My favorite books about self knowledge

Why am I passionate about this?

Like most adolescents, I was deeply concerned with what others thought of me and how I fit in. Unlike most adolescents, I sometimes did little experiments to test others’ reactions--such as lying down on a busy sidewalk, fully awake, to see how passersby would react (mostly with annoyance). Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there is an entire discipline--social psychology--that does real experiments on self-knowledge and social behavior. I got a Ph.D. in social psychology at the University of Michigan and have spent my career as a professor at the University of Virginia, where I have had great fun conducting such experiments.


I wrote...

Book cover of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious

What is my book about?

“Know thyself,” a precept as old as Socrates, is still good advice. But is introspection the best path to self-knowledge? What are we trying to discover, anyway? 

In an eye-opening tour of the unconscious, as psychological science has redefined it, Strangers to Ourselves introduces us to a hidden mental world of judgments, feelings, and motives. Because we have no direct access to the workings of our minds, Wilson tells us, we develop plausible stories about ourselves that may be out of touch with our adaptive unconscious. Citing evidence that too much introspection can actually do damage, Wilson makes the case for better ways of discovering who we truly are. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology

Timothy D. Wilson Why did I love this book?

A classic treatise on how the mind works in a social context by two of the most famous social psychologists in the world. Why do people do what they do? It is not just a matter of their character or personality; we all respond to social norms, social pressures, and cultural contexts, more so than we think we do. And to understand someone else, we have to put ourselves inside their head and understand how they see the world, and how culture and the social context shapes that view. Many people who have read this book say it has fundamentally changed the way they view the world.

By Lee Ross, Richard E. Nisbett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Person and the Situation as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

How does the situation we're in influence the way we behave and think? Professors Ross and Nisbett eloquently argue that the context we find ourselves in substantially affects our behavior in this timely reissue of one of social psychology's classic textbooks. With a new foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, author of The Tipping Point.


Book cover of Stumbling on Happiness

Timothy D. Wilson Why did I love this book?

Do you know what makes you happy? This best-selling book by social psychologist Daniel Gilbert will reveal surprising answers to that question. Incredibly well-written, you will laugh along with Prof. Gilbert as he uncovers hidden sources of happiness and why we overlook them. (Full disclosure: Daniel Gilbert is my long-time collaborator. But you need not rely only my advice; millions of people have read and loved this book.)

By Daniel Gilbert,

Why should I read it?

10 authors picked Stumbling on Happiness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Bringing to life scientific research in psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics, this bestselling book reveals what scientists have discovered about the uniquely human ability to imagine the future, and about our capacity to predict how much we will like it when we get there. 

• Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink?

• Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight?

• Why do dining companions insist on ordering different meals instead of getting what they…


Book cover of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession

Timothy D. Wilson Why did I love this book?

Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis have cast a long shadow over our understanding of the human mind. Most research psychologists today find Freud’s ideas to be oversimplified, exaggerated, or simply wrong. It is important to understand his legacy, however, and there is no better way to do so than to read this entertaining, gossipy book about psychoanalytic theory and treatment. Malcolm provides a rare peek into the consulting room of the psychoanalyst, with insightful critiques of the practice and theory of psychoanalysis. What is Freud’s legacy, exactly? I discuss that in Strangers to Ourselves, in a chapter entitled, “Freud’s genius, Freud’s myopia.”

By Janet Malcolm,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Psychoanalysis as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Through an intensive study of 'Aaron Green,' a Freudian analyst in New York City, New Yorker writer Janet Malcolm reveals the inner workings of psychoanalysis.


Book cover of The Remains of the Day

Timothy D. Wilson Why did I love this book?

Sometimes novelists are the best psychologists. This novel is about an English butler, Stevens, who is struggling to adapt to a changing world as World War II approaches. It is a masterful examination of self-deception. We see the world through Stevens’ eyes, quickly recognizing his blindness to what is happening around him and what would really make him happy. You might want to reach into the pages of the book and shake Stevens by the shoulders, shouting, “No, no no, you’re doing it all wrong--that won’t make you happy!” But he is doing what we all do--trying to make sense of the world as best he can, in a way that allows him to maintain a sense of integrity. If only he did it more effectively. (The movie is good, but the novel is far better.)

By Kazuo Ishiguro,

Why should I read it?

12 authors picked The Remains of the Day as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel Klara and the Sun is now available to preorder*

The Remains of the Day won the 1989 Booker Prize and cemented Kazuo Ishiguro's place as one of the world's greatest writers. David Lodge, chairman of the judges in 1989, said, it's "a cunningly structured and beautifully paced performance". This is a haunting evocation of lost causes and lost love, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change. Ishiguro's work has been translated into more than forty languages and has sold millions of copies worldwide.

Stevens, the long-serving butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on…


Book cover of Machines Like Me

Timothy D. Wilson Why did I love this book?

Another brilliant novel that stretches our understanding of what it means to be human. The premise is that advances in artificial intelligence happened much more quickly in the 1980s than was actually the case, to the point where people can purchase an android as a companion. Charlie, a 32-year-old Londoner, purchases Adam, who looks like a human, talks like a human, and even has sex like a human (resulting in a bizarre love triangle between Charlie, Adam, and Charlie’s neighbor, Miranda). But Adam isn’t human. Or is he?

That is the question. Note: The rules prohibited me from listing two books by the same author, but I’ll give a shout-out to Kazuo Ishiguro’s Klara and the Sun, another novel about the relationship between humans and androids. Fourteen-year-old Josie acquires Klara as an “artificial friend,” and like McEwan’s novel, Ishiguro stretches and bends our view of what it means to be human.

By Ian McEwan,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked Machines Like Me as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the Booker Prize winner and bestselling author of Atonement—”a sharply intelligent novel of ideas” (The New York Times) that asks whether a machine can understand the human heart, or whether we are the ones who lack understanding.

Set in an uncanny alternative 1982 London—where Britain has lost the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher battles Tony Benn for power, and Alan Turing achieves a breakthrough in artificial intelligence—Machines Like Me powerfully portrays two lovers who will be tested beyond their understanding. Charlie, drifting through life and dodging full-time employment, is in love with Miranda, a bright student who lives with a…


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God on a Budget: and other stories in dialogue

By J.M. Unrue,

Book cover of God on a Budget: and other stories in dialogue

J.M. Unrue Author Of The Festival of Sin: and other tales of fantasy

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an old guy. I say this with a bit of cheek and a certain amount of incongruity. All the books on my list are old. That’s one area of continuity. Another, and I’ll probably stop at two, is that they all deal with ordinary people caught in extraordinary circumstances—those curveballs of life we flail at with an unfamiliar bat; the getting stuck on the Interstate behind a semi and some geezer in a golf cap hogging the passing lane in a Buick Le Sabre. No one makes it through this life unscathed. How we cope does more to define us than a thousand smiles when things are rosy. Thus endeth the lesson.

J.M.'s book list on showing that somebody has it worse than you do

What is my book about?

Nine Stories Told Completely in Dialogue is a unique collection of narratives, each unfolding entirely through conversations between its characters. The book opens with "God on a Budget," a tale of a man's surreal nighttime visitation that offers a blend of the mundane and the mystical. In "Doctor in the House," readers are plunged into the emotionally charged moment when an oncologist delivers a life-altering diagnosis to a patient. The collection then shifts to "Prisoner 8086," a story about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a prison volunteer and a habitual offender, exploring themes of redemption and human connection.

The heart of the book continues with "The Reunion," a touching narrative about high school sweethearts reuniting, stirring up poignant memories and unspoken feelings. "The Therapy Session" adds a lighter touch, presenting a serio-comic exchange between a therapist and a challenging patient. In "The Fishing Trip," a father imparts crucial life lessons to his daughter during an eventful outing, leading to unexpected consequences. "Mortality" offers a deeply personal moment as a mother shares a cherished, secret story from her past with her son.

The collection then takes a romantic turn in "The Singles Cruise," where two individuals find connection amidst shared stories on a cruise for singles. Finally, "Jesus and Buddha in the Garden of Eden" provides a satirical, thought-provoking encounter in the afterlife between two spiritual figures. The book concludes with "The Breakup," a nuanced portrayal of a young couple's separation, told from both perspectives, encapsulating the complexities of relationships and the human experience.

God on a Budget: and other stories in dialogue

By J.M. Unrue,

What is this book about?

Nine Stories Told Completely in Dialogue is a unique collection of narratives, each unfolding entirely through conversations between its characters. The book opens with "God on a Budget," a tale of a man's surreal nighttime visitation that offers a blend of the mundane and the mystical. In "Doctor in the House," readers are plunged into the emotionally charged moment when an oncologist delivers a life-altering diagnosis to a patient. The collection then shifts to "Prisoner 8086," a story about the unlikely friendship that blossoms between a prison volunteer and a habitual offender, exploring themes of redemption and human connection.

The…


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