Your Ultimate Book Guide to General Psychology
Forget your PSY 101 college course – read these instead
Introduction to Psychology is one of the most popular courses on college campuses today. It’s a course that I’ve taught several times. And as a professor, I can tell you from experience that the textbooks used for this course suck. They are riddled with unreplicated science and have the intellectual depth of a puddle.
It’s a shame that most intro psych classes suck because there are so many possible ways to make an amazingly unsucky version of the class. Lucky for you, there are amazing popular science books out there that can give you a far better foundational understanding of general psychology than any standard issue textbook can – and are far more enjoyable to read. Even luckier for you, I’ve made this convenient list of them for you. Enjoy.
The Idea of the Brain
When I first taught intro to psych I dreaded the history section, traditionally the first chapter covered in the course. And for good reason: the version of psychological history presented in the textbooks was awful. I learned it when I took intro psych, then taught it when I was in charge. But history of psychology is actually fascinating, and in The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience (2020), Matthew Cobb gives the best version of it I’ve read. More than just listing the major players over the past few hundred years beginning with philosophy and ending with behaviorism falling to the cognitive revolution in the 1980s, Cobb explains how people thought about the brain and the mind. Something far more intellectually meaty and engaging. It’s the best history of psychology book I’ve read.
The Blank Slate
I first read The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (2002) by Steven Pinker my first semester in graduate school and I remember being engrossed by it. Not only is Pinker a phenomenal writer, but in The Blank Slate he refutes a common assumption that has been made in psychology for too long – that there is no innate human nature. This assumption, sometimes referred to as the nurture assumption (coined by Judith Rich Harris) posits that human minds are relatively blank at birth, metaphorically speaking, and nearly everything we are is learned over development. Although our brain is the most powerful learning machine in the known universe, our minds are a product of millions of years of evolution, which has left marks on our brain, metaphorically speaking. We enter this world a product of our parents, and their parents, and theirs… to be complex, unique beings, yet beings that are unmistakably human. Probably the least sucky intro psych course out there is the one taught by Pinker himself.
The WEIRDest People in the World
Probably most psychology “facts” people know are from studies with WEIRD samples – western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic people that often come from intro psych classes. We ask students in intro psych to participate in research studies to get “real experience” with research. Which, in reality, is psych professors’ way to get people to fill out their surveys and be their lab rats for free. But as Jo Henrich explains in The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (2020), this means our bulk understanding of human psychology is remarkably limited. Intro psych college students are not at all representative of the diversity of humans on our planet, yet it forms the foundation of psychological research. Anyone who is interested in human psychology must read this book to gain context of what we think we know about psychology.
Models of the Mind
Psychology, especially intro psychology is filled with associations – how something we measured is correlated or associated with another thing we measured. But how our brain actually works, the neural processes occurring in the brain? Usually intro psych is limited to the basic functioning of a neuron. But in Models of the Mind: How Physics, Engineering and Mathematics Have Shaped Our Understanding of the Brain (2021) Grace Lindsay takes an interdisciplinary approach to share the various computational models that scientists have built to understand the brain’s processes of neuron firing, memories, visual process, rewards and more. Models of the Mind is a fantastic book to gain insight into our brain’s processes, going beyond mere superficial correlations.
Our brain is an immensely complex decision-making, information processing organ. But what is happening in the brain right before we make decisions? How about minutes before? Days? Years? In Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) Robert Sapolsky takes a journey through decision making spanning seconds before the behavior all the way to our deep evolutionary past of what makes us human in the first place. This is an intriguing book, blending basic neural processes, human development, and human evolution to culminate in a broad yet detailed book about human psychology and behavior.
How We Learn
The human brain is the most complex and effective learning machine in the known universe, we ought to have at least a foundational understanding of how it learns, and How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . for Now (2020) by Stanislas Dehaene is that book. It covers four primary pillars of learning science in an accessible and clear way with clear implications for education. Learning is always one of my favorite topics to teach in intro psych courses primarily because of its wide applicability across domains in everyday life. If you know better how your brain learns, you can use that knowledge to help you learn better.
We’re all familiar with the classic trolley problem in psychology: a train is headed toward five workers on the track and is set to kill them all. Except, you can flip a switch and divert the trolley to a track where only one person is killed. Do you flip the switch? Well, it turns out there are countless versions of this game with myriad implications for how we understand good and bad behavior. In Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason and the Gap Between Us and Them (2013) Joshua Greene not only shows how humans navigate various forms of this moral dilemma, but also gives great insight into standard psychological experimental procedures that have yielded much of our psychology knowledge. (But be sure to read Henrich’s book, too!)
Humans do all sorts of seemingly dumb things, but what if most of these dumb things aren’t dumb at all, but rational? In Hidden Games: The Surprising Power of Game Theory to Explain Irrational Human Behavior (2022) Erez Yoeli and Moshe Hoffman tackle an array of odd human behavior, like over the top rituals, norm enforcement, and sex-ratios. Using the incredibly productive Game Theory, they show how such complex social behavior can be mathematically understood through relatively simple calculations of costs, benefits, and primary rewards. What’s even better is that the book manages to discuss a mathematical heavy game theory without boring the reader to tears. Hidden Games is a brilliant book – phenomenally written, and the best writing on game theory I’ve read. Read my full review.
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I'm very disappointed Behave is included in this list. It's wildly out of step with recent developments in psychology, like the replication crisis. Stuart Ritchie has a good review here:
"The WEIRDest People in the World" is my current read. A fascinating book that explores the cultural and psychological dynamics that underpin the West, including the evolution of attitudes and institutions that make the West peculiar. It's also an intellectually challenging book that forces the reader to appraise what seems to be a universal truth or normal when it's indeed an attribute of the West whose growth and civilisation became the world's standard. Its most remarkable insight, so far, might be its notion that the West, being highly individualistic, enjoys a more adventurous outcome and outlook, compared to its familial and communal counterpart.