Behavioral Scientist’s Notable Books of 2021

Welcome to our list of notable behavioral science books published in 2021. 

The end of the year is a time for looking back and for looking forward. As we set intentions for the year ahead, we also reflect on the year we’ve had. We benchmark next year’s personal and professional expectations against this year’s results. We count down, the ball drops, and we cross the threshold from our old self to new.

To do this well, we need to have a solid understanding of who we are—our strengths and weaknesses, biases and blindspots, what motivates and supports us. We also need a solid set of tools at our disposal. 

This year’s notable behavioral science books provide us with both. On this year’s list, you’ll find books we’ve covered over the course of the year, through excerpts, commentaries, and Q&A’s, as well as other new titles we wanted to introduce to you. There are books that provide insight into how we make up our minds or change them; the intricacies of our relationships with time, technology, and one another; ideas for how to bring behavioral science to bear on the world, and new ways of seeing old problems—through subtraction, by noticing noise, and by illuminating the essential elements of choice.

We’re pleased to invite your past and future selves to this year’s list.

— Antonia, Heather, and Evan

P.S.—You can find our list of notable behavioral science books from 2020 here.


This year we’re continuing our partnership with Bookshop.org, a website dedicated to supporting local and independent bookstores. When you purchase a book using a link below, we’ll receive a small commission that helps us sustain our nonprofit mission. All of the books on this list and covered on our site are independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team. (Bookshop is still relatively new, so shipping is currently only available in the U.S. Head here for Bookshop UK.)


The Behavioral Code: The Hidden Ways the Law Makes Us Better or Worse
By Benjamin Van Rooij and Adam Fine

From the back cover: “Why do some laws radically change behavior whereas others are consistently ignored and routinely broken? Why do we keep relying on harsh punishment against crime even though it continues to fail? Professors Benjamin van Rooij and Adam Fine present the first accessible analysis of behavioral jurisprudence, which will fundamentally alter how we understand the connection between law and human behavior.”

The Behaviorally Informed Organization
Edited by Dilip Soman and Catherine Yeung

From the back cover: “Despite its centrality to organizations, we do not have a good scientific framework for behavior change or a good understanding of how organizations can embed insights from behavioral science into their operations. To overcome this void, this book develops an overarching framework for using behavioral science. It shows how behavioral insights can be embedded in organizations to achieve better outcomes, improve the efficiency of processes, and maximize stakeholder engagement.”

Read an adaptation from The Behaviorally Informed Organization on Behavioral Scientist: “Despite its clear value-add, we believe that behavioral science has still not reached its full potential within organizations. We have a highly relevant and well-developed science of human behavior, but we do not have a science of how organizations can embed insights from behavioral science into their operations.”

Breaking the Social Media Prism: How to Make Our Platforms Less Polarizing
By Christopher A. Bail

From the back cover: “We use social media as a mirror to decipher our place in society but, as Chris Bail explains, it functions more like a prism that distorts our identities, empowers status-seeking extremists, and renders moderates all but invisible. Breaking the Social Media Prism challenges common myths about echo chambers, foreign misinformation campaigns, and radicalizing algorithms, revealing that the solution to political tribalism lies deep inside ourselves.”

Career and Family: Women’s Century-Long Journey toward Equity
By Claudia Goldin

From the back cover: “Claudia Goldin provides a fresh, in-depth look at the diverse experiences of college-educated women from the 1900s to today, examining the aspirations they formed—and the barriers they faced—in terms of career, job, marriage, and children. She shows how many professions are “greedy,” paying disproportionately more for long hours and weekend work, and how this perpetuates disparities between women and men.”

Read our Q&A with the author: “[Egalitarian-minded couples] want to pursue what I call couple equity. But instead, when they have children or some other very important care responsibilities in which at least one of them will need to have a job with a certain amount of flexibility, they have to then ask themselves, “How much are we willing to pay for this equity?”  Equity may be expensive. And the expense is due to the notion of greedy work.”

Chatter Ethan Kross

Chatter: The Voice in Our Head, Why it Matters, and How to Harness It
By Ethan Kross

From the back cover: “Ethan Kross explores the silent conversations we have with ourselves. Interweaving groundbreaking behavioral and brain research from his own lab with real-world case studies—from a pitcher who forgets how to pitch, to a Harvard undergrad negotiating her double life as a spy—Kross explains how these conversations shape our lives, work, and relationships.”

Read an excerpt of Chatter on Behavioral Scientist: “Although the inner voice functions well much of the time, it often leads to chatter—the cyclical negative thoughts and emotions that turn our singular capacity for introspection into a curse rather than a blessing. This often happens precisely when we need our inner voice the most—when our stress is up, the stakes are high, and we encounter difficult emotions that call for the utmost poise.”

Drug Use for Grown-Ups: Chasing Liberty in the Land of Fear
By Carl L. Hart

From the back cover: “[Carl L. Hart] draws on decades of research and his own personal experience to argue definitively that the criminalization and demonization of drug use—not drugs themselves—have been a tremendous scourge on America, not least in reinforcing this country’s enduring structural racism.”

The Elements of Choice: Why the Way We Decide Matters
By Eric J. Johnson

From the back cover: “Going well beyond the familiar concepts of nudges and defaults, The Elements of Choice offers a comprehensive, systematic guide to creating effective choice architectures, the environments in which we make decisions. The designers of decisions need to consider all the elements involved in presenting a choice: how many options to offer, how to present those options, how to account for our natural cognitive shortcuts, and much more.”

Read an excerpt from The Elements of Choice on Behavioral Scientist: “It’s Friday night after a long week, and you’re definitely going to relax and watch a movie. So you turn to Netflix, the world’s largest streaming service. It is also the prototypical choice engine: its goal is to help you find something to watch. It does not just passively present options, it tries to customize the set of things that you see, it gives you some control over what is presented, and it even helps you comprehend new options you might like.”

The Family Firm: A Data-Driven Guide to Better Decision Making in the Early School Years
By Emily Oster

From the back cover: “Professor of economics and mom of two Emily Oster offers a classic business school framework for data-driven parents to think more deliberately about the key issues of the elementary years: school, health, extracurricular activities, and more.”

Read our Q&A with the author: Samuel Salzer and Aline Holzwarth speak to Emily Oster about data-driven parenting during the elementary school years.

Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals
By Oliver Burkeman

From the back cover: “The average human lifespan is absurdly, insultingly brief. Assuming you live to be eighty, you have just over four thousand weeks … Drawing on the insights of both ancient and contemporary philosophers, psychologists, and spiritual teachers, Oliver Burkeman delivers an entertaining, humorous, practical, and ultimately profound guide to time and time management. Rejecting the futile modern obsession with ‘getting everything done,’ Four Thousand Weeks introduces readers to tools for constructing a meaningful life by embracing finitude, showing how many of the unhelpful ways we’ve come to think about time aren’t inescapable, unchanging truths, but choices we’ve made as individuals and as a society―and that we could do things differently.”

The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality
By Paige Harden

From the back cover: “Harden introduces readers to the latest genetic science, dismantling dangerous ideas about racial superiority and challenging us to grapple with what equality really means in a world where people are born different.”

High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out
By Amanda Ripley

From the back cover: “High conflict … is what happens when discord distills into a good-versus-evil kind of feud, the kind with an us and a them. In this state, the normal rules of engagement no longer apply. The brain behaves differently. We feel increasingly certain of our own superiority and, at the same time, more and more mystified by the other side … Amanda Ripley investigates how good people get captured by high conflict—and how they break free.”

How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be
By Katy Milkman 

From the back cover: “In a career devoted to uncovering what helps people change, Milkman has discovered a crucial thing many of us get wrong: our strategy. Change, she’s learned, comes most readily when you understand what’s standing between you and success and tailor your solution to that roadblock.”

Read an excerpt of How to Change on Behavioral Scientist: “We found that encouraging people to copy and paste one another’s best life hacks motivated both more exercise and better class preparation in adults who wanted to work out more and college students seeking to improve their grades, respectively … When we’re unsure of ourselves, a powerful way the people around us can help boost our capacity and confidence is by showing us what’s possible.”

Read our Q&A with the author: “I think there’s an overemphasis on big goals. It’s not that goals aren’t useful. There’s tons of research showing that having a certain kind of goal—a clear, concrete, achievable goal, or a stretch goal—really is valuable. But it’s not solving a problem … You still have to deal with the challenges of procrastination, temptation, forgetting, self-efficacy, and whether or not your peers are supporting you.” 

The suprising science that will help you find love

How to Not Die Alone: The Surprising Science That Will Help You Find Love
By Logan Ury

From the back cover: “Great relationships don’t just appear in our lives—they’re the culmination of a series of decisions, including when to get out there, whom to date, how to end it with the wrong person, when to commit to the right one, and everything in between. But our brains often get in the way. We make poor decisions, which thwart us on our quest to find lasting love … Logan Ury reveals the hidden forces that cause those mistakes.”

Read our Q&A with the author: “Dating apps, unfortunately, perpetuate some of the superficiality, and people focus on those things more, as opposed to what they should be focusing on, the things that we know relationship science has found are correlated with long-term relationship success. Things like kindness, loyalty, emotional stability, the ability to make hard decisions together, a growth mindset. And, perhaps most importantly, what side of you they bring out.”

Influence, New and Expanded: The Psychology of Persuasion
By Robert B. Cialdini

From the back cover: “In the new edition … [Robert Cialdini] explains the psychology of why people say yes and how to apply these insights ethically in business and everyday settings.”

Know Thyself: The Science of Self-Awareness
By Stephen M. Fleming

From the back cover: “How do we know what we and others know—or as importantly, don’t know? As cognitive neuroscientist Stephen Fleming shows in Know Thyself, we do this with metacognition. Metacognition, or thinking about thinking, is the most important tool we have for understanding our own mind. Metacognition is an awesome power: It is what enables self-awareness as well as what lets us think about the minds of others. It is the ultimate human trait, and in its most rarefied forms is a power that neither other animals, nor our current artificial intelligences, have.”

Minds Wide Shut: How the New Fundamentalisms Divide Us
By Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro

From the back cover: “Morson and Schapiro examine how rigid adherence to ideological thinking has altered politics, economics, religion, and literature in ways that are mutually reinforcing and antithetical to the open-mindedness and readiness to compromise that animate democracy. In response, they propose alternatives that would again make serious dialogue possible.”

Read our Q&A with the authors, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro: “Instead of professing that we believe in science, Morson explained, ‘We should respect the scientific method and the spirit behind it, which involves the careful weighing of evidence, testing ideas by those who doubt them, and arriving step by careful step at the best available answer, subject to revision in the light of future evidence.’”

Mine!: How the Hidden Rules of Ownership Control Our Lives
By Michael Heller and James Salzman

From the back cover: “A hidden set of rules governs who owns what—explaining everything from whether you can recline your airplane seat to why HBO lets you borrow a password illegally—and in this lively and entertaining guide, two acclaimed law professors reveal how things become ‘mine.’”

The New Breed: What Our History with Animals Reveals about Our Future with Robots
By Kate Darling

From the back cover: “There has been a lot of ink devoted to discussions of how robots will replace us and take our jobs. But MIT Media Lab researcher and technology policy expert Kate Darling argues just the opposite, and that treating robots with a bit of humanity, more like the way we treat animals, will actually serve us better.”

Read our Q&A with the author: “It always bothered me that we are limiting ourselves and falling into this technological determinism that robots can, will, and should replace people, and I just feel like animals are such a salient analogy that everyone gets. [An animal] is also this autonomous thing that can sense, think, make decisions, and learn that we’ve dealt with previously.”

The New Climate War: The Fight to Take Back Our Planet
By Michael E. Mann

From the back cover: “Recycle. Fly less. Eat less meat. These are some of the ways that we’ve been told can slow climate change. But the inordinate emphasis on individual behavior is the result of a marketing campaign that has succeeded in placing the responsibility for fixing climate change squarely on the shoulders of individuals.”

Read our Q&A with the author: “Those who are framing it as a tipping point we’ve crossed as if it’s too late to do anything—those narratives are steeped in distortions of the science that are almost as bad, if not as bad, as distortions of the science on the denialist side.”

Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgment
By Daniel Kahneman, Oliver Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein

From the back cover: “In Noise, Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein show the detrimental effects of noise in many fields, including medicine, law, economic forecasting, forensic science, bail, child protection, strategy, performance reviews, and personnel selection. Wherever there is judgment, there is noise. Yet, most of the time, individuals and organizations alike are unaware of it. They neglect noise. With a few simple remedies, people can reduce both noise and bias, and so make far better decisions.”

Read our Q&A with author Daniel Kahneman: “I’ve been studying bias all my life, but a few years ago encountered an instance of noise, and I was very impressed both by how much noise there was (among underwriters judging exactly the same thing) and mostly I was impressed by how little people knew about it.”

Nudge: The Final Edition
By Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

From the back cover: “The authors have rewritten the book from cover to cover, making use of their experiences in and out of government over the past dozen years as well as an explosion of new research in numerous academic disciplines. To commit themselves to never undertaking this daunting task again, they are calling this the ‘final edition.’ It offers a wealth of new insights, for both its avowed fans and newcomers to the field, about a wide variety of issues that we face in our daily lives—COVID-19, health, personal finance, retirement savings, credit card debt, home mortgages, medical care, organ donation, climate change, and ‘sludge’ (paperwork and other nuisances we don’t want, and that keep us from getting what we do want)—all while honoring one of the cardinal rules of nudging: make it fun!”

Read or watch our Q&A with author Richard Thaler: “The release of new Nudge provided the occasion for our recent conversation, but our conversation went beyond the book. We corrected the record on organ donation, he revealed why he wished the original subtitle included the phrase “choice architecture,” his thoughts on replication in behavioral economics, and what advice he’d give organizations looking to apply behavioral science.”

Of Sound Mind: How Our Brain Constructs a Meaningful Sonic World
By Nina Kraus

From the back cover: “Making sense of sound is one of the hardest jobs we ask our brains to do. In Of Sound Mind, Nina Kraus examines the partnership of sound and brain, showing for the first time that the processing of sound drives many of the brain’s core functions. Our hearing is always on–we can’t close our ears the way we close our eyes–and yet we can ignore sounds that are unimportant. We don’t just hear; we engage with sounds. Kraus explores what goes on in our brains when we hear a word–or a chord, or a meow, or a screech.”

The Power of Us: Harnessing Our Shared Identities to Improve Performance, Increase Cooperation, and Promote Social Harmony
By Jay Van Bavel & Dominic Jay Packer

From the back cover: “If you’re like most people, you probably believe that your identity is stable. But in fact, your identity is constantly changing—often outside your conscious awareness and sometimes even against your wishes—to reflect the interests of the groups you belong to. In The Power of Us, psychologists Dominic Packer and Jay Van Bavel integrate their own cutting-edge research in psychology and neuroscience to explain how identity really works and how to harness its dynamic nature”

Read an adaptation from The Power of Us on Behavioral Scientist: “A sense of common fate produces a shared identity, the knowledge that we, together, are part of a group. In turn, that shared identity produces solidarity and the ability to work together collectively. When they cohere, shared identities become foundations on which people can coordinate and cooperate. It allows them to face and overcome a crisis that might have been difficult to address alone.”

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters
By Steven Pinker

From the back cover: “Pinker rejects the cynical cliché that humans are simply irrational–cavemen out of time saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. After all, we discovered the laws of nature, lengthened and enriched our lives, and set out the benchmarks for rationality itself.  We actually think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning we’ve discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others.”

Read an excerpt from Rationality on Behavioral Scientist: “The godlike host reminds us how exotic the Monty Hall problem is. It requires an omniscient being who defies the usual goal of a conversation—to share what the hearer needs to know (in this case, which door hides the car)—and instead pursues the goal of enhancing suspense among third parties. And unlike the world, whose clues are indifferent to our sleuthing, Monty Almighty knows the truth and knows our choice and picks his revelation accordingly.”

Social Chemistry: Decoding the Patterns of Human Connection
By Marissa King

From the back cover: “Conventional wisdom says it’s the size of your network that matters, but social science research has proven there is more to it. King explains that the quality and structure of our relationships has the greatest impact on our personal and professional lives.”

The Social Instinct: How Cooperation Shaped the World
By Nichola Raihani

From the back cover: “[Nichola Raihani] reveals that the species that exhibit cooperative behavior—teaching, helping, grooming, and self-sacrifice—most similar to our own tend not to be other apes; they are birds, insects, and fish, occupying far more distant branches of the evolutionary tree. By understanding the problems they face, and how they cooperate to solve them, we can glimpse how human cooperation first evolved.”

Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less
By Leidy Klotz

From the back cover: “We pile on ‘to-dos’ but don’t consider ‘stop-doings.’ We create incentives for good behavior, but don’t get rid of obstacles to it. We collect new-and-improved ideas, but don’t prune the outdated ones. Every day, across challenges big and small, we neglect a basic way to make things better: we don’t subtract.”

Read an adaptation from Subtract on Behavioral Scientist: “Subtraction is the act of getting to less, but it is not the same as doing less. In fact, getting to less often means doing, or at least thinking, more.”

The Sweet Spot: The Pleasures of Suffering and the Search for Meaning
By Paul Bloom

From the back cover: “We are not natural hedonists—a good life involves more than pleasure. People seek lives of meaning and significance; we aspire to rich relationships and satisfying pursuits, and this requires some amount of struggle, anxiety, and loss. Brilliantly argued, witty, and humane, Paul Bloom shows how a life without chosen suffering would be empty—and worse than that, boring.”

Read an excerpt from The Sweet Spot on Behavioral Scientist: “Once you look for paradoxical reactions, you see them everywhere. We laugh at what’s funny, but we also laugh when anxious or embarrassed. We grin when happy, but sometimes we grin when angry. Smiling is associated with joy, but when researchers asked people to watch a sad movie scene—the part of Steel Magnolias where a woman is speaking at the funeral of her adult daughter—about half of the subjects smiled.”

The Power of Knowing What you don't know

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know
By Adam Grant

From the back cover: “Too many of us favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. We listen to opinions that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard … [Grant] investigates how we can embrace the joy of being wrong, bring nuance to charged conversations, and build schools, workplaces, and communities of lifelong learners.”

Read our Q&A with the author: “I do not want to have both-sides conversations anymore. Whenever somebody says, here’s the other side, my first question is, ‘Can you tell me what the third angle and the fourth look like?’”

Transport for Humans: Are We Nearly There Yet?
By Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland

From the back cover: “Engineers plan transport systems, people use them. But the ways in which an engineer measures success—speed, journey time, efficiency—are often not the way that passengers think about a good trip. We are not cargo. We choose how and when to travel, influenced not only by speed and time but by habit, status, comfort, variety—and many other factors that engineering equations don’t capture at all.

Read an adaptation from Transport for Humans on Behavioral Scientist: The greatest fallacy is that travel time is wasted time, so the only option is to speed it up or cut it out. In reality, we need to invest in higher-quality travel for more people, while also enabling some people to travel less or by different means.

Useful Delusions: The Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain
By Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler 

From the back cover: “Everyone agrees that lies and self-deception can do terrible harm to our lives, to our communities, and to the planet. But in Useful Delusions, host of Hidden Brain Shankar Vedantam argues that, paradoxically, deceiving ourselves and others can also play a vital role in human success and well-being. The lies we tell each other and the lies that we tell ourselves sustain our daily interactions with friends, lovers, and coworkers. They explain why some people live longer than others, why some couples remain in love and others don’t, why some nations and tribes hold together while others splinter.”

Read an excerpt of Useful Delusions on Behavioral Scientist: “Rather than seek to annihilate self-deception and all it represents, a better goal would be to think carefully about what it does, and ask ourselves how we can work with it. In other words, we ought to care less about whether something is simply true or untrue and ask more complicated questions: What are the consequences of self-​deception? Whom does it serve? Do the benefits justify the costs?”

The Way Out: How to Overcome Toxic Polarization
By Peter T. Coleman

From the back cover: “Surveys show that Americans have become more fearful and hateful of supporters of the opposing political party and imagine that they hold much more extreme views than they actually do. We have cordoned ourselves off: we prefer to date and marry those with similar opinions and are less willing to spend time with people on the other side. How can we loosen the grip of this toxic polarization and start working on our most pressing problems?”

Read our Q&A with the author: “With the kinds of polarization that we’re in today . . . we have to understand them as complex systems that stabilize into strong patterns that resist change and even good faith attempts of changing them.”

The Week: A History of the Unnatural Rhythms that Make Us Who We Are
By David M. Henkin

From the back cover: “Reconstructing how weekly patterns insinuated themselves into the social practices and mental habits of Americans, Henkin argues that the week is more than just a regimen of rest days or breaks from work, but a dominant organizational principle of modern society. Ultimately, the seven-day week shapes our understanding and experience of time.”

When Brains Dream: Exploring the Science and Mystery of Sleep
By Antonio Zadra and Robert Stickgold

From the back cover: “When Brains Dream reveals recent discoveries about the sleeping brain and the many ways in which dreams are psychologically, and neurologically, meaningful experiences; explores a host of dream-related disorders; and explains how dreams can facilitate creativity and be a source of personal insight.”

Read our Q&A with author Robert Stickgold: “Salvador Dalí sat in an armchair with his hand on the arm of the chair. He’d hold a key right over the end of the chair and think about a painting he wanted to make. As he fell asleep, the key dropped and woke him up, and he got an image in his mind. He got these images that he then painted. [My colleague, Adam Horowitz,] wants to ask the question, can everybody harness it? And the answer is they probably can.”

A World Without Email: Reimagining Work in an Age of Communication Overload
By Cal Newport

From the back cover: “We have become so used to an inbox-driven workday that it’s hard to imagine alternatives. But they do exist. Drawing on years of investigative reporting, author and computer science professor Cal Newport makes the case that our current approach to work is broken, then lays out a series of principles and concrete instructions for fixing it.”

You Have More Influence Than You Think: How We Underestimate Our Power of Persuasion, and Why It Matters
By Vanessa Bohns

From the back cover: “Whether attending a meeting, sharing a post online, or mustering the nerve to ask for a favor, we often assume our actions, input, and requests will be overlooked or rejected. Bohns and her work demonstrate that people see us, listen to us, and agree to do things for us much more than we realize―for better, and worse.”

Read an adaptation from You Have More Influence Than You Think on Behavioral Scientist: “While the times you’ve tried and failed to influence someone may loom large, there are undoubtedly far more examples of times you’ve influenced someone without trying at all—​and without ever seeing the influence you had. On the other hand, this also means there have likely been times you influenced someone unintentionally, in ways you may even wish you hadn’t.”


Disclosure: Leidy Klotz, Katy Milkman, and Dilip Soman are members of organizations which provided financial support to Behavioral Scientist in 2021. Richard Thaler and Emily Oster are members of the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board. Advisory board members and organizational donors do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine. Evan Nesterak of Behavioral Scientist served as an editorial consultant on the books Chatter and Subtract. All of the books on this list and covered on our site are independently selected and reviewed by our editorial team.