The ultimate psychology reading list
Every month since January 2008 The Psychologist has featured a One-On-One interview page in which leading psychologists are asked, among other things, to name one book or journal article, either contemporary or historical, that all psychologists should read. Here's a handy link-filled list of the answers so far (please use comments to mention any must-read books or articles you think they missed). Also, note that not all respondents answered the 'One book / journal article' question: you can search for all of our 'One on One' pieces on the site.
"Well, nepotism aside, my husband’s Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience (Mark Johnson: Blackwell, 2005). Even those studying adults should read it; it will make them think more dynamically," said Annette Karmiloff–Smith, Mar 08.
William James’s The Principles of Psychology (1890). "He shares his thinking and questioning with his reader so that one can enter his mind, and live with him as a friend. He combines being a superb communicator with insights of philosophy and science really worth communicating. I was struck by his breadth of mind, respecting the arts from the past as well as technologies for creating future science," said Richard Gregory, Jun 08.
"Having referred to it for many years in the context of social facilitation, I was intrigued when I finally read Norman Triplett’s original 1898 paper and realised how psychologists have misreported his methods, results and conclusions regarding the effects of coactors on performance," said Sandy Wolfson, Aug 08.
Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me) by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. "You’ll get to understand why hypocrites never see their own hypocrisy, why couples so often misremember their shared history, why many people persist in courses of action that lead straight into quicksand. It’s lucid and witty, and a delightful read," said Elizabeth Loftus, Oct 08.
"Philip Jackson’s (1968) Life in Classrooms was – and still is – an amazing read. Jackson sat in the back of primary school classrooms for over two years, observing, before putting together his notion of ‘the hidden curriculum’ – what children learn in addition to the academic content. At primary school, children learn to cope with crowds, delays, denial, power, praise and constant peer and teacher evaluation. They learn how to protect their self-worth and how to beat the system. University students do this too. We all do," said James Hartley, Nov 08.
"The series of studies by Chase and Ericsson on an individual who, during the course of the study, improved from a digit memory span of average (7) to world’s best (80). The careful long-term documentation (and explanation) of how the ordinary can develop into the extraordinary was an exemplary breakthrough for a subdiscipline (cognitive psychology) dominated by the study of static short-term processes revealed through the statistical collation of results from many closely similar individuals," said John Sloboda, Dec 08.
"Muriel Dimen’s Sexuality, Intimacy, Power, which offers one feminist’s journey from dualism to multiplicity, questioning and making more complex all the accounts we have of how you grow up to become a sexed person," said Lynne Segal, Jan 09.
"Impossible question. William James’s Principles of Psychology for writing style, prescience and insight; Elliot Aronson’s The Social Animal for its passionate, personal prose and introduction to the major concerns of social psychology; and Judith Rich Harris’s The Nurture Assumption for its brilliant, creative reassessment of the basic but incorrect assumptions of developmental psychology. Her book is a model of how psychologists need to let data supersede ideology and vested intellectual convictions, and change direction when the evidence demands," said Carol Tavris, Mar 09.
"Julian Jaynes’s 1976 cult classic The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, which makes the startling claim that subjective consciousness (in the sense of internalised mind space) arose a mere 3000 years ago through the development of metaphorical language, a process itself driven by increasing social and cultural complexity. Some of the historical and classical scholarship may be dubious and the neuropsychology is sketchy, but the book is a wonderful imaginative achievement, a pioneering attempt to fuse ancient history, psychology and neuroscience," said Pauls Broks, Apr 09.
"This has to be The Perception of People and Events (1968) by Peter Warr and Christopher Knapper. They showed how rigorous notions developed from basic research on the perception of objects could be applied to the much more difficult and challenging topic of the perception of people/events," said Ray Bull, May 09.
Attachment by John Bowlby. "We are much more likely to read critiques of Bowlby’s theories than the original work. Although his views had a negative impact on the lives of women after the Second World War by putting pressure on mothers to stay at home with their children, he writes beautifully and compellingly about the interactions between infants and their mother. This aspect of his work has been lost to those not closely involved with the study of attachment relationships," said Susan Golombok, Aug 09.
Alice Through the Looking Glass, by Lewis Carroll. "This is not a children’s book; it contains a large number of the paradoxes about meaning, perception, consciousness, logic and language that we confront in our field. Most psychologists don’t study either philosophy or the history of ideas, which is a great pity, but this book is an entertaining and painless way into asking rather fundamental questions. I used it as a core text for a final-year course; students would discuss some event in the book in relation to current theory and research. It produced some very original work," said Helen Haste, Sep 09. "Within psychology itself, I think one of the most important and brilliant recent books at least in social psychology, is Michael Billig’s Arguing and Thinking, which both demonstrates the real social nature of language and thought, and shows us how modern concepts are deeply rooted in the history of ideas. Compulsory reading for all my students."
How Musical is Man by John Blacking. "Concise, accessible and way ahead of its time in terms of the assertions regarding the innate capacities of humans for musical communication and the stifling influence of Western constructions of musical ability. We now have the evidence he lacked to support his assertions," said Raymond MacDonald, Dec 09.
"Margaret Donaldson’s Children’s Minds, which I read in the late 1970s. I was bowled over by the creative approach of her team within the experimental tradition. The book is so respectful of the child’s perspective. It fuelled my passion for watching what children actually do and listening to what they want to say," said Jennie Lindon, Feb 10.
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs. "If there was one book that made me fascinated by the psychology of the workplace (and not necessarily in a good way), that was the one," said George Sik, Mar 10.
"I would recommend Change: Principles of Problem Formation and Problem Resolution by Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch (New York: Norton, 1974)," said James Bray, Apr 10.
"One I have returned to many times is Young and Cullen’s 1996 book A Good Death: Conversations with East Londoners, a richly evocative account of narratives of loss and death from traditional East Enders. It shows that we are not all equal in death. Instead our deaths are largely determined by how and where we have lived, and that end-of-life rituals and mourning behaviours are socially constructed," said Sheila Payne, May 10.
Semrad: The Heart of a Therapist. "This book is a collection of quotes and anecdotes from Elvin Semrad, a psychiatrist who practised in the United States in the second half of the 20th century. He consistently emphasised that the first and most important task of the trainee practitioner is to learn to sit with the patient, listen to and hear them, and help to stand the pain they could not bear alone. Semrad wouldn’t have agreed with my choice here as he believed ‘the patient is the only textbook we need’," said David Lavallee, Jun 10.
Beyond Counselling and Therapy by Carkhuff and Berenson (1969). "It showed me that it was possible to draw upon a range of traditions in working with clients and pointed the way to my own development of approaches to individualised case formulation," said David Lane, Jul 10.
"I am currently reading Beyond Happiness: Deepening the Dialogue between Buddhism, Psychotherapy and the Mind Sciences (Gay Watson, 2008). It encourages us to integrate and synthesise mind–body approaches, drawing on Eastern contemplative approaches. As Watson argues, psychological and psychotherapy theories and models can be traced back as variants of Buddhist psychology dating back 2500 years: I find that phenomenal," said Gill Aitken, Aug 10.
Joseph Heller’s Something Happened. "It’s fiction, but it describes in psychological detail, with wonderful humour, how people behave in the workplace. It is frighteningly close to what the science of occupational psychology tells us about work," said Cary Cooper, Sep 10.
Howitt and Owusu-Bempah’s 1994 book The Racism of Psychology: Time for a Change (said Jeune Guishard-Pine, Oct 10).
"Kurt Danziger’s Naming the Mind shows us how modern psychology’s basic vocabulary of intelligence, behaviour, attitude, motivation, etc does not represent timeless ‘natural kinds’ but are, instead, categories that were constructed for particular purposes at certain points in our history. Taking that message to heart, we can see that these older aims eventually fail to serve our present needs, and the categories we created in their wake may become obstacles to future progress. Be open to the possibility of radical change (but be wary of most individual radical proposals)," said Christopher Green, Dec 10.
"Milner and Goodale’s The Visual Brain in Action shows that much can still be learnt from single cases in neuropsychology when viewed with a fresh eye. It also illustrates how progress can be greatly accelerated when human neuropsychology is placed within the much wider context of cognitive neuroscience, neuroanatomy, and related animal work. Although one can quibble with details of their particular theory, I think that the more general point about combining different strands of evidence will serve neuropsychology well for many decades," said Jon Driver, Jan 11.
The Republic, Plato. "It covers so many aspects of social organisation, reminding us that the fundamental questions have been addressed, just as we go on addressing them," said Margaret McAllister, Feb 11.
The SPSS Survival Manual by Julie Pallant. "The author is a genius at explaining how to analyse data. I am living proof of the fact that you can do publishable research simply by following her advice," said Ruth Mann, Mar 11.
"B.F. Skinner’s The operational analysis of psychological terms (Psychological Review 52, 270–277, 1945) is rarely read and even less often understood. Contrary to some misrepresentations of his position, Skinner never doubted that we can describe internal states such as thoughts or emotions, but he wondered how we are able to do this. His answer was surprising, relevant to the practice of psychotherapy, and a challenge to all those who (like some unsophisticated therapists) assume that we can know our own feelings by a simple process of self-inspection," said Richard Bentall, Apr 11.
"New Scientist. I read it cover to cover every week (OK, not the stuff on black holes...) and I am constantly picking up leftfield ideas that influence my thinking, and that I would never come across otherwise." said Sam Cartwright-Hatton, May 11
"Ray Owen has published a wonderful book, Facing the Storm. The book shows how the skills of psychologists working in palliative care are transferable to other challenging life situations." That was Julie Stoke's suggestion in Aug 11.
"In 1995 there was an article by Jensen in the American Psychologist. The article argued for racial profiling in terms of intellect and sexual activity, amongst other things. I am not sure if I would want all psychologists to read it, but it profoundly affected me. I think we need to acknowledge some of the racist roots of our profession at times, in order to move forward." Gail Coleman, October 2011.
"I think The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins was probably the most influential book I read as a student that really shaped my thinking as a psychologist and a human." Bruce Hood, Jan 12
"The Man with a Shattered World by A.R Luria. It’s about a Russian soldier who sustained a severe brain injury in World War II. The effort, hope and commitment shown by this man had a big impact on me." Barbara Wilson, February 12
"The two volumes of William James’s The Principles of Psychology. Martin Conway, March 2012.
"I first became interested in how research could support and help develop the work of practitioners when I worked in the alcohol and drug field. I found the work of Jim Orford and Griffith Edwards helped me in my approach to clients, in particular their monograph ‘Alcoholism: a comparison of treatment and advice, with a study of the influence of marriage’ (1977). I was very pleased when Jim Orford was recently honoured by the BPS for his contributions to psychology. I also found the work of Nick Heather inspirational. He was a pioneer of early intervention into alcohol problems, developing some very practical applications based on sound evidence." Carole Allan, April 2012.
"The maxims of the Duc de la Rochefoucauld. Perhaps it’s best to read whatever excites your curiosity at the time. But it might well bore you later on." Richard Hallam June 2012
"Good to Great by Jim Collins." Dan Gould July 2012
"James McGuire’s 1995 book What Works: Reducing Re-offending: Guidelines from Research and Practice. This collection, and all that has followed, is at the heart of all that we do, and McGuire has been instrumental in bringing together and getting us to consider and carry out evidence-based practice." Ruby Bell August 2012
"Advice for a Young Investigator by Ramon y Cajal." Hugo Spiers September 2012
"Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind shows how you can tackle really important themes in a way that is both elegant and precise." Guy Claxton October 2012
"Daughters of Egalia by Gert Brantenberg. It challenges notions of gender and biological reductionism. I gave it to my students to read and they were suitably politicised!" Jane Ogden November 2012
"Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilisation: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1967, Tavistock)." From Jane Ussher December 2012
"The Interpretation of Dreams by Freud. It was the first psychology book I read, having borrowed it from the library at the age of 15. By the end of it I was convinced dreams were the ‘royal road to the unconscious’ and that psychology was for me." Dame Glynis Breakwell January 2013
"The Red Tree by Shaun Tan. This is a book about feelings – feelings that cannot always be simply expressed in words. It tells a story about the power of hope, renewal and inspiration. This is the journey we walk with our patients but all so often forget to walk ourselves." Anita Rose February 2013
"William James’ Principles of Psychology because it shows how good psychologists can be outside a narrow box of thinking." Shivani Sharma March 2013
Dean Burnett had a very personal recommendation in April 2013: "Any journal article that I’ve managed to get an author’s credit on. I need to stay credible somehow, and they’re both good papers."
"Families and How to Survive Them by Robin Skynner and John Cleese. It’s written as a conversation between a shrink and a client, and has countless episodes where you think ‘yep, that’s what family life is like…’. Almuth McDowall, May 2013
"Paul Johnson’s book The Intellectuals (1998) in which he looks at the difference between what the great thinkers – Marx, Rousseau, Ibsen, Russell and many more – said and what they actually did. Insightful, inspiring, an exemplar of good historical research and profound." Stephen Murgatroyd June 2013
"I think the 1978 translation of Lev Vygotsky’s Mind in Society is of vital importance, because of its emphasis on the interaction between cultural/historical influences and individuals. We are immersed in rich language and social interactions from birth, and I believe these are fundamental to our development." Jacqueline Akhurst, July 2013
"Man’s Search for Meaning. Viktor E. Frankl. A book that might not offer the answer – but it certainly offers an answer to the vexed question of how to live." Frank Tallis September 2013
"Other than mine? It has to be the ‘White Bible’ – Cooper, Heron and Heward’s Applied Behaviour Analysis." Terry Dovey February 2014
"Thinking, Fast and Slow, a dual processing account of decision making from Nobel Prize laureate Daniel Kahneman. Accessible, a treasure trove of knowledge, and a real fun read." Shira Elqayam March 2014
"Philosophical Investigations by Ludwig Wittgenstein. This unique, eccentric and brilliant 20th-century philosopher takes apart nearly every concept that underlies contemporary psychology (and puts just a few of them back together). This book and other of his later writings are a valuable tool for psychology to examine its language and assumptions – the big ones, like causality and essence. Sadly, such self-reflexivity is missing in most psychology programs." Lois Holzman May 2014
"I recently enjoyed Lynne Segal’s (2013) Out of Time: The Pleasure and Perils of Ageing. It’s a compassionate book, and I like this thought: ‘…for those of us wanting to confront the most damaging clichés of ageing, we can at least begin by querying the cultural obsession with notions of “independence” in favour of acknowledging the value of our life-long mutual dependence. This is the human condition." says Elizabeth Peel June 2014
"The Explanation of Social Behaviour by Rom Harré and Paul Secord was one of the sparks for the methodological ‘crisis’ in psychology in the early 1970s. It spells out why we should for scientific purposes treat people as if they are human beings in research. I was lucky to have a PhD supervisor, Roger Ingham at the University of Southampton, who provided support for me to link these ideas with Foucault’s." Ian Parker July 2014
"An essay written in 1946 by George Orwell called ‘Politics and the English language’. Like politics, psychology can sometimes fall victim to its own jargon and conceptual confusions. This essay helps you to write well." Valerie Curran September 2014
"Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2004). He’s a master at communicating the science of the mind to a wide audience, without dumbing it down. Whether he’s talking about FOXP2 that was trumpeted as the ‘gene for language’ (discovered by Simon Fisher in his PhD at the Institute of Psychiatry, in a large extended family many of whom had speech problems), or about how deaf kids generate syntax in their spontaneous sign language in the playground, or the evidence for language in other species, he writes entertainingly. Sprinkling his writing with references to Woody Allen jokes and deftly jumping between disciplines, he illustrates how psychology sits at the intersection of all of these." From Simon Baron-Cohen October 2014
"I love so many children’s books and I have thoroughly enjoyed rediscovering many of the classics with my two sons, as well as devouring many new brilliant texts. However there was one book that, although not my favourite, I genuinely believe changed my outlook on life – Pollyanna by E.H.Porter. I’m a little shy to admit it, given the pejorative way that the ‘Pollyanna principle’ is generally used, but it had a very powerful effect on the seven-year-old me. I can vividly remember trying to play the ‘glad game’ when things got difficult. My approach to life is optimistic, some might say idealistic, and I often wonder if the message of that book is at the root of that." Catherine Loveday November 2014
"Stephen J. Gould’s Wonderful Life. This is not about psychology directly but the very nature of our work. It concerns the culture of research, the way the urge to be accepted as ‘proper’ scientists has caused some forms of empirical research (such as RCTs) to be elevated at the expense of detailed observation, the way research is influenced by dominant theories, which may distort our data collection and its interpretation. He also shows how promotion and recognition of our work can interfere with our proper engagement with research or our work with clients. All sadly true in psychology." Rita Jordan December 2014
"The Superstition of the Pigeon by B.F. Skinner: a classic told delightfully." Aleks Krotoski January 2015
"Freud’s Civilisation and Its Discontents. I think this is one of the seminal books in applied psychology, although it is classified as political philosophy. I first read it as a sixth-former in Ceylon. Coming from a Buddhist background my world-view was not so different from Freud’s (‘eros’ and ‘thanatos’). Like Freud, I became an atheist and freethinker." Migel Jayasinghe, February 2015
"Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. My dad read me from this (and many other books) when I was little, referring also to The Annotated Alice (Martin Gardner). So I often have its wonderful aphorisms – and their deeper philosophical meanings – in my mind. I suggest there’s an Alice quote for every occasion and these tend to find their way into my published work. Favourites – ‘You are old, Father William’ (an appreciation of the madness of age), ‘When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less’ (Humpty Dumpty – often relevant!), ‘Curiouser and curiouser!’ (ditto), ‘Off with their heads!’ (Queen of Hearts – from my days as Head of Department) and ‘“Do cats eat bats? Do cats eat bats?” … and sometimes, “Do bats eat cats?” for, you see, as she couldn’t answer either question, it didn’t much matter which way she put it’ (a sentiment with which I am often in tune!)." Sonia Livingstone, May 2015
"The Mentality of Apes by Wolfgang Köhler. Although originally published in 1925, it is amazing to me how contemporary many of the experiments that Köhler conducted, and described in his book, feel. Unlike many of his peers, who were interested in how individual animals solved problems, Köhler noted the importance of understanding how the behaviour of one chimpanzee influenced another’s actions. That’s something I continue to observe and study through my own research into primate social learning." Lydia Hopper, June 2015
"Changing the Subject by Julian Henriques and colleagues. Read over and over, and highlighted in all the colours of the rainbow, as a student. It fundamentally changed my view of what psychology could and should be." Victoria Clarke, August 2015
"One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, because it reminds us that the power of the ‘expert’ is easy to abuse." Jo Silvester, October 2015
"Heinrich Mann’s historical biography of Henry IV of France is one of the books that inspired me to read history for pleasure. For the last 30 years I have only read history books outside of reading I have to do professionally." Peter Fonagy, November 2015
"Set Phasers on Stun by Steven Casey. It is a prime example of how things can go wrong with technology, despite careful planning and designing. It absolutely peaked my interest in the human–machine interface. We are having to interface with machines at an increasing rate when at work, so it is useful to identify and perhaps reduce as much as possible what can go wrong when using technologies, especially the human error component." Roxanne Gervais, March 2016
"Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. It changed everything for me. Also read Zamyatin’s We, and comic Britten and Brulightly by Hannah Berry. It’s beautifully inked and cleverly written." Andrew Dunn, April 2016
In May 2016, incoming Society President Peter Kinderman went for The Plague, by Nobel prize-winner and existential philosopher Albert Camus. 'This book transformed my personal philosophy of life. Camus discusses the choices we make in an unfair, absurd and (at least in my mind) deterministic universe. The hero of the novel, Dr Rieux, is challenged as to why he continues to provide medical care without any hope of success: ‘… in this respect Rieux believed himself to be on the right road – in fighting against creation as he found it.’… We can’t choose our genes, we can’t choose our childhoods, we can’t influence much of what happens to us in our lives, and we can’t choose to change our personal history. And yet, like Rieux, we can still choose how to respond; how to fight against creation.'
'I’ve just finished reading The Sculptor’s Daughter by Tove Jansson (author of the Moomins). Tove reflects on her magical childhood in Finland with her artist parents. As a developmental psychologist, I found the book particularly interesting as it is written from the perspective of her six-year-old self.' Victoria Simms, June 2016
Lucy Johnstone, September 2016, said 'Emma by Jane Austen is as near as you can get to the perfect novel. What an acute psychologist she was!'
'The Road by Cormac McCarthy is an utterly profound piece of writing. He called it a ‘love letter’ to his son, and within the first few lines you realise this is forensic examination of the relationship between a boy and his father.' Carl Senior, October 2016
'Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood is a must-read for anyone who wants to look at the psychology of bullying. Without ever mentioning the b ---- word, it captures the terror that can be girls’ friendships. In Atwood’s words, ‘little girls are cute and small only to adults. To one another they are not cute. They are life-sized.’ Sian Jones, December 2016
'The Woman Destroyed – Simone de Beauvoir. The depiction of insidious messages we pick up without even realising; how a woman should behave, is illustrated with subtle thoughtfulness. It made me consider my own role as a woman, mother, wife and a human being.' Joanna Griffin, June 2017
'Everyone Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are by Seth Stevens-Davidowitz. … In addition to revealing some of our surprising, but mercifully hidden preoccupations, the joy of this book is the author’s creative use of these data to formulate and test a range of hypotheses, including the phenomenon of Freudian slips.' Theresa Marteau, October 2017
'Psychology Mental Health and Distress, edited by John Cromby, Dave Harper and Paula Reavey. … Why, as psychologists do we still attribute distressing or confusing thoughts and feelings to mysterious "mental illnesses" rather than trying to understand them psychologically?' Anne Cooke, December 2017
'Principles of Psychology by William James, for its enormous contribution, and for the pleasure of reading about psychology in a writing style that seems to be lost for science. I know it is old stuff, but I like to go back to the beginning of the history (and stories) of psychology.' Telmo Baptista, January 2018
'I seem to go through phases in my reading habits. So, when I was 19, I was transfixed by the Beat movement so Jack Kerouac was an idol. Moving through genres of literature there is Bulgakiv for magical realism; Dostoevsky for the Russian soul; Don Delillo, John Updike and Saul Bellow for the modern American masterpiece; and Chinua Achebe is unbeatable for colonial literature.' Sarb Bajwa (Society Chief Executive), May 2018
'Aging with Grace: The Nun Study and the Science of Old Age by David Snowdon. It’s a really interesting epidemiological study with a specialist group of participants, and I learnt so much from it.' Kate Bullen, September 2018
Note that not all 'One on One' participants answer the 'One book / journal article' question, but they still have plenty of interest to say! Why not discover Michael Eysenck, Paul Stern, Jay Belsky, Clive Fletcher, Adrian Furnham, Roger Ingham, Richard Freeman, Pat Lindley, Chris Cullen, Maryon Tysoe, Michael J. Proulx, Fehmidah Munir, Stephen J. Ceci, Tom Dickins, Peter Venables, Sue Llewelyn, Willem Kuyken, Marcus Munafo, Kitrina Douglas, Susan Hallam and Til Wykes, Paul Dolan, Maureen McIntosh, Daisy Best, Martin Seager, Nicola Gale and Rumina Taylor.
We have now met over 100 psychologists for 'One on One', but who have we missed? E-mail the editor on [email protected] or tweet your suggestions @psychmag.
You can also browse our 'Meets' section for all our more in-depth interviews, and 'Careers' pieces.
BPS Members can discuss this article
Already a member? Or Create an account
Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber