Summer Reading Picks for 2019

Some of the fondest memories I have of summers as a kid are the road trips my family would take to the state parks nearby. As we road tripped around Ohio, Michigan, and Kentucky, one activity in particular became something of a pastime. No matter where we went, we always managed to find a claw machine. Big plexiglass cases of stuffed animals. The ones you see in diner entrances or bowling alleys. For 25 or 50 cents you could try your luck at extracting one of the toys with a metal, joystick-controlled claw. My dad, brother, and I became proficient at picking out the stuffed animals—a skill that eventually peaked on my 21st birthday when I pulled out three stuffed animals in one go. (Recent attempts suggest I am regressing to the mean.)

In the spirit of summer selections, I’ve picked a list of behavioral science reads for you. Unlike those stuffed animals, the eight books below are about as far from a cheap throwaway as you can get. They’re all valuable and distinct, and much easier to get your hands on.

They’ll make you a better parent and travel companion. You’ll have the chance to boost your business and behavioral science acumen. And they’ll encourage you to reflect on the past—your childhood and much much earlier, like evolutionary origins earlier.

This summer, I hope you have time to pause and pick a book from the list. I also want to invite you to share your behavioral summer reads on social media with the hashtag #BSciSummer. Photos encouraged. Extra points if you’re sipping a behavioral cocktail.

The sunny side of life

As Frank Bruni pointed out in his review of Nicholas Christakis’s new book, the Yale scholar, who was caught in the midsts of a national debate about sensitivity on college campuses, hasn’t had the easiest past few years. Nevertheless, Christakis managed to write an optimistic account of the evolutionary origins of human society in his newest book Blueprint. That optimism is of course grounded in research, ranging from biology to economics to network science. He makes the case that evolution gave us a blueprint for goodness, a development he thinks we too often ignore.

Find zen on your family road trip

Before you find yourself shouting, “Do I have to pull this car over!?” into the backseat of the minivan, you might want to read social neuroscientist Jamil Zaki’s new book, The War for Kindness. Zaki makes the case for empathy as a way to bridge the gap between otherwise disconnected, and often conflicting, internal worlds. On a family road trip, that world could be your spouse’s or your kid’s. (In fact, Zaki introduces the book by reflecting on his experience during his parents’ divorce. “I learned to tune myself to each of my parents’ frequencies, and managed to stay connected to both of them, even as their ties to each other disintegrated,” he writes.) But on your travels this summer, that other world could also be the people you meet in a different part of the country or world—a part that might not share your outlook on politics, religion, or any of the other things we’ve always managed to disagree on. Zaki’s book might be the perfect travel companion for you this summer—and it might make you a better one too.

Summer camp or psychological experiment?

In 1954, the same year that William Golding’s Lord of the Flies hit bookshelves, psychologist Muzafer Sherif conducted his infamous, Lord of the Flies–esque Robbers’ Cave experiment. Named for the state park in Oklahoma where it took place, the experiment investigated conflict among two groups of middle-school-aged boys, who just thought they were at summer camp. In Lost Boys, author Gina Perry investigates the origins of the experiment, what the parents and boys knew—essentially nothing—and why the study was so important for Sherif’s work. (Perry’s book was released in Australia and the U.K. last spring but only recently arrived in the U.S.)

Perry writes of a time when Sherif observed a fight break out among the boys: “Here was the proof for the theory that he’d been working on for years, that normally upstanding and fair-minded 11-year-olds could turn into brutal savages. An observer coming across the scene, he later wrote proudly, would never have known that these ‘disturbed, vicious … wicked youngsters’ were actually boys who were ‘the ‘cream of the crop’ in their communities.” Maybe read this one after your kids get back from summer camp.

The babies are coming

In the U.S., September is the most popular birth month. (Count back nine months and you’ll find at least one possible reason.) For all those expecting parents out there, you’ve got just enough time this summer to read economist Emily Oster’s new book Cribsheet. In the book, Oster brings the full force of her numbers-rich background to bear on parenting a new kiddo, from birth to preschool. She cuts through the pureed spinach and sweet potatoes like only an economist can to help parents understand what’s good advice and what advice they can do without. Cribsheet is a follow-up to Oster’s first book on pregnancy, Expecting Better. Parents-to-be look no further for your summer read.

Finding the right recipe

It’s a shame Rory Sutherland never became a college professor, because he’d be the one you’d remember. He’d tell the best stories, shatter sacred assumptions, and maybe curse a little bit. That said, I think that wherever Sutherland landed, he was likely to do things differently—and irreverently. So it’s just as well that he ended up as an adman living at the intersection of business and behavioral science (though it’s a pity he didn’t end up designing trains). From where he sits, he can reach just about any idea, and in his new book, Alchemy, he’s put together quite the mix—as headings like “How to Buy a Television for Your Pet Monkey,” “Why It’s Better to Be Vaguely Right than Precisely Wrong,” and “The Great Upside of Abandoning Logic—You Get Magic” show. So instead of a semester’s worth of lectures, we have an insightful and entertaining book. Kick back this summer with your favorite e-cigarette and inhale the wisdom of this twenty-first-century alchemist.

Not your average beach reading

Biased, by psychologist and MacArthur fellow Jennifer Eberhardt, is not your run-of-the-mill beach read. Instead of reading a mindless page-turner, it’s a chance to learn from one of the preeminent scientists on bias. Eberhardt has spent three decades studying how bias, particularly implicit bias, permeates our society, working with groups like police officers and tech companies along the way. In a recent interview with Behavioral Scientist editor Ilaria Schlitz, she explained that “you don’t have to be a bigot to be biased. You don’t have to be a bad person. You can have these biases that are triggered that can have real devastating impacts despite your intentions and despite your desires.” Bias is not easy to confront. Perhaps that’s why Eberhardt’s book should make it on your reading list this summer.

Chuck Norris doesn’t write books…

There’s a series of Chuck Norris jokes that portray daytime television’s bearded protector of law and order in comically mythic terms. For instance, “Dinosaurs aren’t extinct, they’re just hiding from Chuck Norris.” Or, “When Chuck Norris does a push up, he isn’t lifting himself up, he’s pushing the Earth down.” When it comes to writing, here’s what Norris enthusiasts have proposed: “Chuck Norris doesn’t write books, the words assemble themselves out of fear.”

Evidently, those enthusiasts have never met Cass Sunstein. A more accurate version of the joke, and the one I prefer, goes like this: Chuck Norris doesn’t write books, because Cass Sunstein already wrote them.” Few writers are as prolific, and even fewer manage to be prolific and interesting. Sunstein, perhaps by tapping into some quantum force, is both. You could make an entire “Sunstein Summer Reading List” and not be disappointed. Here’s three of his most recent titles to make you wiser, and, perhaps through some osmosis, more productive: Conformity, How Change Happens, and On Freedom.

Stay cool in the basement

It wasn’t just a few afternoons during high school summer break that my friends and I found refuge in one of our cool, unfinished basements—stocked with little more than a couch, a TV, and, inevitably, video games. In those days it was N64’s Mario Kart or Golden Eye or the latest edition of Halo. If, like we were, you’re looking for an activity to escape the heat, you might want to pick up Lost in a Good Game, by psychologist Pete Etchells. His book, part scientific review and part memoir, investigates what video games mean to us and why, and challenges the claims that video games are bad for us.

Disclosure: Emily Oster is a member of the Behavioral Scientist’s advisory board.