Psychology - background reading list
I’m often asked by new or prospective Psychology students (or their parents) if I can recommend some interest-based reading to extend their understanding or prepare for a degree. Here are a few options, all of which are chosen to be interesting, easy to read, and very relevant to studying Psychology or related disciplines.
They vary a lot in their style and authorship (some by researchers, other by journalists and the like), and I certainly don’t endorse everything that they say, but they are all interesting, well-written, and collectively would give a useful overview of the subject. In alphabetical order…
Adventures in memory: The science and secrets of remembering and forgetting by Hilde Østby & Ylva Østby
A really well-written exploration of the processes and biology behind human memory.
Children’s minds by Margaret Donaldson
Not a recent work (1979), but a short and easy read, providing an excellent primer for the study of developmental psychology.
Elephants on acid: And other bizarre experiments by Alex Boese
Has anyone ever tried to learn memories digestively, or transplant animals’ brains? Apparently so. A collection of fascinating research studies, some disturbing but others surprisingly mainstream.
Freedom of mind: Helping loved ones leave controlling people, cults, and beliefs by Steven Hassan
Hassan is not a psychologist, but he does know a hell of a lot about cults, and he makes some insightful links between their methods of mind control and classic research from social psychology.
Games people play: The psychology of human relationships by Eric Berne
A weird but compelling analysis of human relationships in terms of trying to get a payoff from social games.
The Lucifer effect: How good people turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo
Zimbardo is an eminent social psychologist, best known for running the Stanford prison experiment. This book explores the factors behind harmful and abusive behaviour.
The man who mistook his wife for a hat by Oliver Sacks
Perhaps more neuroscience than psychology, this nevertheless provides insights into many forms of disordered or unusual behaviour, and is wonderfully written, too. A great primer ahead of studying psychopathology.
Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential by Carol Dweck
The pop-sci title can be off-putting, as can the ubiquitous ‘growth mindset’ posters seen in every school nowadays, but Dweck’s research and analysis are still well worth reading about and understanding.
Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
This book helped to a launch the field of ‘behavioural economics’, bringing psychology and economics closer together. The key idea is that behaviour change can be more effectively motivated by making choices more convenient than by offering rewards and punishments.
Quiet by Susan Cain
I’m not always the biggest fan of personality psychology, but this book has a profound insight - the way so much of the world is set up for the benefit of the extravert majority.
Quirkology: The curious science of everyday lives by Richard Wiseman
Wiseman is a psychologist and a great communicator. All of his books are good reads. I enjoyed this one due to its broad scope, touching on a great many everyday behaviours and linking them to research.
Proust and the squid: The story and science of the reading brain by Maryanne Wolf
What happens when we read? As well as being relevant to educational psychology and children’s development, this book has insights that will be useful for studying perception and working memory.
Sapiens: A brief history of humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
No student should start a degree in Psychology without a basic understanding of human origins! Harari’s book is clear and up to date.
Thinking, fast & slow by Daniel Kahneman
In some ways, one of the harder reads on this list, but certainly one of the most fascinating in terms of its insights into a research career that led to groundbreaking insights into how flawed everyday thinking can be.
What the dog saw by Malcolm Gladwell
A collections of short articles. Gladwell isn’t a psychologist but he’s a superb thinker and writer, and many of these topics are highly relevant to applied psychology, such as the question of whether job interviews actually work. His book ‘Outliers’ is also excellent, focusing on what makes some people exceptional performers.
When: The scientific secrets of perfect timing by Daniel Pink
A highly readable book, all about how we perform better at certain times of day (that might sound obvious, but did you know that there are particular times of day best suited to creative or analytical work?) A useful primer for biological psychology and the study of sleep.
Hopefully this provides a useful primer for anyone just starting out in Psychology, or wishing to return to it. It doesn’t include many ‘classics’ - such as the works of John Bowlby or William James. These are certainly important reads, but perhaps (I think) easier to tackle after first establishing an idea of what the subject as a whole is all about (and perhaps after reading a primer on the history and philosophy of the subject, such as ‘A Brief History of Psychology’ by Michael Wertheimer).
I may, at some point, follow up with a list of suggested books about the psychology of education!