Behavioral Scientist’s Summer Book List 2020

Pools are closed. Concerts are cancelled. Vacations are rescheduled. Stores are even selling out of puzzles. All the more reason to curl up inside (or outside at an adequate social distance) with a great book.

This isn’t, of course, your typical summer. But what would summer be without a good reading list? So far this year, books in behavioral science have explored the positives of peer pressure, unpacked the essentials of behavioral design, urged us to look upstream, immersed us in the game of poker, revealed boredom’s true call, and much more.

For your intellectual pleasure (and to help you achieve some normalcy), we compiled a list of our favorite reads from 2020 so far, including a few books to have on your radar in the coming months.

Hope you enjoy.

— Antonia Violante, Books Editor

Acting with Power: Why We Are More Powerful than We Believe
By Deborah Gruenfeld

From the back cover: “Although we all feel powerless sometimes, we have more power than we tend to believe. That’s because power exists in every relationship, by virtue of the roles we play in others’ lives.”

The Alchemy of Us: How Humans and Matter Transformed One Another
By Ainissa Ramirez

From the back cover: “Ramirez describes, among other things, how our pursuit of precision in timepieces changed how we sleep; how the railroad helped commercialize Christmas; how the necessary brevity of the telegram influenced Hemingway’s writing style; and how a young chemist exposed the use of Polaroid’s cameras to create passbooks to track black citizens in apartheid South Africa . . . Ramirez shows not only how materials were shaped by inventors but also how those materials shaped culture.”

Behavioral Insights
By Michael Hallsworth and Elspeth Kirkman
*September 1st

From the back cover: “The behavioral insights approach applies evidence about actual human behavior—rather than assumptions about it—to practical problems. This volume in the MIT Press Essential Knowledge series, written by two leading experts in the field, offers an accessible introduction to behavioral insights, describing core features, origins, and practical examples.”

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win
By Maria Konnikova

From the back cover: “It’s true that Maria Konnikova had never actually played poker before and didn’t even know the rules when she approached Erik Seidel, Poker Hall of Fame inductee and winner of tens of millions of dollars in earnings, and convinced him to be her mentor. But she knew her man: a famously thoughtful and broad-minded player, he was intrigued by her pitch that she wasn’t interested in making money so much as learning about life.”

Read our Q&A with the author, Maria Konnikova: “Poker forces you to realize that you can’t control everything. But you can control yourself—and often, that’s what matters.”

The Catalyst: How to Change Anyone’s Mind
By Jonah Berger

From the back cover: “Successful change agents know it’s not about pushing harder, or providing more information, it’s about being a catalyst. Catalysts remove roadblocks and reduce the barriers to change. Instead of asking, ‘How could I change someone’s mind?’ they ask a different question: ‘Why haven’t they changed already? What’s stopping them?’”

Read an excerpt from The Catalyst on the Behavioral Scientist: “The notion that one conversation can durably change minds about a controversial issue is heartening—amazing, even. But it brings up an even more important question: Why were these conversations so effective?”

Clearer, Closer, Better: How Successful People See the World
By Emily Balcetis

From the back cover: “Drawing on her own rigorous research and cutting-edge discoveries in vision science, cognitive research, and motivational psychology, Balcetis offers unique accounts of the perceptual habits, routines, and practices that successful people use to set and meet their ambitions.”

Don’t Believe a Word: The Surprising Truth About Language
By David Shariatmadari

From the back cover: “In Don’t Believe A Word, linguist David Shariatmadari takes us on a mind-boggling journey through the science of language, urging us to abandon our prejudices in a bid to uncover the (far more interesting) truth about what we do with words.”

Read an excerpt from Don’t Believe a Word on the Behavioral Scientist: “The exact manner in which languages slice up the spectrum—the way they happen to label colors—can have a measurable effect on our perception.”

Engaged: Designing for Behavior Change
By Amy Bucher

From the back cover: “Whether you’ve studied psychology or are new to the field, you can incorporate behavior change principles into your designs to help people achieve meaningful goals, learn and grow, and connect with one another. Engaged offers practical tips for design professionals to apply the psychology of engagement to their work.”

Healthy Buildings: How Indoor Spaces Drive Performance and Productivity
By Joseph G. Allen and John D. Macomber

From the back cover: “Grounded in exposure and risk science and relevant to anyone newly concerned about how their surroundings impact their health, Healthy Buildings can help you evaluate the impact of small, easily controllable environmental fluctuations on your immediate well-being and long-term reproductive and lung health.”

Read our Q&A with the author, Joseph Allen: “I’ve said many times that the person who designs and operates your building has a greater impact on your health than your doctor.”

How You Say It: Why You Talk the Way You Do — And What It Says About You
By Katherine D. Kinzler
*July 21st

From the back over: “Your accent alone can determine the economic opportunity or discrimination you encounter in life, making speech one of the most urgent social-justice issues of our day. Our linguistic differences present challenges, Kinzler shows, but they also can be a force for good.”

Humankind: A Hopeful History
By Rutger Bregman

From the back cover: “International bestseller Rutger Bregman provides new perspective on the past 200,000 years of human history, setting out to prove that we are hardwired for kindness, geared toward cooperation rather than competition, and more inclined to trust rather than distrust one another.”

The Kindness of Strangers: How a Selfish Ape Invented a New Moral Code
By Michael McCullough
*July 21st

From the back cover: From the moment nomadic humans first settled down until the aftermath of the Second World War, our species has confronted repeated crises that we could only survive by changing our behavior. As McCullough argues, these choices weren’t enabled by an evolved moral sense, but with moral invention—driven not by evolution’s dictates but by reason.”

A Lab of One’s Own: One Woman’s Personal Journey Through Sexism in Science
By Rita Colwell and Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
*August 4th

From the back cover: Rita Colwell is one of the top scientists in America: the groundbreaking microbiologist who discovered how cholera survives between epidemics and the former head of the National Science Foundation . . . A Lab of One’s Own documents all Colwell has seen and heard over her six decades in science, from sexual harassment in the lab to obscure systems blocking women from leading professional organizations or publishing their work. Along the way, she encounters other women pushing back against the status quo.”

Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom
By James Danckert and John D. Eastwood

From the back cover: “When we’re bored, our minds are telling us that whatever we are doing isn’t working―we’re failing to satisfy our basic psychological need to be engaged and effective. Too many of us respond poorly . . . But Danckert and Eastwood argue, we can let boredom have the opposite effect, motivating the change we need.”

Read an op-ed by James Danckert on the Behavioral Scientist: The function of boredom is not to make us bored, it is a call to action. It is telling us that what we are doing now is failing to satisfy us in some important way.”

The Passion Economy: The New Rules for Thriving in the 21st Century
By Adam Davidson

From the back cover: “A dissatisfied accountant overturning his industry, a zealous father creating a better chocolate bar for his children, a family of craftsmen meeting the technological needs of Amish farmers, as well as the latest academic research, Davidson demonstrates how the twentieth-century economy of scale has given way in this century to an economy of passion.”

Read our Q&A with the author, Adam Davidson: “Passion is not a unitary thing. It’s a combination of a bunch of different things that you uniquely combine, and in a way that nobody else does. That doesn’t mean you have to get a job on day one that does all five things that you are passionate about—you’ll probably have to mess around with different things.”

Perfectly Confident: How to Calibrate Your Decisions Wisely
By Don A. Moore

From the back cover: “Decades of research demonstrates that we often have an over-inflated sense of self and are rarely as good as we believe. Perfectly Confident is the first book to bring together the best psychological and economic studies to explain exactly what confidence is, when it can be helpful, and when it can be destructive in our lives.”

Read an excerpt from Perfectly Confident on the Behavioral Scientist: “Believing that your jokes are funnier than they are can make you annoying. Faith in your superior virtue can prompt sanctimonious stances that are more costly than vindicating. Fortunately, there are ways you can inoculate yourself against errors of self-aggrandizement in which you make an ass out of yourself.”

The Power of Experiments: Decision-Making in a Data Driven World
By Michael Luca & Max H. Bazerman

From the back cover: Luca and Bazerman describe the central role experiments play in the tech sector, drawing lessons and best practices from the experiences of such companies as StubHub, Alibaba, and Uber . . . Experiments, they argue, are part of any leader’s toolkit. With this book, readers can become part of the ‘experimental revolution.’”

Science Fictions: How Fraud, Negligence, Bias, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth
By Stuart Ritchie
*July 21st

From the back cover:Stuart Ritchie’s own work challenging an infamous psychology experiment helped spark what is now widely known as the “replication crisis,” the realization that supposed scientific truths are often just plain wrong. Now, he reveals the very human biases, misunderstandings, and deceptions that undermine the scientific endeavor.”

Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization
By Scott Barry Kaufman

From the back cover: “In this groundbreaking book, Kaufman picks up where Maslow left off, unraveling the mysteries of his unfinished theory, and integrating these ideas with the latest research on attachment, connection, creativity, love, purpose and other building blocks of a life well lived.”

Read our Q&A with the author, Scott Barry Kaufman: “We have these potentialities within us that we can feel deep inside and that would offer so much benefit to ourselves and to the world. Self-actualization is bringing those potential realities to as full expression as possible.”

Triumph of Doubt: Dark Money and the Science of Deception
By David Michaels

From the back cover: “The Triumph of Doubt traces the ascendance of science-for-hire in American life and government, from its origins in the tobacco industry in the 1950s to its current manifestations across government, public policy, and even professional sports. Amid fraught conversations of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘truth decay,’ The Triumph of Doubt wields its unprecedented access to shine a light on the machinations and scope of manipulated science in American society.”

Under the Influence: Putting Peer Pressure to Work 
By Robert Frank

From the back cover: “Under the Influence explains how to unlock the latent power of social context. It reveals how our environments encourage smoking, bullying, tax cheating, sexual predation, problem drinking, and wasteful energy use. We are building bigger houses, driving heavier cars, and engaging in a host of other activities that threaten the planet―mainly because that’s what friends and neighbors do.”

Read an excerpt from Under the Influence on the Behavioral Scientist: Although it’s little wonder that people would believe that higher taxes would make them feel bad, this is a cognitive error, pure and simple. And because of the magnitude of the resulting losses, I do not exaggerate in the slightest by calling it the mother of all cognitive illusions.”

Read our Q&A with the author, Robert Frank:When we take an individual action, the effect of it is small, but the direct effect of what we do is not the end of the story.”

Upstream: The Quest to Solve Problems Before They Happen
By Dan Heath

From the back cover: “Upstream probes the psychological forces that push us downstream—including ‘problem blindness,’ which can leave us oblivious to serious problems in our midst. And Heath introduces us to the thinkers who have overcome these obstacles and scored massive victories by switching to an upstream mindset.”

Read an excerpt from Upstream on the Behavioral Scientist: “Traditionally, the work had focused on individual behavior change: getting teenagers to abstain from alcohol or drugs. But the campaign leaders in Iceland believed that the focus on ‘saying no’ missed the big picture . . . What if drug and alcohol use came to feel abnormal in their world rather than normal?

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous
By Joseph Henrich
*September 8th

From the back cover: “Perhaps you are WEIRD: raised in a society that is Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic. If so, you’re rather psychologically peculiar . . . How did WEIRD populations become so psychologically distinct? What role did these psychological differences play in the industrial revolution and the global expansion of Europe during the last few centuries? In The WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich draws on cutting-edge research in anthropology, psychology, economics, and evolutionary biology to explore these questions and more.”

Why Fish Don’t Exist: A Story of Loss, Love, and the Hidden Order of Life
By Lulu Miller

From the back cover: “Part biography, part memoir, part scientific adventure, Why Fish Don’t Exist reads like a fable about how to persevere in a world where chaos will always prevail.”

Read our Q&A with the author, Lulu Miller:I thought of chaos as the force that rules me. And then I started to realize—it’s so simple—that chaos is also the force that makes growth, and throws out a shooting star, and the rainbow, and the things that are the surprises you can’t even think to dream up.”

Why We Act: Turning Bystanders into Moral Rebels
By Catherine A. Sanderson

From the back cover: “Why We Act draws on the latest developments in psychology and neuroscience to tackle an urgent question: Why do so many of us fail to intervene when we’re needed—and what would it take to make us step up?”

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Editor’s note: It’s been exciting to see the selection of behavioral science books expand year-by-year and a joy to work with so many behavioral scientists on articles related to their books. At the same time, as we put together this list of books from 2020, we couldn’t help but notice the lack of representation of many historically marginalized populations—including women and people of color—in behavioral science publishing. It’s an issue we take seriously. And it’s one we’re committed to exploring further in our pages. If you have a perspective or experience you’d like to share about representation in the behavioral science publishing world, please get in touch with Managing Editor Elizabeth Weingarten at
— Evan Nesterak, Editor-in-Chief and Elizabeth Weingarten, Managing Editor