Blog – Posted on Wednesday, Sep 08
25 Best Psychology Books to Read in 2021
Have you ever found yourself trying to work out what mental processes lead humans to do what we do? Thanks to the internet, even in isolation we have a continual stream of information about what people are doing — and with this uniquely modern view of the world around us, we have more fodder than ever to think: “Hmm, I wonder why we do this or that?”
As a human, it’s natural to want to understand these things — not only about others, but also about yourself. In this post, we’ve put together a list of the 25 best psychology books you’ll definitely want to read to pursue that understanding! Whether you’re a beginner with a newfound interest in psychology or a seasoned psychology expert looking to branch out, we’ve got you covered.
1. The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt
A professor of social psychology, Jonathan Haidt wrote The Happiness Hypothesis as an accessible vessel for his research into moral foundations theory. In this book, Haidt takes the ancient wisdom, or “Great Ideas”, of historical thinkers — like Buddha, Plato, and even Jesus — and reveals their applications in light of contemporary psychological findings.
Haidt first describes the basic meanings of ancient lessons on happiness, virtue, and personal fulfillment. This leads into what Haidt extracted from these findings to develop his own “10 Great Ideas” about happiness and connect them to modern living. After all, while ancient wisdom is tried-and-tested, it’s essential to update old methods to match modern-day life — Plato, Jesus, and Buddha never spent hours doomscrolling or procrastinating on Instagram, for example.
2. Influence : The Psychology of Persuasion (New and Expanded) by PhD Robert B. Cialdini
Influence, New and Expanded is Dr. Robert B. Cialdini’s 2021 republication of his one of his acclaimed bestselling psychology books Influence (first published in 1984) — complete with new research, examples, and insights, especially regarding the age of the internet. Backed up by his 35 years of scientific research, Cialdini describes seven practicable principles of influence you can use in your everyday life (with the newest edition being “Unity”).
Each of the seven principles has a dedicated chapter to describe how it functions, where it’s most applicable, and — most importantly — how you apply it in your own life. If you’re looking to learn more about the art of ethical persuasion in a modern context — and how to see through other people’s deceitful attempts — then this is the book for you.
3. Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me) Third Edition: Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris
Ever been curious what causes people to deny vaccines, join cults, or engage in extremist behavior? The next entry on this list might clarify some of these seemingly illogical decisions: in Mistakes Were Made, Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson discuss the systematic mental patterns which feed into development and radicalization of human beliefs. These include cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, and positive feedback loops, among others.
To further explain how people’s attitudes can become so polarized, Tavris and Aronson walk readers through the effects of these mental patterns on people in various real-life cases and controversies. With its many compelling links to real-life events, this book is the perfect read for psychology and politics readers alike.
4. Upstream: How to Solve Problems Before They Happen by Dan Heath
Life can feel like we’re constantly sprinting to put out fires as they arise. But of course, endlessly reacting to problems without a second to breathe and prepare for the next is pretty exhausting. Dan Heath’s Upstream is his solution to breaking that cycle of reaction and starting to prevent problems before they start.
This begins with knowing the psychological forces that cause it. For example, one force that Heath attributes as a large factor is “problem blindness” — when a problem becomes so persistent that you start to register it as “normal” and therefore stop “seeing” it (or, naturally, trying to fix it). Heath shows how to step up and bolster your defenses against such problems by using real-life cases of individual thinkers, businesses, and even whole institutions that overcame their own. Thankfully, the uniting factor among these case studies is simple: all they had to do was change their mindset.
5. The School of Life: An Emotional Education by Alain de Botton
Many of us spend over a decade in school and, regardless of academic success, emerge feeling like something is missing. Sure, you can do complex algebra or give me an in-depth analysis of the symbolism of triads in Shakespeare — but can you navigate a workplace? Can you endure failure? Do you understand yourself? Whether you’re about to graduate or have been done with high school for years, you’ve probably found yourself wondering these things.
Aptly titled, The School of Life is Alain de Botton’s answer to questions like these — with the express aim of equipping people with the tools and self-knowledge to thrive in the modern world. From increasing your productivity at work to handling the dilemmas of interpersonal relationships, there’s a chapter for everything you need in The School of Life. This emotional education is sure to help you to develop resilience to life’s dilemmas and become a maven of emotional intelligence.
6. Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony, and Cass R. Sunstein
You may recognize authors Daniel Kahneman and Cass R. Sunstein from their respective bestsellers, Thinking, Fast and Slow and Nudge (or from a Reedsy Discovery post!). In a similar vein, Noise tackles the topic of variability in judgements and how we’re influenced by external factors. The overarching conclusion in Noise is that the majority of our decisions are unconsciously affected by the noise at different times and places.
The authors combine their scholarly expertise with additional research to deliver this in-depth guide outlining what we already know and their new theories about noise. For those interested in why we make decisions, this is one of the best psychology books to strengthen your understanding of the extraneous factors that can shape or bias decision-making, how to minimize those factors, and improve your thinking.
7. The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip G. Zimbardo
The Lucifer Effect is Professor Philip Zimbardo’s first detailed account of his infamous Stanford Prison Experiment and the conclusions he took from it. The Stanford Prison Experiment was Zimbardo’s 1971 study looking into the effects of different situational factors on conformity by putting college student volunteers into a fake prison environment for -2 weeks. Without giving too much away, the experiment ran into some serious roadblocks that meant it had to be discontinued after only six days. (The controversy was such that there was even a mostly-accurate movie dramatization released in 2015!)
Zimbardo’s thoughts on the experiment are interesting not only because he conducted it, but because he was a part of it, acting as the prison warden — which, needless to say, has serious ethical connotations. The following chapters discuss the study’s effect on the decades of subsequent research into psychological and social variables that cause “average” people to commit immoral acts — making it one of the most influential books you can pick up today. Most people with an interest in psychology might have an idea of the original experiment, but the research afterwards should definitely not be overlooked!
8. The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry by Jon Ronson
Put simply, The Psychopath Test takes us through the modern-day mental health system, asking us to think more deeply about whom it labels “psychopathic”. Jon Ronson starts with a man who faked madness to escape a prison sentence, his method being to act charming, glib, and well-presented in contrast to other patients in the psychiatric hospital. Ronson takes these alleged tell-tale signs of psychopathy and applies them to people in other walks of life, making the startling discovery that psychopaths appear everywhere.
This is where the doors to the so-called “industry of madness” are truly flung open. How many of our most influential CEOs, researchers, and world leaders are psychopaths? Can any good come of our newfound access to the best psychology books or theories if they facilitate diagnoses of strangers based on their “maddest” parts? If these questions interest you, pick up The Psychopath Test and see what you think.
9. Games People Play: The Psychology of Human Relationships by Eric Berne
We’ve mostly talked about complex mental health issues so far in this post—but maybe you want to know about the psychology behind our most basic social interactions. If so, Eric Berne’s description of functional and dysfunctional social interactions in Games People Play will be right up your alley. Berne claims that we play “social games” all of the time, be that power games against authority, sexual games, marital games, or competitive games within friendships.
Berne divulges the types of mind games that everyone can fall victim to indulging: in status contests, the game becomes a back and forth game of “I know better”, and couples are prone to playing mental games claiming each is holding the other back. Berne doesn’t just name these interactions, but he also exposes the meaning behind them as unconscious ploys and maneuvers that rule our lives. It’s these creatively poised insights that make Games People Play an influential and striking bestseller.
10. The Body Keeps the Score: Mind, Brain and Body in the Transformation of Trauma by Bessel Van Der Kolk
Described as “the Bible of trauma” for struggling readers, The Body Keeps the Score is the culmination of Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk’s entire career. One of the world’s leading experts on traumatic stress, Van Der Kolk highlights the clear effects that trauma has on literally reshaping the body and brain. Drawing on his status as an active therapist, continually learning from what works for his patients best, Van Der Kolk delivers a wonderfully personal yet analytic approach to trauma recovery. Considering the frustrating physical effects of trauma related by his patients, Van Der Kolk suggests a fresh paradigm for treatment.
The ideological heart of this method is to make it safe for trauma survivors to inhabit their own bodies by moving away from the “standard” combination of talking therapies or drug therapies and instead using a new approach that heals the mind, brain, and body. One size never fits all, but Van Der Kolk suggests that therapeutic interventions like neurofeedback, theater, meditation, play, or yoga may play a larger part than first thought in healing. The Body Keeps the Score provides a unique perspective on trauma and recovery relayed in a compassionate yet truthful voice, making it accessible to readers of all levels.
11. The Comfort Book by Matt Haig
Ever just really felt like you needed a hug? The Comfort Book answers that craving: it is a warm and personal hug in the form of a book — something even the best psychology books haven't focused on before. If you’re looking for a guide to self-love, contentment, and emotional strength, then Matt Haig’s reflections on the conflicting feelings that come with being alive are for you.
The essence of this book is that many of our best and clearest revelations are made when at our lowest — but we also shouldn’t have to figure everything out ourselves, especially when we’re suffering. Haig’s reflections are built on what he’s learned in hard times, with the hope that they can get you through similar situations. It’s a great comfort to know that you’re not the only one that’s dealt with something hard, and Haig understands that. Drawing on maxims, meditations, and inspirational lives of others, he aims to nurture your inner strength and deliver advice like a wise, commiserative old friend.
12. The Oracle of Night: The History and Science of Dreams by Sidarta Ribeiro
What really makes a dream, why do we have them, and how do they affect us? Sidarta Ribeiro takes these questions and uses them as a springboard for his completely fresh and enthralling study of dreams, tracing them all the way back to our ancient ancestors. It’s in the earliest cave paintings that Ribeiro finds the first traces of human dreams and begins unlocking revolutionary conclusions about the role of dreams in human evolution.
Some will also know that contemporary neuroscience and psychology have uncovered many findings about dreams, such as their role in healing trauma or in consolidating what we learned in the day prior. The Oracle of Night then explains Ribeiro’s advancements on these topics: the role of dreaming in memory recall and transformation, and, startlingly, their oracular nature as confirmed by new research — making this a great book club book to ignite a conversation! Ribeiro combines his absolute authority on the topic with a clear, compelling writing style to make this book a page-turner from the first page to the last.
13. Everyday Vitality: Turning Stress into Strength by Samantha Boardman
Psychiatrist Samantha Boardman believes that an essential factor in healthy aging and overall well-being is a sense of vitality. Which is to say: knowing that you’re up to a task both physically and mentally. This belief is the jumping-off point for Everyday Vitality, a book full of strategies for cultivating vitality by focusing on improving a little every day, instead of reacting to fix what’s wrong as it arises.
While vitality wellness is often associated with managing aging, Boardman posits that vitality can help all of us no matter our age. Whether you’re eighteen or eighty, you may recall times you’ve felt mentally exhausted from the constant barrage of media every day, or physically drained after a long day at a desk. Boardman explains three routes to better vitality for everyone: meaningfully connecting with others, taking on experiences that push your limits, and contributing to something beyond just you. If you want to cultivate your own wellness, why not pick up this book and discuss it with someone you love?
14. Survival of the Friendliest: Understanding Our Origins and Rediscovering Our Common Humanity by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods
Humanity’s success as a species has developed in leaps and bounds during our relatively short time on Earth. Many people have hypothesized what might be the cause of these advancements: is it our strength, intellect, curiosity, or something else completely? Authors — and husband-and-wife duo — Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods believe in the latter, making the case in this book that humanity’s progression is actually because of our “friendliness”.
Combining their respective expertise in cognitive neuroscience, research science, and journalism, Hare and Wood have come up with a theory about this evolutionary friendliness. The theory is elegantly termed “self-domestication” — a remarkable propensity to coordinate and communicate with others. Instead of coveting our individual successes, we often share them with others to help advance and protect each other. This capability, Hare and Wood argue, has allowed us to achieve the impressive cultural and technical marvels that we’ve culminated today. However, this friendliness may come at a cost: when threats to those we love become a target for our worst instincts, our evolutionary propensity for bond-making may be a double-edged sword.
15. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
In Blink, critically acclaimed author and journalist Malcolm Gladwell hopes to revolutionize your understanding of how you (and others) think. Why, for example, are some people exceptionally fast decision-makers, when others choke under pressure? Why does “following your gut” work perfectly for some, while others fall short? And do situational variables like our immediate surroundings affect our abilities to make these decisions?
Gladwell posits that a key factor towards people’s ability to make better decisions is “thin-slicing”: the unconscious ability to analyze patterns in scenarios based on brief flashes of experience, and come to a conclusion based on that knowledge. Gladwell draws on real-life examples to illustrate these ideas: from a psychologist who could predict whether a marriage would last from just a brief interaction with the couple, to antiquities experts who only need to glance at an object to tell it’s a fake. Put simply, Blink proves that the main difference between a good and a bad decision-maker is their mastery of “thin-slicing.” Can you learn to do it, too?
16. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz
Have you ever walked into a clothing store and found yourself overwhelmed by choices among different shirts, skirts, or jeans, all of which look eerily similar? Not to mention the stress of weaving through other shoppers, worrying about prices, and working out your size. Barry Schwartz believes that this abundance of choices to make “no longer liberates, but debilitates” shoppers with consumer anxiety. The solution? Eliminating consumer choices (within reason).
Of course, Schwartz acknowledges that autonomy and freedom of choice are still critical to our well-being. It’s just that, while modern Americans may technically have more choice than ever before, they are no longer benefiting from it psychologically. The Paradox of Choice neatly establishes the psychology behind why choice overload makes us suffer — constant comparison, opportunity hunting, and buyer’s remorse, for example — and how to avoid consumer anxiety in the first place.
17. Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love and Relationships by Camilla Pang
Explaining Humans is an intriguing in-depth exploration of the complexities of human behavior, as explained by hard science. Diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) at an early age, author and scientist Dr Camilla Pang struggled to untangle the mess of the world around her — even asking her mother if she could find an instruction manual for humans. When she found that not even the best psychology books of the time provided such a manual, the only solution was to write her own.
Backed up with copious amounts of scientific research and her own hard-won expertise, Pang examines obscure social customs, what it means to be human in different cultures, and where proteins and molecular chemistry fit into all of this. What does it mean to understand someone? How do we recognize people’s motivations or expressions, and what dictates them to begin with? Whether this all feels foreign or far too familiar to you, Pang is sure to deliver some surprises.
18. Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters by Steven Pinker
The goal of Rationality is to make you more rational and help you understand why there is so much irrationality in the world. You may think that sounds pretty lofty, but try reading author and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s analysis before making concrete judgements!
Pinker rejects the cliché idea that humans are an irrational species — how could any species discover and achieve so much without being inherently rational? Despite this, we live in a dichotic age of rationality vs. intense irrationality. Pinker’s explanation is that humans tend to think within the context of the low-tech settings in which we spend the majority of our lives. As a result, we don’t take advantage of the tools that our best thinkers discovered previously: critical thinking, logic, probability, correlation vs. causation, and ways to update our beliefs individually are not a part of our education. Fortunately, you can find these tools (and analyses of the crippling effects of irrationality) presented clearly and with good humor in Rationality!
19. Rapport: The Four Ways to Read People by Emily and Laurence Alison
We’ve all had to interact with difficult people before, whether that’s an annoying customer, a high-maintenance friend, or even a demanding stranger on the train. But imagine you had to deal with some of the most difficult people possible, managing extremely high-stress interactions: criminal interrogations. These interactions are a specialty of forensic psychologists Emily and Laurence Alison: they advise and train police, security companies, and even secret services on how to maneuver interviews with dangerous suspects.
After experiences over the past thirty years that the “average” person could only imagine, the author duo have developed a revolutionary model for interpersonal communication. According to them, every interaction follows one of four types: Control (the lion), Capitulate (the mouse), Confront (the Tyrannosaur) and Co-operate (the monkey). It might sound abstract now, but once you’ve been taken through these types in Rapport, you’ll understand why they’re so praised. Learn to understand and apply them to your own goals and you can shape any conversation at will.
20. Authentic Happiness: Using the New Positive Psychology to Realise Your Potential for Lasting Fulfilment by Martin E. P. Seligman
You may have heard of this entry after its launch in 2004 caused international debate over the nature of real happiness. Authentic Happiness was the starting point for the science of Positive Psychology and the discussion of happiness in a scientific way.
According to Martin Seligman, happiness has less to do with factors such as genes or luck, and more to do with focusing on your internal strengths rather than weaknesses. This isn’t to say that situational factors based on your genes wouldn’t impact you, or that being lucky enough to win the lottery wouldn’t change your life. Seligman’s point is that maintaining a positive mindset and building on one’s strengths is the most dependable route to long-lived happiness. To that end, Seligman supplies exercises, brief tests, and interesting programs that will help you identify your virtues and use them most efficiently.
21. Emotional Intelligence: Why It Can Matter More Than IQ by Daniel Goleman
It’s no secret that a high IQ doesn’t automatically make a person smart or good (not to mention the long-standing debate over the reliability and biases of IQ tests). That said, what actually makes a person smart or good? Daniel Goleman’s innovative analyses in Emotional Intelligence certainly brings us closer to understanding. This book breaks down human processes into “two minds”, the rational and the emotional, to detail how they together shape the ways that we move through the world.
Goleman draws on contemporary cognitive and behavioral research to show the factors that make higher IQ flounder where those with average IQ excel. The factors that go into this disparity are: self-awareness, self-discipline, and empathy, and their presence adds up to a completely different manner of intelligence. Luckily, this kind of emotional intelligence can be developed and strengthened at every age to ultimately benefit our health, work, and relationships.
22. The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease by Steven Taylor
Published in October 2019, just before the COVID-19 pandemic, Steven Taylor’s book about the importance of psychology in curbing the spread of deadly pandemics — stating that, at the time, the next pandemic could be soon — turned out to be frighteningly prophetic. Taylor posits that, while vaccinations and behavioral methods are crucial for stemming infection rates, psychological elements are equally important.
The Psychology of Pandemics explains psychology’s role in nonadherence to vaccination and hygiene programs and in mental health as people cope with the threat and loss of life. Taylor talks through every reason why understanding psychology is essential to managing societal problems that go hand-in-hand with pandemics. You need only consult a few history books to see that the same problems recurr every time we face a pandemic. These problems range from excessive fear to maladaptive behaviours to the xenophobia that occurs when people feel threatened by infection. Sound familiar? If you want to understand why the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded in the way it did, this is definitely on the list of the best psychology books to try.
23. Human Givens : A New Approach to Emotional Health and Clear Thinking by Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell
Feeling like something a little more laidback? Human Givens is a guide to emotional and physical health, as well as education, using the “human givens” approach. Authors Joe Griffin and Ivan Tyrrell chronicle what some call the best psychological insight of this age — that we are all born with innate knowledge patterns known as “human givens”. These givens are experienced as physical and emotional needs, and only when those needs are met can one reach their full mental and physical potential.
Griffin and Tyrrell suggest that how your innate needs connect with the world can shape not just your own health and happiness, but that of your family and friends. Human Givens takes this idea and looks at what every person needs to flourish, as well as how to actively pursue those things. Of course, this isn’t all just speculation: Griffin and Tyrell back up their approach with new scientific findings and ideas about how the mind works — as well as how to use those ideas to overcome the anxieties of the modern world.
24. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View by Stanley Milgram
The next book on our list is what some might call a psychology classic. Psychologist Stanley Milgram performed a series of famous experiments in the 1960s with the view to better understanding obedience to authority, after numerous war criminals on trial had claimed they were “just following orders”.
The experiments were controversial at the time, because they involved volunteer subjects being instructed to administer what they thought were progressively more painful shocks to another human being — the aim of this was to see how far people would obey orders even when they knew them to be morally gray. Though Milgram’s experiment was criticized for being immoral itself, it has since been vindicated as a breakthrough in understanding both obedience and psychology as a whole. Obedience to Authority has long been thought of as one of the best psychology books, offering Milgram’s personal insight into his groundbreaking methods, theories, and post-experiment conclusions.
25. Consciousness and the Social Brain by Michael S. A. Graziano
The final entry on our list delves into one of the great mysteries of the human race: the brain. How are we conscious, what is consciousness, and how does the brain create it? Why do some people have more of a constant running internal monologue than others? These are the big questions that Michael S. A. Graziano aims to tackle in Consciousness and the Social Brain.
The human brain has evolved a vastly complicated circuitry which allows it to be socially intelligent — one function of which is to be aware of others socially, to understand when someone other than oneself is thinking or feeling. Graziano’s theory is that the brain’s internal machinery that allows it to be aware of others also allows self awareness. The crux is that human awareness is layers upon layers of information that the brain has gathered, processed, and rendered — a wholly physical phenomena in the same way that generating heat or electricity might be. This is, of course, a hotly debated topic, with many people believing that to reduce the brain to only physicality would be reductive. Regardless of what you believe, Graziano’s scientific journey is a thrill to the last page!