The best books about self knowledge

Timothy D. Wilson Author Of Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious
By Timothy D. Wilson

The Books I Picked & Why

The Person and the Situation: Perspectives of Social Psychology

By Lee Ross, Richard E. Nisbett

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

Why 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.

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Stumbling on Happiness

By Daniel Gilbert

Book cover of Stumbling on Happiness

Why 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.)

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Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession

By Janet Malcolm

Book cover of Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession

Why 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.”

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The Remains of the Day

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Book cover of The Remains of the Day

Why 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.)

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Machines Like Me

By Ian McEwan

Book cover of Machines Like Me

Why 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.

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