8 of Psychology’s Greatest Books from the Classics to Today

The psychology section of any bookstore, from the online superstores to your favorite neighborhood nook, covers an enormously wide range of topics and interests. You’ve undoubtedly got your own top 10 list of best books in psychology, but if you’re looking to expand your knowledge of the area, see how mine compares with yours.

My criteria for selecting these 8 books were that they are widely available, in libraries or inexpensively for you to own (if not available for free), and that they represent the diversity of the field. I wanted to include some historically important works as well as contemporary writings that are sure to become classics in the coming years.  These were also books that I felt changed my own view of the field and my understanding of some of its fundamental concepts, so there’s a personal slant reflected in this list as well. With that in mind, let’s get started!

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900)

It was inevitable that I would start with the psych classic of all time, Freud’s great work that some believe to have given psychology its impetus to become a household world. This book is not an easy read by any means, as Freud’s brilliance was not only in his analytical mind but in the breadth of his intellectual interests. You won’t find a simple set of “how-to’s” to figure out the meaning of your own personal dreams by reading this work, either. Instead, you’ll gain insight into the processes that produced Freud the psychoanalyst and would eventually lead to his charting the paths of the id, ego, and superego through development.

There are, however, plenty of entertaining stories mixed in with Freud’s philosophical analyses. He relates his own and the dreams of others in considerable details, showing how he proceeds through what we now know as free association to understanding their meaning to the dreamer. Once you read even a few pages, you’ll see why, unlike the myth, you can’t just plug a dream into a formula and expect to come out with its meaning.

Charles M. Duhigg, The Power of Habit (2012)

After reviewing this book when it first was published, I felt that despite having taught the psychology of learning for my entire career, I was able to grasp the field in an entirely new way from this great book. Sure, everyone in psychology, from the intro psych student to the most highly-regarded researcher knows about classical conditioning. We’ve all learned of its role in cuing our most desirable, but often most undesirable, actions, addictions, and thoughts. But it’s not always easy to see how these behavioral principles apply to our everyday behaviors.

Duhigg identifies the basic process that links cue to habit and shows how it plays out in our common everyday lives. Why do you crave a cookie break at 2:30 every afternoon? Why is it that you can’t walk through a shopping mall without having the fight the desire to walk into Cinnabon? How about your inability to stop online gaming, shopping, or Facebook-checking?

You’ll have to read the book for yourself to find out what how this simple, basic, process works. Once you do, not only will you recognize yourself in many of the examples he provides of addicted behaviors, but you’ll also learn how to take those habits, bend them, and eventually break them forever. Of course, we can’t always shake some of these addictions on our own, but by understanding what causes them, you’ll gain important insights that will help you seek, and make, the changes you desire on a more permanent basis.

Karen Horney, The Neurotic Personality of Our Time (1937)

So, when you saw this title, did you think “of our time” must surely be now? Though published in 1937, obviously neurotic personalities have always existed and most likely will continue to exist well into the future. It’s quite likely that because she was translating her theory into pop terms that she (or her publisher) advised her to add the “of our time” to give it a self-help twist.

The basic premise of Horney’s theory indeed has universality. We develop what she called a “false self” in order to cover up our own feelings of anxiety and insecurity. You may, for example, feel that you’re not as smart as the other people around you, but you don’t want to let on so you put on the airs of someone who feels superior and confident. Not only do you become psychologically dishonest, but eventually you lose sight of who you truly are. Additionally, you may actually lose out on opportunities for advancement that could build your self-esteem. Let’s say that you’re afraid of failing a test that you’re being given at school or on the job. You put off and put off the studying you need to do for this test, so that when you inevitably fail at it, you can say it was because you didn’t study. These self-defeating behaviors are, to Horney, the core of neurotic behavior. Your only hope is to allow your real self and false self eventually to come more into line so that you can accept yourself, flaws and all.

Oliver Burkeman, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking (2012)

If all this focus on happiness in today’s pop psych is getting to you, then you’ll definitely be happy when you read about its antidote. This was another book I read and reviewed that had a powerful impact on me. It’s not that I’m a negative psychologist by any means, but I agree with Burkeman that there’s more to psychological health than feeling happy-in-the-moment. If those ephemeral and fleeting moments of joy become your goal in life not only are you destined to become the opposite of happy, but you’ll also be missing out on the opportunity to gain true fulfillment.

Apart from agreeing with Burkeman’s basic thesis, I also found myself contemplating, in the years since reading it, the benefits of mental cleansing that he describes as the path to gaining greater underlying appreciation of life. Burkeman went on a journey that I most likely will never have the chance to do in which he entered a meditation retreat for where, detached from the outer world, he and his fellow journeyers explored their own inner lives. You can follow Burkeman, as did I, through this experience and perhaps you’ll emerge with a new awareness of how a bit of realistic pessimism might be a good thing after all.

Carl Gustav Jung, Man and His Symbols (1964)

Jung’s take on psychology definitely veered toward the spiritual. Although the theory became the basis for one of the most widely use (and abused) tests (see Adam Grant’s and my blog posts on the topic), it was Jung’s insights into our cultural icons, or what he called “archetypes” that may have been his greatest contribution. This book is appropriately illustrated with images so that the reader can understand Jung’s analysis of their symbolic meaning.

Another interesting feature of this book, for me, was his exploration of the notion of “synchronicity.” He describes dreams that his patients relayed to him in which the events reportedly foretold later experiences that would actually occur, leading one to die and the other to be the victim of an assault.

Even if you don’t buy his theory, you’ll still gain cultural insights that will open your eyes to the psychological meanings of the images we encounter on a daily basis, from brand logos to action heroes. After reading Jung’s impressive analyses, you’ll never think of Spiderman the same way again.

Gina Perry, Behind the Shock Machine, 2013

The classic Milgram experiments are as a staple in the social psych section of virtually every intro psych course in the world. Instructors and students alike are appalled at the apparent cruelty that average people are ready and able to impose on their fellow humans. I came across Perry’s book when it was still available only in Australia, and was delighted that the author was able to get a copy for me to review.

Suffice it to say that after reading the fascinating story that literally goes “behind” the experiment, I never thought about social psych the same way again. Perry uncovers details about Milgram the man that I had never realized nor had most psychologists, I venture to guess.

She also contextualizes his research in the field of social psych at the time (the 1950s-60s) in which researchers concocted elaborate scenarios to try to elicit behaviors out of their unwitting participants that they might never have otherwise shown. Indeed, this is her point about the Milgram studies. Perhaps we’re not as evil as he would have had us believe. After reading the book, you can decide for yourself.

Matthew Hutson, The 7 Laws of Magical Thinking, 2012

The title alone is enticing enough, but as you start to delve into the irrationality of the human mind, you’ll find yourself drawn into more than just a spell. A science writer and Psych Today blogger, Hutson writes in a way that respects the underlying empirical studies that he describes in just enough detail to give the work credibility while also entertaining us with knowledge about our own cognitive foibles. I reviewed the book after reading about it in the New York Times, and it’s another one whose message has stuck with me ever since.

By taking readers through the ins and outs of cognitive science, Hutson also provides basic lessons in the experimental method. The book also provides an A-B-C primer for the student of skepticism.  You’ll undoubtedly recognize your own irrational beliefs among the 7 while at the same time gaining the tools to identify and target ones that Hutson may have as yet left undiscovered.

Susan R. Barry, Fixing My Gaze: A Scientist’s Journey into Seeing in Three DImensions, 2009

Scientists who write about their own experiences present readers with unique opportunities to understand a phenomenon. Susan Barry, a neuroscientist at Mount Holyoke College (and Psych Today blogger), provides such a perspective to our understanding of depth perception. Every intro psych, if not high school biology, student knows that we need slightly disparate images to reach the two retinas of our eyes in order to see the world in perfect 3-D. Perry had an unusual condition that caused her to be stereoblind from early infancy, meaning that she could not see the world with the depth afforded to the rest of us.  Her successful treatment was written up by Oliver Sacks in 2004 as the case of “Stereo Sue,” drawing public attention for the first time to her condition.

To appreciate what Barry went through involves learning about the “normal” way that we all perceive depth.  You never realize how much you take for granted about navigating the world until you learn about a story such as Barry’s. You also don’t realize, perhaps, just how tricky the whole process of depth perception can be. There are some great images to illustrate this process along with a few entertaining experiments you can perform yourself.  The bottom line is that the brain is far more plastic than we usually give it credit for, and that even what might seem an insurmountable challenge can be overcome.

In summary, if you make it through all 8 of these books, or even just sample 1 or 2, you’ll have gained valuable knowledge. You’ll have a sense of where psychology has come from, and where it’s likely to head in the years to come as more great books, and psychologists, contribute to our fascinating field.

Please feel free to add your own suggestions to the comments section here, or tweet to me on Twitter @swhitbo or through my Facebook group, “Fulfillment at Any Age.”

Reposted with permission from Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PhD.
The original post can be found, here.

About the Author

Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., is currently a professor of Psychological and Brain Sciences at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The author of over 160 refereed articles and book chapters and 16 books (many in multiple editions and translations), her most recent popular work is The Search for Fulfillment (January 2010, Ballantine Books). She also writes for the Huffington Post's "Post 50" blog and is a frequent commentator on local, national, and international media outlets and has appeared on NBC Nightly News, Dateline, CNN, Olbermann, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, USA Today, and Time.com. Her research covers a wide range of topics related to adult development and aging, including personality development through midlife, contributors to successful aging, predictors of memory performance, and the relationship between physical health and sense of personal identity. She teaches large undergraduate lecture classes and maintains an active lab of graduate students whose research focuses on life-span development, dementia, and functional abilities in older adults. Recipient of a 2011 Presidential Citation from the American Psychological Association, she is the winner of national and campus teaching and advising awards. She has served in executive board and advisory roles in regional and national professional organizations including the American Psychological Association (Council of Representatives and Board of Educational Affairs), the Council of Professional Geropsychology Training Programs (Chair), the Society for the Study of Human Development (past President), the Gerontological Society of America (current Chair, Behavioral and Social Sciences Section), the National Association of Fellowship Advisors (Executive Board member), and Psi Chi (past Eastern Regional Vice President), and the Society for Emerging Adulthood (Founding Board member), as well as a member of numerous task forces and advisory panels at the national, regional, state, and campus levels. As of March, 2016, she will begin her term as President-Elect of the Eastern Psychological Association. At the University of Massachusetts Amherst, she teaches large undergraduate psychology classes and directs the Commonwealth Honors College's Office of National Scholarship Advisement. She grew up in Buffalo, N.Y. and graduated from the University at Buffalo. She received her Ph.D. in developmental psychology from Columbia University and completed a postdoctoral respecialization program in clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Whitbourne lives in Amherst, Massachusetts with her husband and has the distinct pleasure of having raised two daughters who chose to follow their mother's profession. Her older daughter, Stacey, a developmental/health psychologist, is now a co-author on her adult development text, and her younger daughter, Jennifer is pursuing her doctorate in clinical psychology. Her hobbies include knitting and playing the piano, and through her frequent participation in aerobics classes, she practices what she preaches about the value of aging and exercise.