Editors’ Picks for 2017: Important Behavioral Science Reads, Listens, and Views

At the Behavioral Scientist, we’re always looking for great behavioral science media. To tie a bow on all the interesting and important work that came across our desks in 2017, our editorial team got together and compiled a list of our personal favorites—books, articles, podcasts, and TV episodes. Enjoy!

“Why Time Management is Ruining Our Lives”
By Oliver Burkeman
The Guardian

If you’re considering adding “be more productive” to your 2018 resolutions, maybe don’t. Sure, there’s nothing wrong (and a lot right) with staying organized and keeping track of your obligations. But increasing your productivity as a means for happinessand why else would you do it?begs the question of whether productivity improves our well-being. Merlin Mann, the creator of the “Inbox Zero” productivity hack, no longer thinks so. And he’s not alone. Increasing your productivity is a red queen problem: improved productivity merely keeps you competitive alongside everyone else improving their productivity. So what is there to do? Like most hard questions, the solution is likely complicated and lies in finding that sweet spot between becoming the next David Allen and becoming unemployed. Part of the answer might be to not measure yourself by how much you “get done.” Instead, consider a different 2018 resolution: do less.

-DJ Neri, Editor

“The Normalization Trap”
By Adam Bear and Joshua Knobe
The New York Times

“Cognitive Science Suggests Trump Makes Us More Accepting of the Morally Outrageous”
By Joshua Knobe

Together with Adam Bear, psychologists’ favorite experimental philosopher, Joshua Knobe, wrote a pair of articles on one of 2017’s big buzzwords: normalization. What I loved about the articles is how they took a pretty esoteric academic concept, made it immediately accessible with vivid examples, and mapped it onto current events. It helped readers understand their world better through a scientific lens where so many other analyses fell short. The New York Times article unpacked new research on how people can find the distinction between what is typical and what is good to be blurry. The Vox article makes the even more fundamental point that what we consider normal constrains the possibilities that we ever contemplate. Just having options on the table, which until recently had been unthinkable, can profoundly change our entire landscape. For me, that was 2017 explained.

-Dave Nussbaum, Managing Editor

Affluence Without Abundance: The Disappearing World of the Bushmen
by James Suzman

In Affluence Without Abundance, anthropologist James Suzman provides an elegant and rich portrait of Earth’s most enduring society—the Bushmen of southern Africa. The book accomplishes a lot—it’s both a historical review and an analysis of how modern forces threaten the Bushmen’s existence. While peering into the past and present lives of the hunter-gatherers, Suzman reveals how many of the behaviors and ideas those in the West might assume as fundamental parts of human nature are not fundamental at all. Time, money, social relationships, interaction with natural resources, and the idea of what makes a good life are all rather different for the Bushmen. The lesson for me was not just that there are other ways to live, but that the possibilities for human behavior and ideas ecompass a much larger range than many would consider absent the Bushmen’s story. Applied behavioral science has gained traction over the last decade because it gives policymakers and managers tools to design policies and programs based on how people actually behave. But just as important as designing for how people actually behave—in New York, London, or Sydney for example—is understanding the universe of possibilities for what human behavior could be.

-Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

“Psychology’s Favorite Tool for Measuring Racism Isn’t Up to the Job”
By Jesse Singal
The Cut

Everyone’s a little bit racist, goes the song from the musical Avenue Q. And if you don’t think so, just take the Implicit Association Test, or the IAT. It was developed by researchers almost two decades ago to quantify the racism, sexism and other discriminatory mindsets that manifest in covert and unconscious ways. As its popularity has exploded, a contentious debate among social scientists over the test’s validity has bubbled under the surface. This long read (and must-read) was the most compelling account I’ve read of the IAT’s many flaws—and the misguided arguments that its proponents use to undermine critics. 

-Elizabeth Weingarten, Editor

The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed our Minds
By Michael Lewis
W. Norton Company

A growing number of books provide blueprints for how the behavioral sciences can be used to improve our lives, from Charles Duhigg’s The Power of Habit to Dan Ariely’s Irrationality series. Lewis’ book offers something different; it educates, yes, but at its core, is an intimate portrait of the two men who started it all, Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. In The Undoing Project, Michael Lewis plays both journalist and biographer, as he chronicles the birth and arc of Kahneman and Tversky’s unlikely collaboration. Along the way he presents not only the insights the pair discovered, but the interpersonal and internal tensions that accompanied them. In doing so, Lewis humanizes the two academic titans and presents them not as figures, but as men—a story well worth reading.

-Jacky Ye, Editorial Intern

“The Culture Inside”

Following Donald Trump’s election, many people went to great lengths to convince others (and themselves) that they are not racist. But are people really as accepting as they claim? According to this episode of Invisibilia, the answer is no. Through their conversations with behavioral scientists, a police officer, and members of a “Racists Anonymous” group, among others, Alix Spiegel and Hanna Rosin explore unconscious bias and offer up some ways to combat it. Full of both anecdotes and scientific evidence, The Culture Inside is simultaneously thought-provoking and entertaining.

-Ilaria Schlitz, Editorial Intern

“Nose Dive”
Black Mirror

The TV series Black Mirror often takes a dystopian view of the future and our relationship with technology. In the episode “Nose Dive,” the hazards of social media are taken to an eery extreme. The main character Lacie embarks on a cringe-inducing quest to increase her social media score so she can live in an exclusive apartment building. “Nose Dive is a satire on acceptance and the image of ourselves we like to portray and project to others,” says creator and writer Charlie Brooker. “Everyone is a little bit heightened and false because everyone’s terrified of being marked down…so it’s basically the world we live in.” But is it the world we live in? That’s partly what we hope to find out in our special issue “Connected State of Mind” coming out in January, which this episode helped inspire. (And for another take on how social media ratings can backfire, check out It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s episode, “The Gang Group Dates.”)

-Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief

“Differences Between Men and Women are Greatly Exaggerated”
By Adam Grant

Contra Grant on Exaggerated Differences”
By Scott Alexander

“The Google Memo: What Does the Research Say About Gender Differences?”
By Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt
Heterodox Academy

“Hey, want to debate the Google Memo?” was probably not a line that won you many friends this year, regardless of your side. That’s why you must respect those who dared to engage with both the memo’s assertions and the others who wrote about it. One of the best exchanges was between Adam Grant and Scott Alexander (who cleverly tagged his post “Things I Will Regret Writing”—I can relate). Despite coming from different perspectives, they modeled how we can, even in 2017, debate controversial topics with goodwill and rigor—and even admit when we’re wrong now and again (make sure to see the comments). In Grant’s words, “Thank you, Scott, for the thoughtful response. It’s a model of what intellectual disagreement should look like.”

Sean Stevens and Jonathan Haidt performed one of the most important but thankless tasks in the 2017 scientific dialogue. Rather than offering quick responses and hot takes, they carefully combed the research (specifically, the meta-analyses) and evaluated as many of James Damore’s claims as the evidence allowed. The result? It wasn’t black or white (in fact, it was a mix of red and green), but it was heartening to see scientists engage with the memo’s claims when many retreated to their corners and hunkered down. If you’re interested in understanding gender differences, this is the place to begin.

-DJ Neri, Editor