The best psychology books to understand people and human behavior.
I was both worried and excited about this post as I knew how challenging drafting such a list would be.
But a reading list of psychology and human behavior is a fundamental list both for this website and for succeeding in life.
Obviously: to get better with people (and to get what you want in life) you first have to understand people and human behavior (including your own).
This list of best psychology books focuses on how people think, what makes them tick, and what makes them do what they do.
- 17. Peak
- 16. Evil
- 15. Will I Ever Be Good Enough
- 14. Influence
- 13. Nudge
- 12. Thinking Fast and Slow
- 11. Mindset: Psychology of Success
- 10. Why Does He Do That?
- 9. The Art of Seduction
- 8. In Sheep’s Clothing
- 7. Attached
- 6. The New Psychology of Leadership
- 5. Dating Power Dynamics
- 4. Learned Optimism
- 3. I’m OK – You’re OK
- 2. The Social Animal
- 1. Evolutionary Psychology
- Great Psychology Books
- Best For Psychology Students
Anyone’s interested in becoming the best and achieving mastery?
Enters the branch of psychology that has been dubbed by some the “science of expertise”.
Anders Ericsson is one of the leading researchers in this newly emerging field, and “Peak” is one of the best books available.
Genes and talent do matter, of course, but so does continuous practice. And Andersson will teach you how to practice for mastery.
Oh, and he also dispels the pop-psychology myth of the “10.000 rule” that Gladwell (mis)popularized in “Outliers“.
It’s not so much about a precise amount of hours, of course. That depends on the discipline. How much you train does matter, of course, but how you train matters even more.
Also good for mastery:
- Ultralearning: the second-best book on achieving mastery, all about speed and efficiency
- Mastery by Robert Greene
- Grit by Angela Duckworth
- The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle (mostly uses Anders’ research)
The reason that most people don’t possess these extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but because they’re satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in the world of “good enough.”
Why do people can act evil?
And how do otherwise good people end up acting evil?
Can people “get used” to evil and commit more and more of it, as in a slippery slope?
These are only a few of the questions that this masterpiece will provide an answer for.
If you want to truly understand the dark side of human psychology, look no further.
No other title gets even close to Baumeister’s work.
Busting the low self-esteem myth
For a long time, and still to these days, most people believe in the pop-psychology myth that it’s low self-esteem that leads to reacting in anger to ego’s threats.
Baumeister was the first to realize and prove that it’s instead people with high but fragile self-esteem who react violently to perceived ego’s threats.
And he explains that wonderfully in “Evil”.
People will settle for any vaguely plausible argument when they want badly enough to believe that their hurtful actions are justified.
15. Will I Ever Be Good Enough
Eye-opening text and potential life-saver.
It deals with the effect that narcissistic mothers have on their children -especially daughters-, and it should be mandatory reading for mothers.
You will better understand narcissism, mother/child dynamics and the importance of parental love and acceptance.
Most of all, it focuses how lack of motherly love scars children for life and dooms them to a life of low self-esteem.
That low self-esteem in turns leads to a life of addiction and abusive relationship or to a life of perfectionism and over-achievements -yes, as crazy as that might sound, these two apparent opposites stem from the same lack of self-esteem-.
This sad, extreme example is more common than you might think. I have known daughters who felt tremendous relief when their narcissistic mothers passed away.
The psychology of persuading and selling had never been systematically researched in the world of academic psychology.
Until Cialdini burst into the scene with “Influence” in 1984.
It was long overdue for psychology to get scientific into persuasion, influence, and manipulation.
And “Influence” became an instant classic -and deservedly so-.
Even today, 35 years later, you’d be hard-pressed in finding a better book on influence and persuasion.
When we ask someone to do us a favor we will be more successful if we provide a reason.
People simply like to have reasons for what they do
Not everyone loved Nudge.
Nassim Taleb called Richard Thaler “creepy, creepy interventionist”.
But as much as I love Taleb, I must disagree there.
Not just because, as Thaler himself says, you are going to “nudge” people anyway.
And not just because “Nudge” helped bring the field of psychology into policy-making.
But because it deals with a topic all psychologists should be interested in: how psychology can help not just the individual, but society at large.
A must-read not only for psychologists but also for policymakers.
The first misconception is that it is possible to avoid influencing people’s choices.
12. Thinking Fast and Slow
Thinking Fast and Slow explains that most of our decisions happen quickly, without our rational part of the brain ever getting involved. However, those decisions are often based on simplistic (and often incorrect) heuristics.
This was also the first popular book to systematically list our cognitive biases, which will give you a great overview of the limitations and imperfections of our brain.
Still, you shouldn’t that lead you to the false belief that our minds are untrustworthy because “riddled with biases and errors”.
Like David Buss, I think that to better understand our mental heuristics we need to understand evolutionary psychology. Then we will realize that our mind uses heuristic because they weren’t so bad at solving the problems that mattered the most for our: mating and survival.
“Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our ignorance“
11. Mindset: Psychology of Success
Mindset was the N.1 of the best self-help books list.
But it’s also a wonderful book to understand all-around human psychology.
You will understand why some people always feel the need to make excuses and why they are afraid of trying new things (hint: personal identity and social identity are at stake before you develop a growth mindset).
Sure, Mindset and Dweck have had their fair share of criticism during the psychology replication crisis, but it remains a foundational text.
As for me, I can tell you this: after Mindset human behavior suddenly made much more sense to me.
And that’s one of the biggest compliments I can pay to any text.
“Talent isn’t passed in the genes; it’s passed in the mindsets“
10. Why Does He Do That?
Albeit it might seem a small niche in general psychology, I believe that’s not the case.
First of all, I’m afraid that are more men with abusive tendencies than we’d care to admit.
Second, abusive tendencies are often just extreme expressions of inborn drives and desires present in all men -controlling one’s partner just makes evolutionary sense-.
And third, abusive relationships are all about power dynamics, which will help you understand power relationships in general. Especially watch out for gaslighting, guilt-tripping, and the daily put-downs abusive men lower their victims’ self-esteem with.
“In reality, to remain neutral is to collude with the abusive man, whether or not that is your goal”
9. The Art of Seduction
Obviously the book cover of The Art of Seduction wants to mimic a vagina.
However, “The Art of Seduction” is much more than “just” sexual seduction.
This is a deep voyage in the meanders of social seduction, social power and human psychology.
For the most amoral use of psychology for dark sexual and seductive purposes and control (dark psychology) I highly recommend this (shocking) article:
“People are more complicated than the mask they wear in society”
8. In Sheep’s Clothing
This is a big darling of The Power Moves.
Because it provides much backing for this website’s philosophy and mission.
George Simon says that people in power have a tendency to be more abusive, more insensitive to others and more dangerous than most people are.
And even if you refuse to believe that this book still has truckloads of wisdom to teach.
It delves deep into the psychology of manipulators and power-hungry individuals.
Finally, it’s a much-needed slap in the face to a really annoying tendency of some psychologists.
The tendency to look for the “deep reasons for abusive behavior”, which often seem dangerously close to turning victimizers into victims.
No, it’s not always about childhood trauma or deep insecurities. Sometimes an a**hole is just an a**hole.
Power by itself doesn’t have the ability to corrupt a person’s character.
It’s the character flaws already present in people’s character that lead people to pursue power and abuse it once they have it.
Is it true that some men (and more rarely women) “need” to pull away when relationships get too intimate? And is it true that some people crave intimacy more than others while needing constant reassurance from their partners?
And what’s this all this intimacy stuff, do we all even need intimacy?
The answers are yes, yes and yes for all three of them.
Attached fleshes out both how intimacy allows us to lead more empowered lives and how different personalities relate to intimacy.
It’s eye-opening stuff if you are not already familiar with attachment styles.
“To be independent, find the right person to be dependent to”
6. The New Psychology of Leadership
“The New Psychology of Leadership” is not “just” about the psychology of leadership.
It goes deep into social identities, group dynamics, and inter-group dynamics.
All the wisdom it shares is backed by hundreds of studies and researches.
And that makes it great both for the average readers who are going to learn more than with any other leadership book, and for the academic who wants to dig deeper into the researches.
If you want to learn about social psychology, this is a muster read.
Leadership that is grounded in shared identity will always win out over that which is grounded in ego.
5. Dating Power Dynamics
Dating Power Dynamics is the official dating product of ThePowerMoves.com
It combines the:
- Best dating books for guys
- Best evolutionary psychology books
- Best books on power dynamics
- And the author’s experience
I believe that if you want to truly understand dating and dating psychology, this is the quickest way to do so, while also being deep and thorough.
The lover strategy can confer more power to the man who successfully seduces her.
But it’s also riskier for more average men -on the other hand, I’m sure most of the readers think of themselves comfortably above average :)-.
4. Learned Optimism
Let me come clean first:
I don’t like Martin Seligman.
He strikes me as self-absorbed, narcissistic, conservative, and even blindly patriotic and militarist.
Not good for a scientist.
Now, let’s differentiate the man from the work.
And this entry can be one of the most life-changing books on this list.
In “Learned Optimism” you will, pardon the cacophony, learn how to be happier and more optimistic.
And, incidentally, also how to achieve more, enjoy better relationships, and, if you’re interested, how to be elected in office -no kidding, optimistic politicians clean it at the polls-.
“Learned Optimism” is one the first books of the field that has come to be known as “Positive Psychology“.
And, in the years, there has been a proliferation of “Positive Psychology” books.
But I still recommend “Learned Optimism” over all other Positive Psychology books I have read, including Seligman’s Own “Authentic Happiness” and “Flourish“.
“Learned Optimism” is deeper, scientifically most accurate, and puts everything into perspective.
Albert Ellis’s books are equally good when it comes to self-development and becoming happier, more empowered people. But he is less about general psychology, and more about drilling on specific techniques (REBT).
What we want is not blind optimism but flexible optimism—optimism with its eyes open.
3. I’m OK – You’re OK
I’m forever indebted to Thomas Harris.
He is one of the authors who helped me the most to understand social and power dynamics -yes, more than any other on books actually focused on power-.
And he helped see and recognize the child still present in me, which in turn further helped me stamp it out. Which, in turn, made me more mature, stronger, wiser, and confident.
What can you ask more from a single book?
I’m OK – You’re OK is based on transaction analysis, a psychoanalytic theory and method of therapy founded by Eric Berne, the atuhor of “Games People Play“.
I also read Berne, but Thomas Harris provides a better and more comprehensive overview of transaction analysis.
“Even if the Adult in the individual gets him to the psychiatrist’s office, the Child soon takes over and a Parent-Child situation develops (transference).
This unique transaction is fairly common in life, and there are elements of it present in any contact with authority, as, for instance, when one is stopped by a highway patrolman. Psychoanalysts maintain that the patient has improved when he has succeeded in avoiding this kind of transfer of feelings from childhood.
2. The Social Animal
The Social Animal deserves a special place among the best psychology books to learn how people work.
In between a book and a university textbook indeed, I have rarely seen anything so densely packed with research-backed, eye-opening information on people and human psychology.
“The Social Animal” is the quickest way to gain an overview of decades of research on social psychology.
“People who do crazy things are not necessarily crazy.”
1. Evolutionary Psychology
All books in this list are fundamental pieces of the human mind puzzle. And no puzzle is complete without all the pieces.
But I agree with David Buss that evolutionary psychology is the meta-discipline that glues all the other branches of psychology together.
Or, at least, helps make sense of all the psychology branches.
Even positive psychologist Martin Seligman agrees, when he says “natural selection reframes almost everything, and it has pervaded my thinking about psychology since” (Seligman, 2018).
Take the recent craze among psychologists for “human biases“, for example.
In “How the Mind Works” Steven Pinker makes the case that humans aren’t as irrational as cognitive psychology might lead you to believe. There is a reason, and a method, behind those irrationalities. But you only understand it when you look at it through the lens of evolution.
And it’s only when you look at psychology through evolutionary psychology that you are truly able to connect the dots.
I doubt anyone can fully understand dating, relationships, and human behavior without first understanding the basics of evolutionary psychology.
Evolutionary psychology criticism:
Evolutionary psychology has been a contentious discipline.
Part of that criticism does raise some good points, including in the long-standing battle of nature VS nurture.
Read more on that academic row in “evolutionary psychology books“. But the end result is that the criticism does not cancel the contributions of one of the most important psychological disciplines.
On pop-evolutionary psychology and abuse
Evolutionary psychology has also been (ab)used to lend (false) credibility to personal conjectures and biases, and, historically, to justify oppression and aggression.
But that’s not evolutionary psychology, that’s either poor science (after the facts storytelling), or political manipulation (see eugenics).
Always be suspicious of people brandishing evolutionary psychology to justify this or that policy. Evolutionary psychology does not dictate morals and ethics. And be suspicious of simplistic evo-psych based storytelling: when a theory is non-falsifiable, than you’re probably in the presence of pop-psychologist (or a bro-scientist).
“We are built to be effective animals, not happy ones”
Great Psychology Books
People are not the simplest creatures and it takes more than one theory, science or book to answer for our behavior.
That means that a TOP 16 of best psychology books would not be enough. We need a few more titles to fully understand human psychology and human behavior.
So make sure you take a look at these great psychology books as well:
- The Prince: The psychology in “The Prince” is the psychology of manipulation, and political manipulation
- Date-onomics: focuses on how the supply and demand of mates affect people’s behavior and interpersonal attachment
- Not Just Friends: a book infidelity. Infidelity goes at the core of what really matters to us: sex, intimacy, relationship, and security (counting on the people closest to us to support us, not hurt us)
- Predictably Irrational: debunks the “homo economicus” theories, showing how our irrational side often trumps the rational one
- Games People Play: very Freudian, but you will better understand some behavioral patterns of dysfunctional relationships
- Controlling People: makes a good pair with “Why Does He Do That” and explains the psychology of abusive and controlling men
- Codependent No More: most abusive relationship are co-dependent relationships. And this is an eye-opening voyage into how abusive relationship last far longer than they should
- The Mask of Masculinity: good for a better grasp of male psychology (and the image they try to portray)
- No More Mr. Nice Guy: in spite of some imperfections, it’s a good resource to understand men who repress their feelings trying to be good and “nice”
- Relentless: not meant to be a psychology book, but very good to understand the psychology of ultra-achievers and what drives them. Works well with “Can’t Hurt Me” too.
- The Man’s Guide to Women: this a great book to gain a better understanding of both women and relationships in one go
- Fooled by Randomness: this book will change the way you will look at poor research and fake science. The induction fallacy has become a staple with which a analyze (and criticize) all the books I review
- The Brain that Changes Itself: the staple of brain plasticity. It explains how our brain can change and develop through effort, repetition and time
- The Definite Book of Body Language: there is a connection between mind and body. Learning what the body says is also a great way to understand the mind
- The Selfish Gene: it’s an individualistic view of evolutionary psychology (gene-centered), which is often pitted against “group’s selection” theories. But wherever you stand, this is a landmark of evolutionary psychology and a good primer on the discipline
- The Origins of Virtue: how did we become so collavorative in spite of the selfish gene selection? Matt Ridley answer that question here
- The Sociopath Next Door: one of the best introductory texts on antisocial personality disorders
- The Laws of Human Nature: in between a self-help book and a psychology text, Greene’s take is always so refreshingly different that it deserves a top stop in any “best psychology books list”
- The Blank Slate: Pinker argues that in the millennia-old battle of “nature VS nurture” our culture has gone too far into “nurture” side. I agree with him and loved the book
- Incognito: how our subconscious controls us more than we think
- The Highly Sensitive Person: the Bible of high-sensitivity. It helped me understand myself so much better (I’m HSP and you can take an HSP test here)
- The Red Queen: monumental work of evolutionary psychology
- I Hate You Don’t Leave Me: the best book on the psychology of BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder). “Stop Walking On Eggshells” is more focused on living with a BPD
- The Psychopath Whisperer: There are many books on psychopaths -they draw a lot of perverse attention from the broad public-.
This is one of my favorites when it comes to criminal psychopaths. But Robert Hare’s “Without Conscience” is also not bad. And for sociopaths’ own accounts, see “Confessions of a Sociopath” for a layman’s read, and “The Psychopath Inside” for a more scientific one
- Yes!: the full title is “50 scientifically proven way to be persuasive”. This makes a great pair with “Influence”, and it’s none less good
- 30 Covert Emotional Manipulation Tactics: sadly psychological research hasn’t done much in the fields of abuse and manipulation. And that’s why it’s my pleasure to add this little and short gem to this list of best psychology books
- The Believing Brain: what makes people believe in all sorts of unlikely stuff? This book answers that question. And Shermer writes from the point of view of a self-define skeptic.
What’s not to like?
- The Body Keeps The Score: a landmark work on trauma and trauma-healing
- The Antidote: this is a criticism of “pop psychology” as often expressed in the self-help literature. To read right after some purported “positive psychology text” (and check out “self-help myths” for an updated list)
- 48 Laws of Power: focus on the darker side of human nature and the games people play (bit over-hyped but good)
- Quiet: best book to learn about introversion. And since you’re here also check out ambiverts
- 12 Rules for Life: helps you understand the issues facing those who bottle up anger and darkest drives (we must channel them positively, not repress them)
- Emotional Vampires: if you want to learn personalities disorders (and how to deal with them) in a simple way, this is your book
- Drive: material incentives can be counterproductive to motivate people. Especially when we could instead tap into our deeper drives to help, belong and to do work that matters
- The Lucifer Effect: we are capable of good and evil. And often it’s not our personality (dispositional theory), but the conditions around us that will decide. It’s by asserting personal authority and taking full responsibility we can change that (a major theme of this website)
- Eliminating Passive-Aggressiveness: Not only there are probably more passive-aggressive people than we think, but most of us do behave passive-aggressively at least some of the times.
Once you understand passive aggression, you will also understand people better.
- Behave: A monumental work on humans, a great interdisciplinary and scientific overview of why we do what we do
- Man’s Search for Meaning: while not strictly a psychology book, in a way Man’s Search for Meaning says all that there is to know about human beings:
Man is that being who invented the gas chambers (..). And also that being who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread.
I always get misty-eyed reading that. Let’s all try to be the change for more of the latter.
Best For Psychology Students
These books are the best psychology books for psyhcology students and researchers, as well as professors and academics.
So, do scientists only care about science?
Of course not.
They care about awards, praise, frame, public accolades, etc. etc… Just like anyone else.
Funny though how psychologists themselves often miss on this obvious truth, and struggle to even keep their own friendships.
Don’t be one of those “paper psychologists”, who misses out on actually applied psychology.
In this book, you will learn of Kahneman and Tversky, two psychologists who changed the world psychology… But couldn’t manage to keep their friendship.
The story of how psychology -and psychologists- fought their way into a different turf-discipline: economics.
And, of course, of how economists tried to fight psychologists off.
Psychology into economics was a much needed merger. The homo-economicus, an allegory for an ultra-rational human being who always makes rational choices, was obviously nonsense.
But economists needed some strong convincing before giving up their models based on full rationality.
The new discipline at the convergence of psychology and economics is now called “behavioral economics“.
You will not just learn about the history of how a new branch of psychology came to light, but also about power dynamics.
Economists have their way of doing things and will resist change. If for no other reason, that they invested years building their own corners of this edifice.
A crash course on academia’s power dynamics as well.
Seligman opens up academia’s curtains to reveal the intellectual wars raging behind it.
What do I mean by that?
Researchers clinging to a school of thought against all evidence, professors defending their theory as if they were their babies, and different factions attacking each other based on school of affiliation while seeking intellectual domination.
Sad somehow, but true.
And if you can read between the lines, you can sense that Seligman wasn’t any better and, if anything, more self-promotional and hungry for fame than most others.
I hope you’re going to be a different psychologist: your only affiliation must be truth, and evidence.
It makes sense.
The guys craved power, fame, and praise, so he obviously heavily focuses on social status, winning, and power dynamcis.
Much to learn from this book, including tips on how to get your work published, and strategies on how to have a good academic career.
Also much to learn from Seligman’s mistakes as the author, as he ends up coming across a tad too self-absorbed and pompous.
A Note On The Best Psychology Books
Albeit lists are inherently seductive to the human mind, try not to make too much of the “order”.
What adds the most value for you depends on your background and what you already know.
But if you are serious about understanding people, then almost every single psychology books on this reading list is mandatory. Plus lots of personal experience, coupled with copious note-taking.