From 'Flourish' to 'Incognito,' the 11 Best Psychology Books of 2011

After the year's best children's books, art and design books, photography books, science books, history books, and food books, the 2011 best-of series continues with the most compelling, provocative, and thought-provoking psychology and philosophy books featured here this year.

1. YOU ARE NOT SO SMART

We spend most of our lives going around believing we are rational, logical beings who make carefully weighted decisions based on objective facts in stable circumstances. Of course, as both a growing body of research and our own retrospective experience demonstrate, this couldn't be further from the truth. For the past three years, David McRaney's cheekily titled yet infinitely intelligent You Are Not So Smart has been one of my favorite smart blogs, tirelessly debunking the many ways in which our minds play tricks on us and the false interpretations we have of those trickeries. This month, YANSS joins my favorite blog-turned-book success stories with You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself -- an illuminating and just the right magnitude of uncomfortable almanac of some of the most prevalent and enduring lies we tell ourselves.

The original trailer for the book deals with something the psychology of which we've previously explored -- procrastination:

And this excellent alternative trailer is a straight shot to our favorite brilliant book trailers:

From confirmation bias -- our tendency to seek out information, whether or not it's true, that confirms our existing beliefs, something all the more perilous in the age of the filter bubble -- to Dunbar's Number, our evolution-imposed upper limit of 150 friends, which pulls into question those common multi-hundred Facebook "friendships," McRaney blends the rigor of his career as a journalist with his remarkable penchant for synthesis, humanizing some of the most important psychology research of the past century and framing it in the context of our daily lives.

Despite his second-person directive narrative, McRaney manages to keep his tone from being preachy or patronizing, instead weaving an implicit "we" into his "you" to encompass all our shared human fallibility.

From the greatest scientist to the most humble artisan, every brain within every body is infested with preconceived notions and patterns of thought that lead it astray without the brain knowing it. So you are in good company. No matter who your idols and mentors are, they too are prone to spurious speculation. --David McRaney

And in the Age of Books That Should've Stayed Articles, it's refreshing to see McRaney distill each of these complex phenomena in articulate, lucid narratives just the right length to be stimulating without being tediously prolix.

Originally featured in November.

2. MONOCULTURE

"The universe is made of stories, not atoms," poet Muriel Rukeyser famously proclaimed. The stories we tell ourselves and each other are how we make sense of the world and our place in it. Some stories become so sticky, so pervasive that we internalize them to a point where we no longer see their storiness -- they become not one of many lenses on reality, but reality itself. And breaking through them becomes exponentially difficult because part of our shared human downfall is our ego's blind conviction that we're autonomous agents acting solely on our own volition, rolling our eyes at any insinuation we might be influenced by something external to our selves. Yet we are -- we're infinitely influenced by these stories we've come to internalize, stories we've heard and repeated so many times they've become the invisible underpinning of our entire lived experience.

That's exactly what F. S. Michaels explores in Monoculture: How One Story Is Changing Everything -- a provocative investigation of the dominant story of our time and how it's shaping six key areas of our lives: our work, our relationships with others and the natural world, our education, our physical and mental health, our communities, and our creativity.

The governing pattern a culture obeys is a master story -- one narrative in society that takes over the others, shrinking diversity and forming a monoculture. When you're inside a master story at a particular time in history, you tend to accept its definition of reality. You unconsciously believe and act on certain things, and disbelieve and fail to act on other things. That's the power of the monoculture; it's able to direct us without us knowing too much about it. --F. S. Michaels

During the Middle Ages, the dominant monoculture was one of religion and superstition. When Galileo challenged the Catholic Church's geocentricity with his heliocentric model of the universe, he was accused of heresy and punished accordingly, but he did spark the dawn of the next monoculture, which reached a tipping point in the 17th century as humanity came to believe the world was fully knowable and discoverable through science, machines, and mathematics -- the scientific monoculture was born.

Ours, Micheals demonstrates, is a monoculture shaped by economic values and assumptions, and it shapes everything from the obvious things (our consumer habits, the music we listen to, the clothes we wear) to the less obvious and more uncomfortable to relinquish the belief of autonomy over (our relationships, our religion, our appreciation of art).

A monoculture doesn't mean that everyone believes exactly the same thing or acts in exactly the same way, but that we end up sharing key beliefs and assumptions that direct our lives. Because a monoculture is mostly left unarticulated until it has been displaced years later, we learn its boundaries by trial and error. We somehow come to know how the mater story goes, though no one tells us exactly what the story is or what its rules are. We develop a strong sense of what's expected of us at work, in our families and communities -- even if we sometimes choose not to meet those expectations. We usually don't ask ourselves where those expectations came from in the first place. They just exist -- or they do until we find ourselves wishing things were different somehow, though we can't say exactly what we would change, or how. --F. S. Michaels

Neither a dreary observation of all the ways in which our economic monoculture has thwarted our ability to live life fully and authentically nor a blindly optimistic sticking-it-to-the-man kumbaya, Michaels offers a smart and realistic guide to first recognizing the monoculture and the challenges of transcending its limitations, then considering ways in which we, as sentient and autonomous individuals, can move past its confines to live a more authentic life within a broader spectrum of human values.

Presented by

Maria Popova is the editor of Brain Pickings. She writes for Wired UK and GOOD, and is an MIT Futures of Entertainment Fellow.

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