Psychology is one of my favorite topics for nonfiction reading. I love learning about how the mind works and why we are the way we are on that meta level. Here are three books I read recently that taught me some things about the mind and how its unique quirks influence our decisions, our personalities, and our societies.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman is a Nobel-winning economist, but his book is more concerned with our minds and choices than global markets. It’s really long and comprehensive, but it’s as interesting as any nonfiction book I’ve read all year. Throughout the book, Kahneman uses the terms “System 1” and “System 2” to describe the workings of the mind. He says that most of the time we use System 1, which is automatic, intuitive, and effortless. System 2 requires more mental effort and attention, and so we avoid using it as often as possible, but it is the only way we can do computations and think logically. This description of the mind made a lot of sense to me. It describes a lot of the reasons people make choices that are illogical, and yet these choices seem so natural and commonsensical. One reason for that is because our minds don’t understand statistics intuitively. Kahneman names a lot of these systematic errors so that they are easier to see and identify in our everyday lives. He describes some higher level economic concepts, like prospect theory, in terms that are fairly easy to understand.
I thought this book was fascinating. It was like taking an introductory college course on logic, with some side lessons on psychology, statistics, and economics. It’s a book about how thinking works, and it left me with a greater understanding of my own mind, and those of others.
The Emotional Life of Your Brain: How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel, and Live–and How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, PhD. with Sharon Begley
This book describes a theory of personality that I found interesting and persuasive. The six aspects of emotional style that Davidson discusses are Resilience, Outlook, Social Intuition, Self-Awareness, Sensitivity to Context, and Attention. Each of these dimensions has a spectrum, and we each have a unique emotional style that reflects our indlvidual places on these six spectrums. There are lots of little quizzes to give readers an idea of their own emotional style, but I thought they were too short to be really accurate. Davidson tried as much as possible to be unbiased about which emotional styles are ‘better,’ which in some cases led to too much relativism. The book also discusses the neuroscience research that shows that these patterns are physically present in the brain structure, as well as research on neuroplasticity, which proves that these brain structures can be altered through practice. I was convinced that the theory does a decent job of explaining the brain basis of personality, and somewhat encouraged to think that our flaws are somewhat malleable. But most of the suggestions for changing your emotional style were just meditating. I’d be interested to read more about developing research on this topic.
The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion by Jonathan Haidt
This book was about the psychology behind our contentious politics and how liberals and conservatives think and value things differently. Haidt writes as a liberal trying to understand conservatives. He describes six “moral foundations”: Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression. He found that the main difference between liberals and conservatives is that conservatives value all of these foundations roughly equally, while liberals focus on Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating and have trouble understanding the value of the other foundations. Another main insight was the idea that for all of us, intuitions come first and strategic reasoning comes second. We like to think that we slowly and rationally process evidence to come to reasonable conclusions, without passionate feelings playing any part, but really we come to emotional judgments quickly, then come up with logical reasons to support them. And that’s true for everyone, not just the people we disagree with. The book even delved into evolutionary psychology to push the idea of group selection, which seemed intellectually risky, but ultimately I was persuaded. Haidt calls for more mutual understanding and civility in politics, an idea I heartily agree with.