The best books about why people make the decisions they do

Who am I?

I have been fascinated by how people think since I was a teenager reading books about the mysteries of human psychology, Zen Buddhism, and how computers work. The wonders of cognition appear in countless guises. As a teenager, I was intrigued by the mind’s ability to “go meta,” to step back and gain awareness of itself. More recently, I have been struck by how individuals are able to share goals, intentions, and activities with others, to be cognitive team players. So many books these days are about neuroscience, but if you want to understand the mind, it is just as important to understand its social and cultural context, so I decided to choose books about the social and cultural environment surrounding how we make decisions.

I wrote...

The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone

By Steven Sloman, Philip Fernbach,

Book cover of The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone

What is my book about?

The human mind is astounding, but in fact, people know less than they think. Most of us don’t even know how ballpoint pens work, never mind complex things like political policies. This doesn’t stop us from having opinions. Just try explaining a policy that you feel strongly about in detail to someone else. How would it actually work? How exactly would it lead to consequences for society? It’s not surprising that we know so little; most things are infinitely complex because they are connected to everything else. That’s why we rely on others for our understanding. Knowledge isn’t in individual brains; it is distributed across communities. We have strong opinions because we live in communities that endorse our opinions, sometimes because the community knows a lot and sometimes because it just thinks it does.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Why did I love this book?

This book introduced me as a teenager (long ago) to the questions that I have pursued over the course of my career. What is special about the human mind? How can we begin to think about issues like understanding and awareness? How can we begin to do research that might, in the long run, shed some light on the answers to these questions?

By Douglas R. Hofstadter,

Why should I read it?

11 authors picked Gödel, Escher, Bach as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Douglas Hofstadter's book is concerned directly with the nature of maps" or links between formal systems. However, according to Hofstadter, the formal system that underlies all mental activity transcends the system that supports it. If life can grow out of the formal chemical substrate of the cell, if consciousness can emerge out of a formal system of firing neurons, then so too will computers attain human intelligence. Goedel, Escher, Bach is a wonderful exploration of fascinating ideas at the heart of cognitive science: meaning, reduction, recursion, and much more.

Book cover of Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don't Have All the Facts

Why did I love this book?

This clever little book is a highly digestible introduction to some of the key ideas that psychologists have had about how humans make judgments and decisions, when people do well, and when we are prone to error. The ideas are engaged in the author’s domain of expertise, through a game that everyone can relate to: poker. The book shows how learning to be a better poker player is a microcosm of learning how to be a more effective decision maker so you can achieve your own goals, whatever they are.

By Annie Duke,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

A Wall Street Journal bestseller, now in paperback. Poker champion turned decision strategist Annie Duke teaches you how to get comfortable with uncertainty and make better decisions.

Even the best decision doesn't yield the best outcome every time. There's always an element of luck that you can't control, and there's always information hidden from view. So the key to long-term success (and avoiding worrying yourself to death) is to think in bets: How sure am I? What are the possible ways things could turn out? What decision has the highest odds of success? Did I land in the unlucky 10%…

Book cover of The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Why did I love this book?

One obstacle to being a happy decision-maker in modern Western society is that we are constantly being told that more is better, having more choices means we are more likely to find the perfect option. But what if there is no perfect option? And what if choice itself makes us unhappy? Maybe we should spend less time making decisions and more time enjoying ourselves.

By Barry Schwartz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Whether we're buying a pair of jeans, ordering a cup of coffee, selecting a long-distance carrier, applying to college, choosing a doctor, or setting up a 401(k), everyday decisions-both big and small-have become increasingly complex due to the overwhelming abundance of choice with which we are presented. As Americans, we assume that more choice means better options and greater satisfaction. But beware of excessive choice: choice overload can make you question the decisions you make before you even make them, it can set you up for unrealistically high expectations, and it can make you blame yourself for any and all…

Book cover of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Why did I love this book?

This is a best-selling book for a good reason: It lists the top ways to persuade other people. Method number one: Persuade people to believe X by informing them that others believe X. Oh, how we like to conform.

By Robert B. Cialdini,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The foundational and wildly popular go-to resource for influence and persuasion-a renowned international bestseller, with over 5 million copies sold-now revised adding: new research, new insights, new examples, and online applications.

In the new edition of this highly acclaimed bestseller, Robert Cialdini-New York Times bestselling author of Pre-Suasion and the seminal expert in the fields of influence and persuasion-explains the psychology of why people say yes and how to apply these insights ethically in business and everyday settings. Using memorable stories and relatable examples, Cialdini makes this crucially important subject surprisingly easy. With Cialdini as a guide, you don't have…

Book cover of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History

Why did I love this book?

This book offers an insightful exploration of why Americans make the decisions they do, as individuals and as a society. It makes a compelling case that Americans are distinct in our flightiness, our failure to perceive and live in reality. This explains both the allure and promise of America, as well as much of its weirdness and its failures.

By Kurt Andersen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

You're entitled to your own opinion but not your own facts

Fantasy is the USA's primary product. From the Pilgrim Fathers onward America has been a place where renegades and freaks came in search of freedom to create their own realities with little objectively regulated truth standing in their way. The freedom to invent and believe whatever the hell you like is, in some ways, an unwritten constitutional right. But, this do-your-own-thing freedom also is the driving credo of America's current transformation where the difference between opinion and fact is rapidly crumbling.

So how did we get to this weird…

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Interested in decision making, artificial intelligence, and persuasion?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about decision making, artificial intelligence, and persuasion.

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