately to one's environment”. Not without a limit, it certainly needs rest and relaxation from time to time. Sections as “Be interested!” or “Rose Tints” stress the importance of enthusiasm for the things you do and optimism for the future.

The author does not provide an exact recipe for a perfect life, but he encourages the reader to think and use his mental powers to find a way that will eventually lead him to success and fulfilment. His advice is suitable for everybody and he finds an impressive balance between demanding effort from his readers and giving reassurance and confidence. According to Thompson, an efficient human machine needs to be trained and it takes a lot of practice to make positive thinking a habit that will eventually occur automatically, and he succeeds in explaining to the reader in great detail how this can be accomplished.

Especially interesting are the little comments on things happening in the same historical context that are hidden throughout the book. “Brains and bumps” for example makes fun of phrenology, a pseudo science that was still fairly popular in Britain at that time. Furthermore, there is a very short part at the end that criticizes the political and economical point of view in which the world is presented as a depressive place. Thompson suggests a mental revolution, optimism to blow away the cloud of negative thoughts above the people and gives hope that times are better than they seem to be. Despite its age, the book includes truths that are as important for us today as they will have been for the Londoners in the 20s.

The extent to which one agrees with almost everything the author claims to be essential for success is extraordinary. Thompson guides the reader through his everyday life with all its ups and downs, describes how to handle difficulties and how to make the most of all good days. Furthermore, he gives an overview of what makes humans special in comparison to other living creatures and repeatedly encourages to “think and keep on thinking”.  His everyday philosophy is logical, easy to understand, applicable to various different life situations and circumstances and very convincing. You find yourself puzzled about the fact that the book and the human machine behind it are so unknown today.

By the end of this book however, the author and the reader have to admit, that Thompson's “Secrets” are not hidden or mysterious clues he invented. They are rather common “worldly wisdoms” as you might hear them from your grandparents, parents or teachers every now and then while growing up. The 21st century reader might occasionally think: 'He is right, but I've already read that before'. His main arguments seem intuitive, especially in today's context of the pursue of happiness (but we have to keep in mind that the book was written almost a century ago). Nevertheless, finding them all explained and put together in this delightful collection will help you remember the invaluable advice on how to life a good life whenever you need it. That's why everybody should read “The Human Machine” (and keep a copy of it on their bookshelves). 

Miriam Engels



2017-11-12: Arlene K. Witt
I am looking for a death date for E. Roffe Thompson. I believe this was the writer married to film critic C.A. Lejeune. Have searched the web and Ancestry with no luck. Can you help?

Many thanks.

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