The best books on rationality and why it matters

Who am I?

I’m a Harvard professor of psychology and a cognitive scientist who’s interested in all aspects of language, mind, and human nature. I grew up in Montreal, but have lived most of my adult life in the Boston area, bouncing back and forth between Harvard and MIT except for stints in California as a professor at Stanford and sabbatical visitor in Santa Barbara and now, Berkeley. I alternate between books on language (how it works, what it reveals about human nature, what makes for clear and stylish writing) and books on the human mind and human condition (how the mind works, why violence has declined, how progress can take place).

I wrote...

Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

By Steven Pinker,

Book cover of Rationality: What It Is, Why It Seems Scarce, Why It Matters

What is my book about?

How can a species that developed vaccines for Covid-19 in less than a year produce so much fake news, medical quackery, and conspiracy theorizing?

I reject the cliché that humans are just cavemen out of time, saddled with biases, fallacies, and illusions. Instead, we think in ways that are sensible in the low-tech contexts in which we spend most of our lives, but fail to take advantage of the powerful tools of reasoning our best thinkers have discovered over the millennia: logic, critical thinking, probability, correlation, and causation, and optimal ways to update beliefs and commit to choices individually and with others. These tools are not a standard part of our educational curricula and have never been presented clearly and entertainingly in a single book—at least until I had a go at it in this book.

The books I picked & why

Shepherd is reader supported. We may earn an affiliate commission when you buy through links on our website. This is how we fund this project for readers and authors (learn more).

Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making

By Reid Hastie, Robyn M. Dawes,

Book cover of Rational Choice in an Uncertain World: The Psychology of Judgment and Decision Making

Why this book?

This is technically a textbook, and isn’t marketed as a book you bring to the beach. But sometimes it’s more satisfying to have the big ideas on a topic patiently explained to you in an orderly fashion than to try to pick them up from stories and arguments. This paperback, coauthored by one of my graduate school teachers (Hastie), explains the famous discoveries by Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman on biases in human reasoning, which Kahneman presented in his bestseller Thinking, Fast and Slow (too obvious for me to include on my list). It also explains lesser-known but still fascinating discoveries, and has helpful appendices for those of us who forget some of the basics of probability theory.

The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

By Jonathan Rauch,

Book cover of The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth

Why this book?

If humans are the rational animal, why does the world seem to be losing its mind? Why the fake news, the conspiracy theories, the post-truth rhetoric? Rauch explains that truth is a precious commodity, which none of us is smart enough to discover on our own. We depend on institutions and norms – like science, with empirical testing, and journalism, with editing and fact-checking, and democracy, with checks and balances, and academia, with peer review and freedom of inquiry – to make us collectively smarter than any of us is individually. This infrastructure of truth is constantly being corroded – today, by social media and authoritarian populism – and must be cherished and fortified.

Rationality for Mortals: How People Cope with Uncertainty

By Gerd Gigerenzer,

Book cover of Rationality for Mortals: How People Cope with Uncertainty

Why this book?

Gigerenzer is in some ways the un-Tversky-and-Kahneman, emphasizing the ways in which humans are more rational than they seem, and the ways that difficult problems can be made intuitive. This lively collection explains the surprisingly deep and perplexing question of what “probability” even means, and presents many puzzles form everyday reckoning of risk, including: What does the weathercaster mean when she says “There’s a 30 percent chance of rain”?

A Treatise of Human Nature

By David Hume,

Book cover of A Treatise of Human Nature

Why this book?

When I wrote Rationality, I mentioned Hume 32 times. He didn’t think of everything, but he explained an astonishing range of topics related to rationality, including causation versus correlation, is versus ought, and individual versus collective self-interest. His follow-up, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, explained why we shouldn’t believe in miracles. He explored all of these topics with clarity and wit, putting modern academic writing to shame.

The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

By Keith E. Stanovich,

Book cover of The Bias That Divides Us: The Science and Politics of Myside Thinking

Why this book?

Stanovich is a cognitive psychologist who showed that rationality is related, but not identical, to intelligence. In this timely book he shows that smart people, and everyone else, are victims of a powerful bias to show that our own tribe is virtuous and wise and knowledgeable and the other tribe is evil and stupid and ignorant. Needless to say it explains a lot about our current moment.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in rationality, thinking, and discrimination?

5,888 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about rationality, thinking, and discrimination.

Rationality Explore 10 books about rationality
Thinking Explore 34 books about thinking
Discrimination Explore 18 books about discrimination

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Problems of Philosophy, Naming and Necessity, and Plato if you like this list.