Articles about psychology

How To Live. What To Do. — Josh Cohen

A diverting combination of self-help book, literary discussion and psychoanalysis primer. The premise is a bit twee: throughout the books are case notes of famous fictional characters, as if they had gone in for psychoanalysis. These case notes cover a diverse bunch: Young Werther, Alice (the Wonderland one), Jay Gatsby, Mrs Dalloway, Jane Eyre and many more. There are also some characters from more modern novels, such as Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends and Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Cohen talks about their backgrounds, motivations and choices, relating them to the lives of real people like you, and indeed me.

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Noise – Kahneman, Sibony & Sunstein

Human judgement is not infallible – no matter how unbiased we are, our judgement will be affected by unrelated thoughts, whether we are tired or hungry, and a hundred other things. This is “noise”. This book catalogues the different kinds of noise and shows how we can at least be aware of it, and hopefully mitigate it.

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The Course of Love – Alain de Botton

This is an entertaining chronicle of a couple’s relationship, starting from the very beginning. There is a lot (a lot) of analysis behind the story, which might sound heavy going but is actually what makes it all so engaging. I am a big fan of Alain de Botton’s “voice” — you can tell that just by looking at my bookshelf.

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The Trolley Problem

The Trolley Problem is a famous ethical dilemma asking whether we should cause something bad to happen in order to prevent something worse. If a runaway trolley is about to run over 5 people, is it morally right to divert it to another track where it will kill only one person? Lots has been written on the trolley problem, including many books. And now there is also a computer game featuring this and many other classic ethical problems.

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The Situation is Hopeless, But Not Serious – Paul Watzlawick

The situation is hopeless – but not serious.

I just love this phrase. It does seem true to me that it applies to many situations in life, big and small. Sometimes yes, the situation you are faced with is hopeless. But often, it doesn’t really matter that much. I find it helpful to remember that.

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The Ten Types of Human — Dexter Dias

This book introduces ten types of human, such as the Aggressor, the Tribalist, the Nurturer, the Rescuer. They’re really types of personality, not human, since the idea is that human beings have all these traits to varying degrees. Each is illustrated by stories of people who have survived various extreme situations. Dias’s idea is that these people’s stories will illustrate the different types. I don’t think they all do, but they are mostly interesting nonetheless.

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Consciousness: A Very Short Introduction — Susan Blackmore

This is a nice pocket-sized guide to consciousness. Actually it’s a guide to the problem of consciousness, since there is no consensus on what consciousness is or even exactly what the word means. Blackmore is even-handed regarding the various competing viewpoints, though it may all be slightly coloured by her own views, which are heavily influenced by Buddhism. And if you think that’s an incongruous stance for a hardcore psychologist/philosopher to take, then you really should read this book.
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Blink — Malcolm Gladwell

Snap judgements are surprisingly accurate. Even the ones we make without knowing how. Even the ones we make when we don’t even know we are doing it: “I just had a bad feeling about him, I can’t explain it”. This book gives evidence and explanations for this. It’s interesting in itself, but the trouble is it has been a very influential book — since it was published, its examples have been cited and reused so many times in so many places that what must once have been groundbreaking now seems overly familiar. I had similar thoughts the last time I saw a performance of Hamlet: the dialogue just seemed to be one cliche after another. Of course, they weren’t cliches when Shakespeare wrote the play!

Even so, the sections towards the end about microexpressions were very interesting and new, at least to me. They give some insight into where the “bad feelings” about people might come from, and maybe some pointers into how you could train yourself to read people and situations better. So even now this is still a worthwhile read from a very influential writer.

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12 Rules for Life — Jordan B. Peterson

This is fun to read and it may change your life. The subtitle describes it best: chaos (particularly perhaps the chaos of the modern world) is what Peterson dreads, and he offers prescriptions, strategies and even commandments for how to preserve an ordered and civilised life from the relentlessly pounding waves of entropy. And all presented using language that virtually demands to be read out loud.

Each of the 12 homely “rules” is really just the starting point for a wide discussion of how life should best be lived. Peterson is a psychologist and a Christian, and those are the lenses through which he views the world. There is a lot about biblical history and teachings — a lot of it is presented as metaphor so it is still somewhat relevant even to non-Christian and even non-religious people. But still, there is a lot more bible-bashing than I was expecting, even from such a famously conservative figure. Each of the 12 chapters ends with a restatement of the rule as its last sentence. For some reason I find this irritating and twee. And I normally like tweeness.

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On Looking — Alexandra Horowitz

On Looking

To find new things, take the path you took yesterday.
— John Burroughs

It’s amazing what you can see if you actually look at things you’ve seen a hundred times before. Alexandra Horowitz, like most of us, has wandered city sidewalks many times, but usually without really paying attention to her surroundings. So for this book she went on a series of local walks with various experts, including a town planner, an audio engineer, a blind person, a toddler, and a dog. Each chapter describes the result as she looks at her familiar environment through a different lens.

This reminds me of walking with my own kids when they were very young: a five-minute stroll could easily take an hour. The world is such an interesting place if you actually stop and look. This book will inspire you to do just that.

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