Monday, September 12, 2016

Top Ten All-Time Favorite Social Science Research Books

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

It was hard to choose a genre to focus on for this week's "top ten all-time favorite" topic, but I decided to go with a subgenre where I've probably read more broadly than a lot of people. I love learning about the often unexpected and contradictory ways that humans behave, and how we think about how we behave. It's simultaneously interesting, entertaining, and useful. Here are my top ten recommendations from the plethora of research books I've read.

1. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel Pink
Forget carrots and sticks; if you want to motivate someone (like an employee you manage) to do something, it's better to build up their internal motivation so they want to do it. Pink describes how to facilitate autonomy, mastery, and purpose so people will love what they do and stick it out for the long term.

2. The Hidden Brain: How Our Unconscious Minds Elect Presidents, Control Markets, Wage Wars, and Save Our Lives by Shankar Vedantam
This whole book is a fascinating exploration of what we don't understand about why we do the things we do, and why other people do things that may seem strange or terrible from our perspective but make sense to them. I was excited when I learned that Vedantam was launching a whole Hidden Brain podcast where he shares social science research on a particular topic, often aided by the above-mentioned Daniel Pink.

3. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think by Brian Wansink
This is not a book that will tell you what to eat, but it should be a required companion book to any such book. Wansink presents study after study to explain our daily experiences with food — why we eat food we don't mean to eat and may not even like, how we end up eating more than we think we're eating, and how the cues of our environment can influence when we eat, what we eat, how much we eat, and how much we enjoy what we're eating.

4. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein
What if you could be subtly guided into saving more money, eating healthier, and making better life decisions, without losing any of your free will? The authors of this book show how well-designed "choice architecture" (like setting default selections on forms) can nudge customers, employees, and citizens toward better decisions without ultimately taking away their ability to choose.

5. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
This probably falls least squarely within the scope of this subgenre of all the books on this list, but it's also worth a read if you like research about how people interact and view one another. Cain explains how extroversion (in the colloquial sense) came to be valued in education and business in the United States, the value introverts bring to organizations, relationships, and life in general, and how managers, teachers, and parents can nurture introverts and help them thrive.

6. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
This book reveals how people (including you!) are generally terrible at predicting what will make them happy, and they therefore behave in ways that are counterproductive to their own happiness. Rather than being depressing, the book is readable, funny, and even possibly helpful.

7. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath
As soon as I finished this book, I immediately set to work figuring out how to apply the concepts to my work and to the particular problem of getting students to complete their course evaluations. Since then, I've referred back to the authors' suggestions on multiple occasions when trying to guide others into completing tasks. Where Nudge provides a broad framework for setting up systems that encourage others to make better decisions, the Heaths map out the small ways to tweak existing processes to get better results.

8. Telling Lies: Clues to Deceit in the Marketplace, Politics, and Marriage by Paul Ekman
Ekman was the model for the main character on the TV show Lie to Me, about an expert in the science of lie detection. In this book, Ekman walks the reader through the different kinds of lies people tell and what nonverbal signals really do betray lies and which are myths.

9. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
So many of these books are about mistakes we humans make, and this is no exception! Kahneman points out the flaws in both our intuition and our logic, and how these flaws have wide-ranging consequences for a multitude of everyday situations. Although he's not optimistic about our ability to overcome our brain's faults, the information in this book can make it easier to recognize situations where we're likely to make mistakes and to make adjustments accordingly.

10. The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It by Kelly McGonigal
Much of the research in the books above will tell you that relying on willpower is not a good way to achieve your goals — you have to do more work on shaping the environment to make it easier to do the right thing. McGonigal focuses on the moments that do require willpower — even if you've found a workout buddy and set out your workout clothes the night before, you still have to physically get yourself out of bed in the morning. The book presents suggestions for how to strengthen and apply one's willpower, backed by a variety of research studies.

Which books of this type would you recommend?

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