Books about cognitive / psychological biases?
August 18, 2019 7:24 PM   Subscribe

I've just encountered this long list of cognitive and psychological biases, and I've had a ball of a time reading through them. What are some recommended books that go into these biases in more detail, particularly from a psychological or evolutionary perspective?

I am looking for non-fiction science/psychology books geared for the "lay" reader, rather than text books or self-help books. I would also love books that are written in a not-so-dense way (looking at you "Thinking Fast, Thinking Slow" -- you are great, but you are a bit of a slog that I started 4 years ago and sill haven't made it through).

Extra points to books that are:
- entertaining / humorous and/or peppered with stories/anecdotes
- neuroscience, evolutionary psychology, discussion of research studies are awesome!!

Also, ideally, written in a compassionate way... vs. too sterile or an elitist way. Am fine with books that make connections to philosophy or history or the yet to be learned/discovered, but would want the book to be largely grounded in the scientific method.
posted by ellerhodes to Science & Nature (17 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not sure this fits the definition of the 'biases' part of the question, and I get that's the crux of the question and all, but it sure does fit the remainder of your criteria and is geared rather solidly in psychological oddity and observational science in the micro-sense.

The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Sacks
posted by RolandOfEld at 7:29 PM on August 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Not explicitly about these biases, but Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think discusses a lot of this topic--how we tend to make assumptions in our thought processes that we aren't even aware of but that lead to a lot of incorrect conclusions. It was very interesting, fun to read, and not "elitist" as far as I know, though I'm not sure what you mean by that.
posted by gideonfrog at 7:42 PM on August 18, 2019

Dan Ariely has a bunch of pop science books on related topics. More academic textbooks on the psychology of judgment and decision-making are easy to find: this is a very readable classic--more readable than Wikipedia, but old; this I've seen assigned somewhat more recently (but still >10 years ago), and it's pretty dense; this I recall thumbing through and thinking it fell somewhere in-between; but here, here, and here are syllabuses from the past few years that may turn up something newer.
posted by Wobbuffet at 7:54 PM on August 18, 2019

David McRaney has a couple of books and a podcast on cognitive biases. They're all pretty much in the lighter style you describe.
posted by maudlin at 8:44 PM on August 18, 2019 [2 favorites]

A really useful companion to the Wikipedia list is this chart, the Cognitive Bias Codex, which is a visualization of the analysis done in Cognitive Bias Cheet Sheet by Buster Benson. Where the Wikipedia page has 3 big, broad sections, the chart has 20 or so major groupings with four top-level categories of "memory, meaning, information overload, and 'need to act fast'". I find this analysis enough to satisfy my own curiosity about cognitive biases — the upper-left quadrant of the chart lists the cognitive biases that make me comfortable to "remember key elements", "discard specifics to form generalities", and "favor simple options that have more complete information over more complex, ambiguous options".
posted by xueexueg at 9:15 PM on August 18, 2019 [5 favorites]

Seconding David McRaney, whose book "You Are Not So Smart" was my entryway into this sort of thing. I would add that on first read I found a lot of this book kind of demoralizing, as I learned for the first time how utterly defective the human brain is compared to how we like to think of it, our sort of common 'rational mind' narrative. But now I realize that these are the brains that got us where we are, and damn we've come a long way. Thanks brain (and opposable thumbs, and that thing were we can cool down while running)! McRaney's podcast has given me a lot of leads on other books and authors, including...

Jonathan Haidt, starting with "The Happiness Hypothesis," and its followup "The Righteous Mind." The first is about the emotional brain/rational brain divide, and who's really in charge, and the latter is about how the brain processes morality, and what that means for the things we do vs. the things we think we do.
posted by Sunburnt at 9:53 PM on August 18, 2019 [1 favorite]

Jennifer Eberhardt is a Stanford psychologist (and MacArthur Award recipient) who has done really interesting work on racial bias. She just published Biased this year.
posted by Nerdy Spice at 1:20 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber's The Enigma of Reason is exactly this kind of thing.

It's quite recent (2017) so I don't know how well-accepted this hypothesis is in the scientific community, but they argue convincingly that our ability to reason is not so general-purpose as we generally suppose - rather, that it is specifically geared to social, interactive discussion, with the emphasis on justifying our own opinions and criticising contrary opinions.
Reason, we are told, is what makes us human, the source of our knowledge and wisdom. If reason is so useful, why didn't it also evolve in other animals? If reason is that reliable, why do we produce so much thoroughly reasoned nonsense? In their groundbreaking account of the evolution and workings of reason, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber set out to solve this double enigma. Reason, they argue with a compelling mix of real-life and experimental evidence, is not geared to solitary use, to arriving at better beliefs and decisions on our own. What reason does, rather, is help us justify our beliefs and actions to others, convince them through argumentation, and evaluate the justifications and arguments that others address to us.

In other words, reason helps humans better exploit their uniquely rich social environment. This interactionist interpretation explains why reason may have evolved and how it fits with other cognitive mechanisms. It makes sense of strengths and weaknesses that have long puzzled philosophers and psychologists--why reason is biased in favor of what we already believe, why it may lead to terrible ideas and yet is indispensable to spreading good ones.

Ambitious, provocative, and entertaining, The Enigma of Reason will spark debate among psychologists and philosophers, and make many reasonable people rethink their own thinking.
posted by vincebowdren at 4:25 AM on August 19, 2019

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahnemann (who I believe won a Nobel Prize for this work)
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 5:12 AM on August 19, 2019 [2 favorites]

The gorgeously done "An Illustrated Book of Bad Arguments" certainly fits the bill.
posted by rtgoodwin at 6:05 AM on August 19, 2019

The following two books are excellent (I've read both of them):

Mistakes Were Made (but Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson

How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life, by Thomas Gilovich
posted by alex1965 at 6:53 AM on August 19, 2019 [1 favorite]

Came to recommend Thinking Fast and Slow, these are the researchers who are widely credited with “discovering” many common cognitive biases. The book is very highly regarded by economists and psychologists.

Along similar lines are Richard Thaler’s books Nudge and Misbehaving (also a Noble Prize winner for work on behavioral economics).
posted by forkisbetter at 5:12 PM on August 19, 2019

I have to second Dan Ariely. I really enjoyed the way he presents his own research as storytelling, and the way he mixes in his experience as a burn victim is riveting.

I also absolutely love The Invisible Gorilla. It's crammed with anecdotal examples and some jaw-dropping research that reveal how poorly we tend to understand our own perceptions.
posted by polecat at 2:34 PM on August 20, 2019

I feel bad being one of "those people" but:

Not explicitly about these biases, but Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think discusses a lot of this topic--how we tend to make assumptions in our thought processes that we aren't even aware of but that lead to a lot of incorrect conclusions. It was very interesting, fun to read, and not "elitist" as far as I know, though I'm not sure what you mean by that.

The author has since been discredited and had many papers retracted.
posted by daybeforetheday at 2:09 AM on August 22, 2019 [1 favorite]

I just finished Super Thinking. I liked it a lot--it went deep into depth for a few, but otherwise it listed a bunch of models and examples of how to use them.
posted by adamwolf at 2:27 PM on August 22, 2019

"Sapiens," by Yuval Noah Harari is a biography of the human race, or at least one of the human races, the one with which you're most familiar.

It has an interesting chapter that talks about our major cognitive difference between the homo sapiens and the competitor that lasted the longist, homo neanderthalensis. One great big difference between us and those Neanderthals is that they can't group themselves the way we do; they have a cognitive limitation of knowing about 50 people; beyond that number, they couldn't really have a full social interest in another person and their lives. For us Sapiens, the number is more like 120. In practice, that means that humans could have bands of a tribe of around 120, and Neanderthals were limited to bands of 50. (There's a social order disruption that occurs when you cross that threshold, seen today such as when a company office exceeds that number, and everybody can no longer really get to know everybody.) When a human band met a Neanderthal band, guess who won?

But, he continues, we can also create imaginary structures in which we can group ourselves with far more than 120 people. He calls these things "supernatural," which is true in the sense that you'll never develop a scientific test for who belongs to them and who doesn't, but our groups are imaginary things like "company" and "nation" and "religion."

He also talks about some of the products of that group imagination; between the realm of the subjective, which changes when you change your mind, and the objective, which is as it is no matter what you think about it, there's the shared subjective, which is something that a lot of people believe in, and continue to do so whether or not any given member continues to believe in them; they are "supernatural" mythical things like "Audi" and "Canada" and "Money." This sort of shared imagination may well have eventually been figured out by the Neanderthals, but they didn't, and we did, and that's one of the main reasons we're here and they're ancient bones. (Or so Harari makes the case.)
posted by Sunburnt at 2:01 AM on September 3, 2019

Please look into these two, as I feel they are the
two most unvarnished, and distilled looks at self-deception :
Strangers to Ourselves - Timothy D. Wilson
Elephant in the Brain - Simler

And here are two guiding ideas, one a quote and the other
a concept to acknowledge or webpage to visit.
"We deceive ourselves, to better deceive others."
- Robert Trivers (adapted from). This quote comes up repeatedly
in the Elephant in the Brain book above and is good to keep in mind
when considering the duplicity present in many cognitive biases.

The concept / webpage :
We are all much more racist than we think. This is bad, but knowing
this and addressing it is good.
Implicit Bias test ... the test isn't perfect, and it has of late raised some
criticism. But if you take the test, you will be amazed at the way it
tangibly makes you wonder what is going on under your own
cognitive hood.
"The implicit association test to gauge subconscious racism."
posted by Brad and Chuck at 4:57 PM on September 22, 2019

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