My Top Twelve Behavioural Science (loose description)Books of 2021 (with honourable mentions!)
Let’s just first say that because of, maybe in spite of, 2021 has been a fab year for new books being published. Out of the 101 books I’ve read this year I’ve chosen twelve published in 2021 that deserve your attention in order of publication date through the year.
- Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant published in February was quite rightly an instant #1 New York Times bestseller. Popular science, but popular because it was both immensely readable and accessible to all, Grant asks us to question our opinions. Intelligence, he says, comes with rethinking, unlearning and letting go of stale opinions, and there’s never been a better time than now to do just that.
2. Brandsplaining: Why Marketing is (Still) Sexist And How To Fix It by Jane Cunningham & Philippa Roberts published in February, came to me on the back of the wake-up call from reading Caroline Criado Perez’s ‘Invisible Women’. Written by two amazing marketers, this book points out things that we just don’t see in advertising because we’ve become so brainwashed to think it should just BE this way. The gap between women in media and the real US is still very wide despite major steps forward. Women’s real needs are still widely ignored and misrepresented and in a time where the ad industry still just doesn’t understand women, these marketers are doing their best to put this right.
3. Think BIG: Take Small Steps and Build The Future You Want by Grace Lordon, professor at LSE was published in March and is both an immensely practical book and one that at any stage in your life you can use to do a reset. I loved hearing Grace’s voice in this book which is basically about achieving goals but along the way we hear funny real-life stories from Grace’s life which add humour and a sense of realness to her book.
4. What We Owe Each Other: A New Social Contract by Minouche Shafik, director of LSE, was also published in March and is a new social contract for the 21st century. Building on Aneurin Bevan’s work of the 40s and 50s in Britain, Shafik brings this right up to date addressing healthcare, childcare, gender equality and more. It sounds dry but I wolfed this book down, marking many ideas for attention for future conversations.
5. Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less by Leidy Klotz came out in April and has at its heart a very simple premise that many of us don’t consider. That it might be better to take things away — all those never-completed to-do lists, to just stop doing them. Of course, there’s a lot more in here but basically, it’s a book about making things better by doing less — what’s not to like?!
6. The Sleeping Beauties: And Other Stories of Mystery Illness by Suzanne O'Sullivan was published in April. Dr O’Sullivan is a neurologist and she travels to meet communities as she explores these diagnostic mysteries with interest and compassion. In Sweden, she visits refugee families whose children have fallen asleep for months and in some cases years. In New York students develop contagious seizures and Dr O’Sullivan explores the famous US embassy in Cuba case where employees complained of headaches and memory loss. Already handed on by me to two other people to read, this is highly recommended.
7. Noise: A Flaw in Human Judgement by Daniel Kahneman, Olivier Sibony & Cass R. Sunstein was published to much anticipation in May. What can be said that hasn’t already been done so by the many media reviews? The premise is that wherever there is human judgement there is noise. Doctors giving different diagnoses and judges handing down different sentences depending on whether it’s just before lunch or their favourite team won that weekend. In a world where variability in judgement should be identical, at the end of the day we are all just human. If you are familiar with Kahneman and Sunstein’s writing you will hear their voices in the different parts of the text where these great three authors have come together to develop this argument.
8. This is Your Mind On Plants: Opium-Caffeine-Mescalin by Michael Pollan came out in July and is a fascinating exploration of our relationship with these natural drugs. It covers history, science, some memoir and reports on each of these plants and once you take on the basic premise that with the world’s daily intake of tea or coffee we are all basically mass stimulated all the time you will not be able to think of this idea in the same way again.
9. Nudge: The Final Edition by Richard H. Thaler & Cass R. Sunstein was published to much applause in August. Nudge in its first incarnation was arguably one of the most influential books of the first years of the 21st Century and entered into the vocabulary of policymakers worldwide, ‘nudge’ units and behavioural scientists. This edition has been completely updated, with new insights and some removals and I had forgotten how funny some parts of it were. In relation to the much-asked reality of the world ‘final’ in the title, Richard Thaler has replied that, despite his colleague Sunstein’s propensity for churning out books, he himself is not so fast nor so keen to write again and that an update won’t be coming until “after I’m dead”. No misunderstanding there!
10. Four Thousand Weeks: Embrace Your Limits. Change Your Life by Oliver Burkeman was published in August. Quite philosophical in nature, it carries the advice to make your time count. Four thousand weeks equates to roughly eighty years or a lifetime, and when put that way you may see time differently as the weeks rush by. This book is uplifting with the idea of freeing yourself of time and using your available time in a better way.
11. Being You: A New Science of Consciousness by Anil Seth came out in September and it is quite a challenging idea to think that consciousness isn’t a tangible thing. This book was the Financial Times science book of the year and an instant bestseller and it's not hard to see why. It asks what it means to be ‘you’ and how does our brain actually make our conscious experiences? Early pages discuss the difference between our sleep consciousness and when we are properly unconscious when under anaesthetic. From there I was hooked! A really fascinating exploration of what it is to be human.
12. We’ve got there in the end for number twelve, Transport For Humans by Pete Dyson and Rory Sutherland, published this November and just a joy to read the inner workings of Rory Sutherland’s mind, kept in place by Pete Dyson, on secondment to the Department of Transport and in his time there taking apart the inner workings of the traveller’s relationship with the transport. Engineers plan systems but humans use the system and here is the crunch, because for humans speed and efficiency just aren’t that important. And for engineers, comfort and trains not stopping without announcement come way down on their list of priorities. Enter Sutherland and Dyson.
Honourable mentions must go to ‘What Your Customer Wants But Can’t Tell You’ by Melina Palmer, ‘How To Change’ by Katy Milkman and the new ‘Influence’ by Robert Cialdini.
And in 2022 I’ll be waiting for … well read the next article to find out!