Erin's List: My Favorite Books on Human Behavior

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the many books on my shelf that I was slogging through just to say I'd finished them.  Since then, I have been on a bit of a book reading binge, aided by a 10 day vacation that involved a lot of relaxation time. In fact, I've read a whopping 15 books since my wife left to work at summer camp 7 weeks ago.  Most of these books have served as inspiration for this blog, and for a project with my coach/friend, Caitlin. During one of our most recent project meetings, Caitlin said something along the lines of "you're always reeling off interesting findings from these books; could you create a reading list for me to read them too?"  As I created the reading list, I thought, why not share my favorite psychology books more broadly in case others are looking for something interesting to add to their summer reading list? So without further adieu, here are my favorite books on human behavior.

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Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
One of my academic heroes is Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Arguably, he is the most influential psychologist of the last 50 years. In Thinking Fast and Slow, he describes decades of research on the two modes of thinking that drive all of our judgments and decisions: one that is intuitive and emotional (fast thinking) and one that is more deliberative and logical (slow thinking). Each mode can serve us well or can lead us massively astray. For instance, fast thinking can lead us to overestimate the likelihood of disastrous events (e.g., a plane crash) when similar events easily come to mind, or cause us to dismiss information that would drastically change a big life choice (e.g., buying a house). Slow thinking may actually slow us down too much in decisions that are fairly straightforward, or cause us to miss nuance in a world that does not always operate in a logical manner. This book is for anyone who is curious about what biases we all fall prey to, what mental shortcuts we take (for better or worse), and how we can harness the power of intuition without experiencing its nasty pitfalls.

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Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
We are faced with thousands of choices every day. What should I wear? What should I eat for lunch? How much should I be investing in retirement? Nudge introduces the concept of "choice architecture" - that the environment can be set up in a way that leads people to better choices. For example, people eat much healthier in buffet lines when all of the healthy choices are placed at the beginning. People invest more in their retirement when their employer auto-enrolls them into a retirement plan. Though there is a lot of overlap between this book at Thinking Fast and Slow, the examples in this book will have you questioning your every aspect of your environment. Who is nudging me, what are they nudging me to do, and is that a good thing?

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Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
As the first line of the book summary reads, "Most of us believe that the best way to motivate ourselves and others is with external rewards like money." Though external rewards can be helpful to motivate people through tasks that are painful or boring, they can actually diminish motivation on tasks that people are naturally motivated to do. Drive recounts the evolution of scientific thinking on motivation, identifies gaps between what science knows and what happens in the real world, and provides an extensive toolkit for individuals and organizations to apply the ideas in the book into action. There are so many juicy insights in this book that readers of my blog can expect me to draw on them for many many blogs to come!

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Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
Dan Ariely is another of my academic heroes. He has written extensively about the psychology of decision-making, and has an incredible story of how he overcame severe full-body burns from his childhood. Even if you do not read his book, it is worth watching one of his Ted Talks where he tells this story.

Just as Daniel Kahneman points out in Thinking Fast and Slow, not all decisions we make are logical or rational.  People feel expensive medicine is more effective than cheaper medicine, even if it's the same medicine. They will go back for more food at unlimited buffets even after they are full. And they will perform better on tasks when their chance for a monetary bonus is low rather than high. Dr. Ariely points out that although behaviors may not be rational, they are not random. As the book cover states, "they are systematic and predictably, making us predictably irrational." I could read this book over and over again. And in fact, I just might add that to my queue!

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The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg
Habits are a key to everyday life. Without routine, everything we do would have to be thought about carefully. Imagine what it would be like to have to think about the order in which you put your clothes on everyday, or to have remind yourself every day of your route to work. Generally speaking, habits make life more efficient and free people to focus on what's really important. However, bad habits exist and are hard to break. And new habits are equally hard to form. In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg digs into the neuro- and behavioral science of how habits are formed and how they can be changed. Fascinatingly, Duhigg does not limit his scope to individual habits, but also speaks about how the science of behavior change can apply to organizations and societies as well.

I'll be sharing a lot more in coming blogs on behavior change, and will be including a lot of information from both this book and the next on the list!

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Smart Change by Art Markman
Art Markman, a prolific cognitive psychologist, has an incredible knack for translating science into understandable and relatable concepts for non-scientists. I was extremely lucky to work with him during my graduate training and to have him as an advisor on my dissertation committee. I credit him with my passion for bringing psychological knowledge outside of academic silos into "the real world." Smart Change is a shining example of digesting decades of science into a format where people can apply it to their everyday lives. Dr. Markman starts with the idea that all behaviors have an end goal in mind, and thus changing behavior starts by explicitly identifying a desired end state. He offers practical tools for setting goals, identifying the steps to achieve them, anticipating obstacles that might get in the way, and creating an environment and social support network that enhances the likelihood of success. Along the way, he invites the reader to engage in several journaling activities, and ends with challenging the reader to take action on the things that have been journaled about.

As a side note, I highly recommend Dr. Markman's small-bites podcast with another professor at the University of Texas. Dr. Bob Duke called "Two Guys on Your Head."

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Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
One of my favorite findings from psychology that I've shared in the past is that "people are unaware of how unaware they are" of why they do what they do.  Along those same lines, people are very unaware of what makes them happy. They are also terrible at predicting their future levels of happiness. At times, people are overly optimistic about their future happiness, while at others, they can be overly pessimistic. Stumbling on Happiness is unlike any other book I've read on the topic. It is not a book about gratitude, positive thinking, or tips for making oneself happier. It's full of wit and entertainment, and like many of the other books on my list, highlights all of the pitfalls we humans face in our search for satisfaction, both in our today and in our tomorrows.


I know there are quite a few blog readers who have read these books, and many who have read some other great books on human behavior. What did you think of the ones on my list? What are some books that you'd add to the list? Let me know in the comments!

 

 

 

 

Erin BakerComment