Over the last eighteen months, I’ve been reading a lot to prepare for my next book. My notes list 122 books, most of which I read cover-to-cover. Below I’d like to share a few of the ones that influenced my thinking the most.
1. Fear and Courage by S. J. Rachman
People are more resilient than they are often given credit for by most popular media accounts (or psychologists). Exposure to situations that make us anxious tends to diminish fears rather than sensitize us to them.
As a moderately anxious person, I found this book a valuable antidote to the widespread belief that the best way to manage one’s fears is to seek refuge from them.
2. The Atomic Components of Thought by John Anderson and Christian Lebiere
It was hard to pick just one of Anderson’s books, as I read several last year. The theory behind ACT-R has significantly influenced on my thinking about learning, as I wrote about here.
Amassing a wealth of psychological findings, Anderson has spent his career trying to model the basic cognitive processes that underlie our thinking skills. Given the magnitude of the task, it’s likely that ACT-R is wrong about some important details. Nonetheless it offers a powerful lens for understanding thinking.
3. Theory of Instruction by Siegfried Engelmann and Douglas Carnine
Direct Instruction is one of the most successful instructional methods and has withstood rigorous testing. The basic idea is simple: students fail because teachers don’t teach the subject completely. Smart students can fill the gaps, but weaker students fall behind.
Despite the evidence for its efficacy, Direct Instruction remains underused. Critics attack the approach for being overly rigid in its formulation and for teaching mechanical procedures instead of thinking. However, it is precisely these “failings” that make it so successful.
(Greg Ashman’s The Power of Explicit Teaching and Direct Instruction is a good introductory book to understand the debate.)
4. The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner
From lasers to transistors to solar panels, the modern world was invented at Bell Labs. The Labs birthed the theory of information and was first to witness the echo from the Big Bang.
The Labs emerged from a unique combination of institutional influences. The telephone monopoly ensured the company was well-funded and had endless practical problems to work on. The threat of antitrust action forced unusual generosity with patents, which seeded entire new industries.
Sadly, such a rare combination is unlikely to exist today. Universities are often too focused on scholarly prestige to work on the nitty-gritty of getting technologies to function. Companies are too focused on quarterly profits to invest in basic science. Further proof that, far from being the natural state of the world, innovation is the exception.
5. Cultural Literacy by E.D. Hirsch
What’s the point of school? Hirsch argues that a major, underrated function is giving people broad, shallow knowledge of factual matters that allows them to participate in an educated society. Studying Shakespeare or the Peloponnesian War isn’t practically useful and is unlikely to make you smarter. But, this kind of knowledge is necessary to read The New York Times or The Atlantic and, in turn, participate in literate culture.
I agree with Hirsch on a lot of things. Factual knowledge is underrated. Generic “thinking skills” are overrated. If education is to be good for anything, we should care deeply about what content is taught.
Yet a lot of cultural knowledge is mere signaling. Shakespeare is difficult to read, so knowing a lot of it is a sign that you’re smart and well-educated. But, when most people have a passing knowledge of Hamlet or Romeo and Juliet, it doesn’t signal much. Thus those who want to show off their erudition need to find more obscure works or more difficult literature that the less well-read are unlikely to have mastered. In those cases, the personal benefits of education can easily outweigh the societal benefits.
Hirsch is certainly correct that knowledge matters. But that only makes it more important that we find useful things to teach, not less.
6. How Innovation Works by Matt Ridley
Through copious examples, Ridley shows that the process of innovation is not dissimilar to biological evolution. Innovations are often stumbled into rather than explicitly theorized, and progress is the slow accumulation of small improvements.
Ridley makes a good argument that safety regulation can make us less safe in the long run if it inhibits the learning-by-doing needed to improve. He makes the case that nuclear energy would be much safer today had there been fewer regulatory hurdles to its production. Similar arguments can be made that the high regulatory burden placed on healthcare makes us sicker by inhibiting innovation.
7. Self-Insight by David Dunning
Dunning, of the famous Dunning-Kruger effect, has made a career researching our failure to understand ourselves. We have systematic delusions about our knowledge, intelligence, personalities and characters.
Motivated reasoning likely plays a role, but Dunning also argues that our lack of self-awareness is also related to the difficulty of the task. Knowing ourselves is hard because we receive poor feedback about our own nature.
8. Will College Pay Off? by Peter Cappelli
Does going to college make financial sense? Peter Cappelli argues that this question is fiendishly difficult to answer. On average, college graduates undoubtedly earn more. But the merit of any particular educational option varies considerably.
Cappelli argues against the idea that more vocational training is better, finding that while some job categories pay lucratively, there’s a long time lag between training and employment. Also, overly specialized schooling leads to a lottery system where some students get lucky and others don’t when market conditions change as they graduate. Petroleum engineers made a killing…until they didn’t.
While I found Cappelli’s arguments and data persuasive, I took objection to his uncritical stance that traditional education somehow teaches thinking skills. What separates a Wharton education from a community college isn’t the general usefulness of the instruction but the quality of the students and the prestige of the institution.
9. Comprehension by Walter Kintsch
How are you able to understand the word you’re reading right now? Kintsch is one of the world’s foremost experts on the psychology of reading comprehension. He argues persuasively that understanding is a process of generating multiple, conflicting accounts of a situation, which later stabilize into the most likely picture.
Kintsch’s theory belongs to a class of connectionist accounts for thinking, putting him in contrast with ACT-R’s more traditional production rules approach. While the two accounts differ, I suspect both are “true” at some level. Perhaps, like the story of the blind men describing an elephant, both are grasping at different essential features of the elephant of the mind.
10. Greatness by Dean Simonton
Simonton is at the forefront of historiometric analyses of creativity and expertise. In contrast to experiments done in a laboratory, this approach is more biographical—picking out eminent people and then quantifying and aggregating aspects of their thinking processes.
Following this research, Simonton has argued that chance plays a much larger role in creative success than many psychologists have been willing to credit. The most successful creatives are the most prolific, with their success rate remaining remarkably flat throughout their lifetime. This undermines both the view that slowly-accumulating expertise manifests in better performance and the idea that youthful enthusiasm is central to new ideas. Instead, creative success seems to be largely a function of work ethic.