Psychology

The best books on Behavioral Science

recommended by Nicholas Epley

Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley

Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want
by Nicholas Epley

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What can we draw from behavioral science to help us better understand each other? Nicholas Epley, Professor of Behavioral Science and Faculty Director of the Center for Decision Research at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, recommends the five best books for learning about an interdisciplinary field that draws from psychology, sociology, economics and anthropology.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want by Nicholas Epley

Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want
by Nicholas Epley

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You’ve selected five books on behavioral science. Let’s begin by clarifying the contours of the topic. What is behavioral science?

Behavioral science is a large interdisciplinary effort by psychologists, sociologists, economists, and anthropologists who are trying to understand the causal determinants of our actions. As a psychologist, I’m most interested in the psychological mechanisms that shape the way we think and how we feel. But all behavioral scientists examine what guides our own behavior and affects our actions towards others.

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom calls you “one of the smartest and most creative social psychologists alive.” What is a social psychologist?

Social psychology focuses on how social context affects our behavior. There are multiple ways in which social context shapes behavior. One is the direct effects that social context can have on the way we think, how we feel and the way we act.

“I study mind-reading—not the spooky or psychic variety, but rather the everyday way we think about each other’s thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and intentions”

Another way in which social context influences behavior is how our thoughts about other people drive our behavior. So, in contrast to cognitive psychologists, who study basic determinants of thinking, and in contrast to developmental psychologists, who study change over time across human development, social psychologists study the effects of changes across contexts or situations, particularly those that are social in nature. We study how varying contexts change the way we act with each other.

You map the sand traps in social cognition in Mindwise.

I study mind-reading—not the spooky or psychic variety, but rather the everyday way we think about each other’s thoughts, beliefs, attitudes, emotions, and intentions. I’m interested in how we misunderstand each other. Our capacity to think about each other’s minds is unique to us humans. Although other primates engage in some social cognition, it’s nothing close to what we do. Much of our waking lives, even a fair number of our dreams, are focused on what’s going on in the minds of others. Inferences that we make about each other’s minds are important for understanding how we each act and feel.

You’ve named five books about behavioral science. What criteria shaped your choices?

I’ve read a lot of great work in this field. When I thought about the best work I read in the field, the books I’ve named sprung to mind. These are books that stuck in my mind, that struck me as the most interesting or the most impactful.

I love this title, by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and journalism professor Deborah Blum. Tell me about Love at Goon Park.

This is one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Like most great biographies, it’s about a lot more than just the person at the center of it, and it’s beautifully written.

It’s a book about Harry Harlow, a primatologist, a psychologist who worked mostly with rhesus macaques. He became a giant in the field of behavioral science through his work on attachment. Blum gives a great historical perspective on how psychologists thought about interpersonal attachment for most of our history and how Harry Harlow changed that. Harlow introduced the concept of love to the field.

Before his work on the attachment of macaques to mother figures, psychologists thought of people the way traditional economists have—as utility maximizers for our own vested self-interest. The presumption was that animalistic drives for food, drink and sex were the only true motivators. And that the love, care and desire for connection were really epiphenomena, byproducts of these other things. So we love our mothers because they provide us food. Harry Harlow’s research blew that right out of the water. He identified the need for connection and belonging as a fundamental human need.

Deborah’s book does a really great job of describing that whole history of the field and Harry’s place in it. It’s hard to even imagine thinking about human beings the way that psychologists did in the 1920s and 1930s. Before Harlow, behavioral psychologists such as Watson and Skinner were telling parents that human contact spoiled, weakened and endangered children, subjecting them to germs. Harry Harlow’s work was a total sea change. She also gives a really great description of Harry himself. It turned out that Harry, for all the work he did to bring love into the field, was not himself a particularly lovable character.

Can you help me understand how a primatologist’s research helps us understand homo sapiens?

Lots of psychologists work with animal models. There is not a big distinction between the basic biological processes of human beings and non-humans, particularly not between us and rhesus macaques. Harry’s work sparked generations of research that validated his findings with human beings.

Harry raised rhesus macaques with two different attachment figures. One was a terry cloth mother that had a light bulb inside it, which emitted warmth, and a face with eyes. The other mother had a nipple, which delivered food to the baby macaque, but was made out of wire mesh. Psychologists at the time presumed that a monkey would only become attached to the mother that provided sustenance. Harry found that the monkeys quickly fed from the wire mother but clung to the cloth mother. He also found that macaques raised only with wire mothers had difficulty interacting with other macaques and they would self-harm.

Turning to the work of Cornell University social psychologist Thomas Gilovich, please tell me about How We Know What Isn’t So.

My undergraduate thesis advisor, who knew I was interested in going to grad school, handed me this book. After reading it, I knew this was exactly the kind of work that I wanted to do. I applied to work with Tom. He became my PhD advisor.

“Acts of commission, things that people do, come to mind more readily than acts of omission, things that people don’t do.”

This is a book about intuitive human judgment and how the way we think about the world can be distorted and misdirected—by forces within our own mind, like our tendency to think well of ourselves; by cognitive forces, such as the ease with which information comes to mind; and by environmental forces, like asymmetries in feedback. So, for instance, acts of commission, things that people do, come to mind more readily than acts of omission, things that people don’t do. So our judgments can be distorted by the presence of information, as opposed to its absence. And that can lead to systematic mistakes.

How We Know What Isn’t So remains the best book in the field at describing the basic psychological mechanisms that can lead even super smart people to make mistakes.

Judgement heuristics are his focus. I’m more familiar with the use of the word heuristics in literary theory. Could you help me understand the psychology of heuristics?

Heuristics are just a shortcut or a rule of thumb, often contrasted with more analytical or algorithmic reasoning. An example of heuristics is that we judge the likelihood of an event by the ease with which it comes to mind. So if something is easy to imagine—for instance, somebody come to your house and shooting you with a gun—we might overestimate the likelihood of that happening in the world. So heuristics are simply intuitive mechanisms for human judgment.

Delusions of Gender by academic psychologist Cordelia Fine is your next choice.

Cordelia is really a fine writer, no pun intended. It’s always impressive when academics write as beautifully as professional authors. Cordelia’s book dispelled many myths about gender differences, between men and women.

Gender is the only phenomenon in the field, that I know of, which required a theory of similarity to be articulated. Despite the fact that empirical studies consistently find gender differences are usually much smaller than expected and only show up in very narrow circumstances, the belief that the differences between men and women were large and profound prevailed until it was proven otherwise. Janet Hyde, a psychologist from University of Wisconsin, Madison, had to propose a theory that men and women aren’t so different from each other after all, which is sort of stunning.

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Cornelia’s book is a rigorous walk through the scientific literature that presents the facts about gender differences. She blows up a lot of the popular books which posited that ‘men are from Mars and women are from Venus’ and described the male and female brain as fundamentally different. Cordelia’s book puts the real (and relatively small) differences between men and women into perspective. When it comes to lots of different sorts of cognitive functioning, women are mostly the same as men. The very small differences between brain functioning are directly related to sex.

Fine uses the term ‘neurosexism’ in her subtitle. Can you explain that concept?

Neurosexism, as she described it, is the presumption that neurological differences are due to intrinsic differences in the brain. Delusions of Gender exposes the neurosexism that led so many psychologists to make mistaken inferences about the differences between the brains of men and women.

Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness is your next recommendation. Please tell me about it.

Dan Gilbert, a dear friend of mine at Harvard, is the best writer in our field and one of our greatest thinkers. He is extremely creative and insightful.

Stumbling on Happiness describes a program of research that he launched, comparing people’s beliefs about what’s gonna make them happy with what actually makes them happy. We psychologists care a lot about people’s beliefs, expectations and attitudes because beliefs, expectations and attitudes that precede action often cause it. Our beliefs and expectations are often mistaken and rarely well-calibrated. Dan’s book is a really entertaining explanation of the psychology that drives our beliefs about happiness and how those beliefs depart from what actually brings us happiness.

So what can we draw from behavioral science to make us happier?

The big things are probably no surprise, in the abstract. We don’t always make choices that lead us to meaningful work. Money matters to happiness, beyond a low threshold, less than we think. Folks who are already making quite a bit of money and who work overtime to make more, make themselves miserable sometimes. In contrast, doing stuff that you think is valuable is a key to happiness.

While work is a critical determinant for well-being, data shows that the strength of our personal connections is more important. The other happiness hack is enhancing the quality of our social connections. Getting along with family and friends and loved ones, having positive connections with acquaintances and even with strangers, leads to happiness. Connecting with others in meaningful ways is what really brings out happiness.

Your last choice is about choices, please tell us about Nudge by Harvard Law School’s Cass Sunstein and Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler, who is your colleague at the University of Chicago.

Nudge is the best endorsement for social psychology that I’ve ever read.

Social psychologists, for the better part of a hundred years, have been demonstrating how context can affect our behavior. For instance, we’re markedly more likely to litter if we see someone else liter while we’re walking down the street. When we are trying to choose, should to do X or Y, if X is the default, we’re much more likely to do it. Even if X is something as visceral as opting to donating our own organs in case of death. Conversely, if the default is that you’re not in a program and you have to enroll in be in it, you are much less likely to participate. Sunstein and Taylor describe this class of situational influence as a ‘nudge.’ Meaning, an intervention that can move your behavior a bit, one way or another, while not totally constraining your sense of freewill.

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Nudge has been enormously influential in policy circles. Around the world, city, state, and federal governments are trying to design policies and procedures that nudge. There are nudge units within companies, focused on how to improve the functioning of businesses. So, Nudge has had a huge impact and it does a nice job of describing why social psychology and behavioral science more broadly matter in our world.

Is the application of behavioral psychology to shape choice architecture really new? I thought Madison Avenue had been using social psychology since mid-century.

It’s true that marketers have been nudging people for, for decades. The general concept is not new. What Thaler and Sunstein did was shine a spotlight on the strength and pervasiveness of situational influence—and how small changes to shape choices can have surprisingly big impacts on behavior. Psychologists have demonstrated, since the 1950s, that people tend to underestimate how much situational context and social forces influence their own behavior. Nudge does a really good job of describing all of that research and applying it policy problems.

We’ve learned from you and other social psychologists, Daniel Gilbert that we humans are not as good as we think we are at predicting what’s next. But I’m going to ask you for a forecast anyway. What is on the frontier for the field of behavioral science?

I study the difficulty people have reading each other’s minds, so I know it’s hard to know what others will do next. But the field is moving more into application of our work. You see more behavioral science in business schools, as well as in economics departments and, of course, psychology departments. Governments are getting interested in how behavioral science can shape policy. The biggest challenge to humanity in the coming decades is climate change. Ultimately, it’s a behavioral problem. So, orienting behavioral science towards problem solving and public policy applications is urgent.

Interview by Eve Gerber

Five Books aims to keep its book recommendations and interviews up to date. If you are the interviewee and would like to update your choice of books (or even just what you say about them) please email us at editor@fivebooks.com

Nicholas Epley

Nicholas Epley is the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science, and Director of the Center for Decision Research, at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He studies social cognition—how thinking people think about other thinking people—to understand why smart people so routinely misunderstand each other. Epley was named a “professor to watch” by the Financial Times, one of the “World’s Best 40 under 40 Business School Professors” by Poets and Quants, and one of the 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics in 2015 by Ethisphere. He is the author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.

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Nicholas Epley

Nicholas Epley is the John Templeton Keller Professor of Behavioral Science, and Director of the Center for Decision Research, at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He studies social cognition—how thinking people think about other thinking people—to understand why smart people so routinely misunderstand each other. Epley was named a “professor to watch” by the Financial Times, one of the “World’s Best 40 under 40 Business School Professors” by Poets and Quants, and one of the 100 Most Influential in Business Ethics in 2015 by Ethisphere. He is the author of Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.