Colorful books

Best Behavioral Books

Editor's Note: It’s beach season so here are some titles to satisfy your desire to learn more about our world.

This list is neither inclusive nor definitive. Please let us know what we missed.

I suggest you start reading ASAP, while you still have time

Welcome to the PeopleScience bookshelf, where every title looks the same. Okay, not every title, but most follow a distinct pattern: “Catchy Phrase: Explain What Your Book Is About”.  There are also a lot of elephants on the covers.

That’s okay—the colon is underused and elephants have their purpose*-- and, regardless, every book on the list is worth a read. Get to it.

How We Think
Thinking Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman) (2011) – A global bestseller that topped many “best of” lists. Kahneman—psychologist, Nobel Prize winner in Economics, and Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient—takes readers on a tour of the two systems that drive the way we think, and explains when we can trust the “fast” system and how to use the “slow” system. Is it old enough to be called a classic yet? We think so.  

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions (Dan Ariely) (2009) – Humans are far from logical beings. But our apparently irrational behaviors actually have patterns, and Ariely—a Duke professor and founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight (no joke)—is a master at explaining why. He mixes economics and psychology in a book that will make you laugh and think. (Editor’s note: He’s written many other books, too, including one with me!)

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Malcolm Gladwell)  (2005) – Can you make good decisions without thinking about them? Journalist Gladwell says you can, by using the power of your adaptive unconscious, a.k.a. your gut.  

The Art of Thinking Clearly: Better Thinking, Better Decisions (Rolf Dobelli) – (1994) Last updated in 2014. Dobelli has collected 99 logical fallacies, biases, and psychological effects, and presents each one in a short, digestible chapter. From survivorship bias to the news illusion, this book is a handy reference for anyone interested in the irrational paths down which the human mind can wander.

Decisions, Decisions
Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein) – (2008) – It’s arguably due to this book that the term “nudge” became the key phrase in the behavioral science vocabulary. Thaler and Sunstein have authored a primer on why and how people make decisions, and how to use that knowledge when offering choices. Essential reading for anyone with the capacity to shape others’ choices (so, pretty much everyone).*

Inside the Nudge Unit: How Small Changes Can Make a Big Difference (David Halpern) – (2015) – Halpern heads the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, the world’s first government institution dedicated to improving public services and policies based on behavioral science. The Guardian says the book “explains how to change people's behaviour in subtle but profound ways. Politicians of all parties, whether winners or losers this year, could learn from it."*

The Art of Choosing (Sheena Iyengar) – (2010) Having no choice can be damaging, but too much choice is overwhelming. Psychologist Iyengar covers a wealth of research dedicated to how and why we choose, and the consequences. (She initiated the 2000 “jam study,” which found that shoppers offered 24 varieties of jam were only one-tenth as likely to buy any, compared with those offered 6 varieties.)

Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work (Chip Heath & Dan Heath) – (2013) Rather than list the ways that our brains trick us into making flawed choices, the Heaths present a four-step process to help us rise above the chaos and make better decisions. The brothers also have authored several related books, including Switch, Made to Stick and The Power of Moments.

Consumer Design
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner) – (2005) This book has spawned its own brand, including two sequels, a radio show and a blog. The Wall Street Journal says that criticizing Freakonomics would be “like criticizing a hot-fudge sundae.”

The Why Axis: Hidden Motives and the Undiscovered Economics of Everyday Life (Uri Gneezy & John List) – (2013) Gneezy and List conduct large-scale observational studies “in the wild” to illuminate what makes people behave the way they do, and how to entice them to change.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Robert Cialdini) – (1984) Last revised in 2006, Influence covers six principles that affect how to get people to “say yes.” It also offers a one-sentence course on persuasion: "People will do anything for those who encourage their dreams, justify their failures, allay their fears, confirm their suspicions, and help them throw rocks at their enemies." 

Money and Value
Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It) (William Poundstone) – (2010) The psychology of price is a deep and fascinating topic, one that Poundstone covers in 57 short chapters, most with intriguing titles (“The $2.9 Million Cup of Coffee”, “The Outrage Theory”). If you buy, sell, or consult with buyers or sellers, this one’s for you.

Happy Money: The Science of Happier Spending (Elizabeth Dunn & Michael Norton) – (2013) Money can buy happiness… if you use it correctly. Dunn and Norton offer five principles that can lead to happier spending, as well as better financial security, more satisfied employees and the creation of “happier products.”

Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much (Sendhil Mullainathan & Eldar Shafir) – (2013) A dearth of time, money, food or companionship alters human behavior, and usually not for the better. Mullainathan and Shafir illuminate many aspects of apparently irrational behavior under the lens of scarcity, offering groundbreaking insights as well as simple suggestions for change. 

Buy-ology: Truth And Lies About Why We Buy (Martin Lindstrom) – (2008) This book presents results from Lindstrom’s 3-year study into what truly drives our purchasing decisions. Lindstrom, branding consultant to multiple Fortune 100 companies, was voted one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2009. (But Zac Efron was, too, so….) 

Who Are We?
Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious (Timothy D. Wilson) – (2002) – “Know thyself” is a cornerstone of philosophy… but is it possible? Wilson—a psychology professor at the University of Virginia—not only explores the unconscious mind, but also gives tips on how to take advantage of its power. 

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain (David Eagleman) – (2011) Neuroscientist Eagleman takes readers on a tour of the subconscious and reveals a host of surprising mysteries. New Scientist calls the book “A fun read by a smart person for smart people. . . . It will attract a new generation to ponder their inner workings.”

Born Liars: Why We Can’t Live Without Deceit (Ian Leslie) – (2012) All of us lie, every day. Leslie argues that deception is part of being human, and covers its evolutionary psychology, neuroscience and philosophy in pages full of fascinating stories. How many other books include thoughts from both Charles Darwin and Marlon Brando? 

Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are (Seth Stephens-Davidowitz) – (2017) Surveys and self-reporting are notoriously flawed, but we don’t have to rely solely on them for data. Stephens-Davidowitz explains how information trails on social media and search engines can help us understand people’s behaviors and motivations.* 

Motivation and Success
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us (Daniel Pink) – (2009) This book isn’t about cars (that’s Traffic), but motivation. Beyond our basic survival needs, are we driven by extrinsic or intrinsic rewards? Packed with ideas for business owners, managers and marketers.  

Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (Adam Grant) – (2013) Grant introduces us to three types of people: takers, matchers and givers. All three types can succeed, but he focuses on givers—which ones succeed, why we underestimate them and why helping others doesn’t have to compromise power or success. 

Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Carol Dweck) – (2006) Everyone from middle schoolers to CEOs can benefit from Dweck’s explanation of the growth mindset, how to cultivate it, and why it predicts success (and happiness) far more accurately than having raw talent.

Habits and Stickiness
The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business (Charles Duhigg) – (2012) This bestseller explores how habits are developed and how to cultivate good ones and eliminate bad ones. The Economist calls it “A first-rate book—based on an impressive mass of research, written in a lively style.” Duhigg walks the walk: Using his own advice, he lost 30 pounds. 

Contagious: Why Things Catch On (Jonah Berger) – (2013) Why do people talk about certain products and ideas more than others? What makes online content go viral? For the answers, read Berger’s book. It might even help you understand skinny jeans.

Hooked: How To Build Habit-Forming Products (Nir Eyal) – (2014) The products of successful companies tend to follow what Eyal calls the “Hook Model”—a four-step process that subtly shapes customer behavior. Eyal gives plenty of case studies, practical advice and actionable steps to build products and services that keep people coming back for more.

The Stories of Behavioral Economics
Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics (Richard Thaler) – (2015) Thaler’s retelling of “the struggle to bring an academic discipline back down to earth―and change the way we think about economics, ourselves, and our world.”  

The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (Michael Lewis) – (2016) Explores the workings of the human mind through the personalities of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two fascinating and fundamentally different individuals.

A Major Conflict of Interest
Dollars And Sense: How We Misthink Money and How to Spend Smarter (Dan Ariely and Jeff Kreisler) - (2017) Editor's note: I am Jeff Kreisler. I wrote this book. I probably shouldn't be promoting it here. Buy 10,000 copies right now. Hurry!


* These titles have an elephant on the cover, which likely references the analogy outlined in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis (2006): The elephant represents the irrational/id/instinctual part of the mind, and the rider is the analytical/ego/methodical part. Chip & Dan Heath also popularized the metaphor in Switch: How To Change When Change Is Hard (2010).

And now you know that.


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