The best books to bust common myths about our human nature

Why are we passionate about this?

We are social epidemiologists trying to understand how the societies we live in affect our health. Together, we try to communicate our scientific research to politicians and policy-makers, but even more importantly to everyone who is curious about how our worlds shape our wellbeing and who want to work together for positive change.  We co-founded a UK charity, The Equality Trust, to build a social movement for a more equal society, and we are Global Ambassadors for the Wellbeing Economy Alliance, an international collaboration of organisations and individuals working to transform economic systems.

We wrote...

The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone's Well-Being

By Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson,

Book cover of The Inner Level: How More Equal Societies Reduce Stress, Restore Sanity and Improve Everyone's Well-Being

What is our book about?

In The Inner Level we explain how economic inequality affects us individually, how it alters how we think, feel, and behave. We set out the overwhelming evidence that material inequalities have powerful psychological effects: when the gap between rich and poor increases, so does the tendency to define and value ourselves and others in terms of superiority and inferiority.

We show, for example, that low social status increases stress, and how anxiety and depression are intimately related to the inequality which makes that status paramount. We describe how these responses to hierarchies evolved; in doing so, we challenge the conception that humans are innately competitive and self-interested. 

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The books we picked & why

Book cover of The Age of Empathy: Nature's Lessons for a Kinder Society

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson Why did I love this book?

Often, when we talk to people about the need for more egalitarian societies, we get push back. 

People say, “Oh, there will always be inequality because humans are only interested in their own survival and their own interests, they will always be out for themselves – you can’t fight human nature."

Primatologist Frans de Waal turns that argument on its head, showing the survival value of empathy, cooperation, and a sense of fairness for animals and humans alike.

By Franz de Waal,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

'Kindness and co-operation have played a crucial role in raising humans to the top of the evolutionary tree ... We have thrived on the milk of human kindness.' Observer


'There is a widely-held assumption that humans are hard-wired for relentless and ruthless competition ... Frans de Waal sees nature differently - as a biological legacy in which empathy, not mere self-interest, is shared by humans, bonobos and animals.' Ben Macintyre, The Times

Empathy holds us together. That we are hardwired to be altruistic is the result…

Book cover of Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson Why did I love this book?

We’ve often been inspired by the insights that Sapolsky has drawn from his years of fieldwork with baboons in Africa, but this book is grander in scope than his previous work, it’s a tour de force examination of human nature and behaviour.

From one of the best natural history writers of our time, neurobiologist Robert Sapolsky draws on his deep expertise to trace the biological and evolutionary origins of our human capacity for two different kinds of behavioural strategy:  morality, reconciliation and peace versus aggression, tribalism, and war. 

By Robert M. Sapolsky,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Behave as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The New York Times Bestseller

"It's no exaggeration to say that Behave is one of the best nonfiction books I've ever read." -David P. Barash, The Wall Street Journal

"It has my vote for science book of the year." -Parul Sehgal, The New York Times

"Hands-down one of the best books I've read in years. I loved it." -Dina Temple-Raston, The Washington Post

Named a Best Book of the Year by The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal

From the celebrated neurobiologist and primatologist, a landmark, genre-defining examination of human behavior, both good and bad, and an answer to…

Book cover of Humankind: A Hopeful History

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson Why did I love this book?

If you think you know all about the famous Milgram experiment, in which people gave what they thought were painful electric shocks to another person under orders from an authority figure, then you need to read Humankind.

Historian Rutger Bregman takes us on a journey through human history, re-examining events and research studies, and debunking the idea that we are selfish and self-interested.

Although this view of human nature takes a terrible toll on our economics and our politics, this hopeful book shows how much better we can be.                                

By Rutger Bregman, Erica Moore (translator), Elizabeth Manton (translator)

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A Guardian, Daily Telegraph, New Statesman and Daily Express Book of the Year

'Hugely, highly and happily recommended' Stephen Fry
'You should read Humankind. You'll learn a lot (I did) and you'll have good reason to feel better about the human race' Tim Harford
'Made me see humanity from a fresh perspective' Yuval Noah Harari

It's a belief that unites the left and right, psychologists and philosophers, writers and historians. It drives the headlines that surround us and the laws that touch our lives. From Machiavelli to Hobbes, Freud to Dawkins, the roots of this belief have…

Book cover of The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson Why did I love this book?

Everything we’ve been taught about the rise of so-called civilization – that it originated in early city-states built on agriculture, and required by its very nature inequality and hierarchy – is wrong.

David Graeber, an anthropologist, and David Wengrow, an archaeologist, leave conventional wisdom behind and take us through what the data actually show about the past 30,000 years of human societies. 

Full of surprises, this is a book that leads to radical thinking about our possible futures.

By David Graeber, David Wengrow,

Why should I read it?

14 authors picked The Dawn of Everything as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


A dramatically new understanding of human history, challenging our most fundamental assumptions about social evolution—from the development of agriculture and cities to the origins of the state, democracy, and inequality—and revealing new possibilities for human emancipation.

For generations, our remote ancestors have been cast as primitive and childlike—either free and equal innocents, or thuggish and warlike. Civilization, we are told, could be achieved only by sacrificing those original freedoms or, alternatively, by taming our baser instincts. David Graeber and David Wengrow show how such theories first emerged in the eighteenth century as a conservative reaction…

Book cover of The Self Delusion: The Surprising Science of How We Are Connected and Why That Matters

Kate Pickett and Richard Wilkinson Why did I love this book?

You probably view any connection to nature that you feel as a purely emotional and/or intellectual experience. 

But what if we’re not individuals disconnected from other people and nature, but instead connected to nature and one another by biology and evolution in ways that have powerful implications for our ability to create societies that sustain both us as people and the planet we live on? 

Like all our book picks, this one chimes with our own research – the more we learn about our real place in the world and how our world creates our realities, the better able we’ll be to change the world.

By Tom Oliver,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

We are much more connected to nature and each other than it seems. We perceive ourselves as autonomous, discrete individuals with an unchanging inner self that persists throughout our lifetime, but this is an illusion.

On a physical, psychological and cultural level, we are all much more intertwined than we know: we cannot use our bodies to define our independent existence because most of our 37 trillion cells have such a short lifespan that we are essentially made anew every few weeks; the molecules that make up our bodies have already been component parts of countless other organisms, from ancient…

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A Theory of Expanded Love

By Caitlin Hicks,

Book cover of A Theory of Expanded Love

Caitlin Hicks Author Of A Theory of Expanded Love

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

My life and work have been profoundly affected by the central circumstance of my existence: I was born into a very large military Catholic family in the United States of America. As a child surrounded by many others in the 60s, I wrote, performed, and directed family plays with my numerous brothers and sisters. Although I fell in love with a Canadian and moved to Canada, my family of origin still exerts considerable personal influence. My central struggle, coming from that place of chaos, order, and conformity, is to have the courage to live an authentic life based on my own experience of connectedness and individuality, to speak and be heard. 

Caitlin's book list on coming-of-age books that explore belonging, identity, family, and beat with an emotional and/or humorous pulse

What is my book about?

Trapped in her enormous, devout Catholic family in 1963, Annie creates a hilarious campaign of lies when the pope dies and their family friend, Cardinal Stefanucci, is unexpectedly on the shortlist to be elected the first American pope.

Driven to elevate her family to the holiest of holy rollers in the parish, Annie is tortured by her own dishonesty. But when “The Hands” visits her in her bed and when her sister finds herself facing a scandal, Annie discovers her parents will do almost anything to uphold their reputation and keep their secrets safe. 

Questioning all she has believed and torn between her own gut instinct and years of Catholic guilt, Annie takes courageous risks to wrest salvation from the tragic sequence of events set in motion by her parents’ betrayal.

A Theory of Expanded Love

By Caitlin Hicks,

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in empathy, philosophy, and nature?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about empathy, philosophy, and nature.

Empathy Explore 140 books about empathy
Philosophy Explore 1,546 books about philosophy
Nature Explore 146 books about nature