The best books to start changing the world and/or yourself

Why am I passionate about this?

My passion is using field experiments to explore economic questions. Since the early 1990s I have generated more than 200 papers published in academic journals using the world as my lab. That’s what we do as academics. The problem is that locked away in these journals is an enormous amount of wisdom and insights that can not only help the realm of academia, but also change the world as we know it. The brilliant authors of these books unlock the ideas and knowledge found in the academic papers that are full of jargon and math, aimed towards a narrow audience, and put them in language aimed towards the masses where real change can be implemented.  


I wrote...

The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale

By John A. List,

Book cover of The Voltage Effect: How to Make Good Ideas Great and Great Ideas Scale

What is my book about?

Translating an idea into widespread impact, says University of Chicago economist John A. List, depends on one thing only: whether it can achieve “high voltage”—the ability to be replicated at scale.

In The Voltage Effect, List explains that scalable ideas share a common set of attributes, while any number of attributes can doom an unscalable idea. Drawing on his original research, as well as fascinating examples from the realms of business, policymaking, education, and public health, he identifies five measurable vital signs that a scalable idea must possess, and offers proven strategies for avoiding voltage drops and engineering voltage gains.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of Parent Nation: Unlocking Every Child's Potential, Fulfilling Society's Promise

John A. List Why did I love this book?

Parents are the foundation of our society. However, too many parents do not receive the support they need to meet the needs of their children.

Dr. Dana Suskind, my incredible wife, combines the latest science on the key role of parents in the development of children’s brains with stories of the experience of parents left shouldering this vital responsibility. Leaving parents unsupported is detrimental not only to children and families, but also society.

This book is essential for all members of society to read in order to understand why and, importantly, how we must support parents. Parent Nation provides a blueprint for a more sustainable future.

By Dana Suskind,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

***INSTANT New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today Bestseller***

World-class pediatric surgeon, social scientist, and best-selling author of Thirty Million Words Dr. Dana Suskind returns with a revelatory new look at the neuroscience of early childhood development—and how it can guide us toward a future in which every child has the opportunity to fulfill their potential.

Her prescription for this more prosperous and equitable future, as clear as it is powerful, is more robust support for parents during the most critical years of their children’s development. In her poignant new book, Parent Nation, written with award-winning science writer…


Book cover of Mixed Signals: How Incentives Really Work

John A. List Why did I love this book?

Many people are now aware of the power of incentives. However, it is not hard to find examples of times when incentives and signals do not align.

Take an example addressed in this book: organizations highlight teamwork but use individual incentives. Incentives and signals can help you achieve your goals, but you must make sure that incentives are signally what you intend.

My co-author of The Why-Axis and many academic papers, Uri Gneezy, combines learnings from behavioral economics, game theory, psychology, and fieldwork to teach you to do just that. You will learn how to ensure that your incentives send the signal that you want. 

By Uri Gneezy,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An informative and entertaining account of how actions send signals that shape behaviors and how to design better incentives for better results in our life, our work, and our world

Incentives send powerful signals that aim to influence behavior. But often there is a conflict between what we say and what we do in response to these incentives. The result: mixed signals.

Consider the CEO who urges teamwork but designs incentives for individual success, who invites innovation but punishes failure, who emphasizes quality but pays for quantity. Employing real-world scenarios just like this to illustrate this everyday phenomenon, behavioral economist…


Book cover of How to Change: The Science of Getting from Where You Are to Where You Want to Be

John A. List Why did I love this book?

Locked away in academic journals are many key insights that can change your life.

Most of us struggle with change. No matter what your goals are, from trying to learn a new language, to exercising more, using science can help get you there.

Wharton Professor Katy Milkman brilliantly presents the science of changing in an actionable manner, so that we can all start making the changes that we want in the most effective way! 

By Katy Milkman,

Why should I read it?

4 authors picked How to Change as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Game-changing. Katy Milkman shows in this book that we can all be a super human' Angela Duckworth, bestselling author of Grit

How to Change is a powerful, groundbreaking blueprint to help you - and anyone you manage, teach or coach - to achieve personal and professional goals, from the master of human nature and behaviour change and Choiceology podcast host Professor Katy Milkman.

Award-winning Wharton Professor Katy Milkman has devoted her career to the study of behaviour change. An engineer by training, she approaches all challenges as problems to be solved and, with this mind-set, has drilled into the roadblocks…


Book cover of Influence Is Your Superpower: The Science of Winning Hearts, Sparking Change, and Making Good Things Happen

John A. List Why did I love this book?

We all have ideas that we’d like to bring to life, whether it’s a new system in your workplace or the way you and your friends throw parties.

Having influence, whether it’s within your close circle, at work, or more broadly is extremely useful. However, do you know how to be influential? Well, there’s science behind influencing others.

Yale behavioral scientist Zoe Chance brings to life the science-based tools for bringing your ideas to life. This book will teach you an ethical approach to influence that not only makes you better off, but others as well. 

By Zoe Chance,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Influence Is Your Superpower as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Get what you want without compromising who you are: the new rules of persuasion to influence others for good

We're all nice. In fact, we're told we're too nice and we have to change to succeed: 'Play the game!'; 'Beat them down!'; 'Toughen up!'. Do we have to choose between betraying our own values and being left behind without a voice? Absolutely not. We can naturally be persuasive and successful every day without making enemies of ourselves or other people.

Influence is a science and renowned Yale professor Zoe Chance will help you master it in this fascinating book. Drawing…


Book cover of Super Freakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance

John A. List Why did I love this book?

We all loved Freakonomics. The incredible Stephen J. Dubner and Steven Levitt did it again in their second book Super Freakonomics.

Thinking like an economist is a powerful tool. What might surprise you are the motley assortment of questions that you can think about from the perspective of an economist.

This book is bold, funny, and insightful. And what’s the underlying theme? Well, it’s one thing all economists can agree on – incentives matter. Dubner and Levitt are masterful storytellers and teachers.

Even if you aren’t interested in thinking like an economist, their perspective on topics covered is worth the read. 

By Steven D Levitt, Stephen J Dubner,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The international bestselling Freakquel to Levitt and Dubner's Freakonomics, this book sees them looking deeper, questioning harder and uncovering even more hidden truths about our world, from global cooling to patriotic prostitutes, drunk walking to why suicide bombers should buy life insurance.

'Mind-blowing' Wall Street Journal

'Page-turning, politically incorrect and ever-so-slightly intoxicating, like a large swig of tequila' The Times

'Like Freakonomics but better ... you are guaranteed a good time' Financial Times

'Great fun ... Levitt is a master at drawing counter-intuitive conclusions' Sunday Times

'Studded with intriguing examples' Daily Telegraph


You might also like...

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

Book cover of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

Kathryn Betts Adams Author Of The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

New book alert!

Why am I passionate about this?

I was first a clinical social worker and then a social work professor with research focus on older adults. Over the past few years, as I have been writing my own memoir about caring for my parents, I’ve been drawn to memoirs and first-person stories of aging, illness, and death. The best memoirs on these topics describe the emotional transformation in the writer as they process their loss of control, loss of their own or a loved one’s health, and their fear, pain, and suffering. In sharing these stories, we help others empathize with what we’ve gone through and help others be better prepared for similar events in their own lives.

Kathryn's book list on Memoirs illness aging death moving vivid prose

What is my book about?

The Pianist's Only Daughter is a frank, humorous, and heartbreaking exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her mother, an English scholar and poet, and her father, a pianist and music professor. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' newly single father flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Their daughter watches in disbelief…

The Pianist's Only Daughter: A Memoir

By Kathryn Betts Adams,

What is this book about?

Grounded in insights about mental health, health and aging, The Pianist’s Only Daughter: A Memoir presents a frank and loving exploration of aging in an aging expert's own family.

Social worker and gerontologist Kathryn Betts Adams spent decades negotiating evolving family dynamics with her colorful and talented parents: her English scholar and poet mother and her pianist father. Their vivid emotional lives, marital instability, and eventual divorce provided the backdrop for her 1960s and ‘70s Midwestern youth.

Nearly thirty years after they divorce, Adams' father finds himself single and flies in to woo his ex-wife, now retired and diagnosed with…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in persuasion, sociology, and behavioral economics?

11,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about persuasion, sociology, and behavioral economics.

Persuasion Explore 21 books about persuasion
Sociology Explore 145 books about sociology
Behavioral Economics Explore 28 books about behavioral economics