Articles about psychology

How Children Succeed — Paul Tough

How Children SucceedHow do you rate for the following personal qualities?

  • Grit
  • Self-control
  • Zest
  • Social intelligence
  • Gratitude
  • Optimism
  • Curiosity

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Redirect — Timothy Wilson

Redirect lays out a set of techniques for achieving real, lasting change in our behaviour and improving our lives. Actually, this book doesn’t really tell you what to do — it isn’t a self-help book — instead, it describes why these techniques work so well (and also points out that many other ideas don’t).

Story-editing is a way to change behaviour indirectly, by changing the narratives we all have about the kinds of people we are, and the way we interpret the thing that happen to us. This is important because flawed concepts of ourselves and others leads us to all kinds of damaging cognitive errors (see also, for example, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) and Blind Spots). All of us fall prey to these errors. Yes, that includes you. (Also, me.) Wilson also talks about story-prompting, subtle ways to influence behaviour for the better (or otherwise, as the advertising industry has discovered). This is covered thoroughly by another book, Nudge, which I have read but somehow forgot to write about.

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Blind Spots — Bazerman & Tenbrunsel

This book is all about the field of Behavioural Ethics — how what we do is affected by the way we think about what we do. And vice versa. (Perhaps I could have explained that better.) Probably the most important concept is the idea of Ethical Fade, which happens when a problem with a strong ethical dimension is recast as a different kind of problem. For example, company executives trying to decide how much to charge for some drug might think of it as purely a business decision; the ethical element fades away, leading to a decision that may benefit the company’s profits but is actually at odds with what the executives would normally wish to do.

This is related to the hoops that our minds jump through in trying to reduce feelings of cognitive dissonance. This idea is developed more in an earlier book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me).

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Thinking, fast and slow — Daniel Kahneman

My friend David lent me this book after telling me that it had been blowing his mind. I’m not sure if it has blown my mind, but it definitely helped me to understand it a bit better.

Kahneman suggests thinking of the mind as composed of two notional systems: the fast-thinking, intuitive System 1; and the slow, deliberate, accurate but lazy System 2. The interplay between these two results in the amazing, yet often incomprehensible, behaviour of our minds.

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Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me)

I have always found it exasperating the way politicians rarely admit being wrong. They should simply say “sorry, I made a mistake, but I learned from it and won’t make that mistake again.” Instead, they evade, they prevaricate, and they spout spurious justifications. Why do they do this, even when (as described in this book) owning up to mistakes will often actually make them more popular? Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me) offers an answer.

When we make a mistake, our self-image (I am smart and moral) conflicts with the facts (I just did a stupid and bad thing). This leads to feelings of cognitive dissonance, which our minds find intolerable. To reduce the dissonance, we should change our self-image (I am smart but sometimes I do stupid things). But instead, we try to change the facts (it wasn’t really a bad thing because it was for their own good and only I was smart enough to realise that).

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100 Ways to Happy Children

100 Ways to Happy Children: A guide for busy parents by Dr Timothy Sharp

What parent, busy or otherwise, doesn’t want happy children? This book is a good list of reminders for all these things that parents know they should do, but sometimes forget.

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Better by Mistake — Alina Tugend

“The Unexpected Benefits of Being Wrong” is the subtitle of this book and a pretty good summary of it too. We tend to feel bad about making mistakes, but Better by Mistake helps remind us that mistakes are one of the most important learning tools we have.

Two of this book’s ideas resonated with me. The first is that effort is more important than results. I think this is particularly true for people as they are growing up — you learn more from trying and failing than you do from effortlessly succeeding. I have found that children (mine and others’) respond more positively when praised for effort rather than achievement — they keep on trying, rather than just basking in the warm pleasant glow of approval.

The second idea, and one I wish more people understood, is the importance and power of apologising. This reminded me of Tim Harford’s TED talk, Trial, error and the God complex, in which he points out how important and yet difficult it is for us to admit our own fallibility. Our first reaction to being blamed is often to become defensive. This is usually counterproductive. From hurting somebody with a careless remark to needlessly invading a foreign country, so many mistakes can be at least partially remedied with a well-timed apology.

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My Brain Made Me Do It

Are we truly in control of our own actions, or are they are really determined by our genes and environment? Are our brains really just machines operating according to the laws of physics? Is our free will nothing more than an illusion? And if it is, how can we be morally responsible for anything?

These questions are just about the biggest and most difficult questions we can think about. I know what the answers are, but if you don’t, it would be worth your while to read the first half of “My Brain Made Me Do It” by Eliezer Sternberg. Sternberg raises the questions, discusses some of the evidence and research and identifies some current approaches. It’s a good exploration of the topic and it does get you thinking.

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The Paradox of Choice — Why More Is Less

The increasing amount of choice we have now allows us to lead lives that are objectively better, but subjectively worse than before. This thought-provoking book by Barry Schwartz tries to show why the increasing amount of choice in our lives isn’t making us happier — in fact, it’s making us less happy. Fortunately, he also describes solutions to allow us to manage the negative effects of choice.

I tend to agree with him in general. Here’s a rather trivial example of a way I have tried to avoid the problem. When confronted with a restaurant menu, I try to read down the menu until I find something that sounds good to me. Then I stop, and order that thing. There are some restaurants I have been to several times where I have never read to the end of the menu, because I know that I will end up agonising over my choice and thinking I should have chosen something else anyway.

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War of Words — Elizabeth Mapstone

“What is going on when some other person is so misguided as to disagree with us?”

There are some interesting ideas in this book, War of Words: Women and Men Arguing.

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