Editor’s Note: As we prep to publish this piece, I feel compelled to share that the author has her own books on behavioral science. Having recently finished What Your Customer Wants and Can’t Tell You, I can tell you Melina has given the world a primer in the aspects of behavioral science relevant to anyone in business. I’d start there.
I’m willing to bet at least three of these uncommon recommendations aren’t already in your queue!
As an applied behavioral economist with a weekly podcast, I read a lot of books (and have the honor of getting advanced copies of most of them and getting to speak with the authors about their intent behind them). I’ve had many people joke over the years that they “hate” The Brainy Business podcast because it puts too many books on their reading list. In all seriousness though, there are some amazing books out there that are integrating the latest in neuroscience, philosophy, behavioral economics, and other fields to help us understand consumers and our businesses better.
Consumer behavior and consumer insights absolutely go hand in hand, and understanding the brains of your consumers is so important as you build out products, create and conduct research studies, try out new technologies, design apps, ads and websites — and so much more.
To help you on your journey, I’ve created a list of 12 books from the greater behavioral sciences that I believe every professional in consumer insights needs to read. You have likely come across lists that recommend the “standard” books: Nudge, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Predictably Irrational, and Influence to name a few. Those are all fantastic books and I recommend them, but they aren’t on this list. Why? These books are a little off the beaten path, but when it comes to really applying behavioral science and behavioral economics into your work as a consumer insights and/or market research professional, you need some more meat on those bones.
Misbehaving, by Richard Thaler
Most everyone who has heard of behavioral economics has heard of Nudge, and probably of Richard Thaler. However, much less have heard of this book, which came out in 2016. Misbehaving is a fun introduction to the field of behavioral economics with lots of great examples from Thaler, winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics for his contributions to the field. If you want a good summary of what behavioral economics is, why it came about, and why it matters, I recommend starting your journey here.
Good Habits, Bad Habits, by Wendy Wood
As you will have learned from Misbehaving, a lot of the decisions that you, your colleagues and your customers are making are done on habit. Wendy Wood is a globally-renowned researcher in the area of habits and her fantastic book, Good Habits, Bad Habits can help you understand how habits really work, how they contribute to behavior (from brushing your teeth to buying a house), how to change them, and how to reinforce them.
For the consumer insights professional, so much of what your customers are doing is based on habits, so understanding how and why those habits are formed and reinforced is so important when you consider how to communicate with those customers, glean insights from their behavior, and build out products and services to meet their needs.
A More Beautiful Question, by Warren Berger
Anyone who knows me will know that this is my absolute favorite book and I recommend it to everyone, all the time. When you think about innovation and thoughtful creation of businesses, products, and services, there is no better book to shape your insights than A More Beautiful Question. Warren Berger walks the reader through amazingly insightful case studies from Kodak to the Cheetah prosthetic leg and shows how a “beautiful” question made each possible.
And, yes, he gives lots of insights into how you can find your own beautiful question and when to use various questions in the innovation process. Warren also gives insights into the process of combinatorial thinking and how the brain interacts with questions, so you can continue your process of thinking about thinking and how you can use that insight in your work.
Both/And Thinking, by Wendy Smith and Marianne Lewis
Now that you are thinking about questions and how you can look at your projects, research, and analysis of consumer behavior, there is a new layer I want you to consider. Our brains are wired to make us see binary options when that isn’t really the world we live in. We find “either/or” options so often when, in reality, there are many choices available.
By embracing the everyday paradoxes of life, you can start to see in the “both/and” which can help you better understand behavior and options in what you create. Both/And Thinking is also a great insight into the way people tend to think when working on projects or other areas of decision making that you can use to avoid common mistakes others make.
Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
Sure, you learned about metaphors in elementary school, maybe focused on them a bit in high school or college depending on your major…but do you know how much they impact our lives? Metaphors may feel like colorful ways we help to express ourselves, but research is showing that we don’t just use metaphor to embellish conversation — we actually think in metaphor. And, get this, as much as every 25th word is a metaphor!
We don’t realize how often we use metaphors, and this is important to understand both for your own work in formulating brand/product messaging or in the way you ask a research question as well as in understanding how your customers make sense of what you are offering. Metaphor helps us to make conceptual ideas tangible, and it is so, so important for consumer insights professionals to master.
You Have More Influence Than You Think, by Vanessa Bohns
Have you ever wondered why sometimes you feel like everyone is looking at you…but at other times, you feel invisible? It turns out people notice us much more than we realize — and much less (though likely not in the way you think). You Have More Influence Than You Think provides great insight into the way people are influencing each other and how they often don’t realize it. In my opinion, the insights in this book let you peek behind the curtain into the human mind to realize some of the quirks of your consumers’ brain so you can understand them, their behaviors, and motivations better (without even having to ask).
The Paradox of Choice, by Barry Schwartz
We are halfway through! And now, as you start to think about designing your options (whether they are on a shelf, a website, or a survey) it is important to understand The Paradox of Choice. People may say they want a lot of options and truly believe it, but it turns out that too many choices can be paralyzing. A classic example from this book is one of tasting jams. When there were 24 jams to try there was a lot more interest at the table to taste, but it led to people being about 10x less likely to purchase than from the table with only 6 jams. This is one of many fascinating insights about choice and the value of striking that balance in providing enough options — but not too much — to properly influence behavior in a way that lines up with sales goals at your company.
Using Behavioral Science in Marketing, by Nancy Harhut
Now we are making the transition into applying the knowledge into real case studies you can learn from with Using Behavioral Science in Marketing. This book has a bunch of really useful examples that you can learn from regardless of your industry, and that can help you to consider some behavioral concepts to try applying (without being super heavy on the science). Nancy has been there and done that (and that and that) and she shares her insights in a way that any consumer insights professional can relate to and learn from.
Engaged, by Amy Bucher
Now that you have an idea of some ways you can begin to apply your learnings — how do you go about testing with a behavioral science lens? These next two books help you do just that. Engaged is a nice transition with some great case study examples and frameworks you can begin to use as you look to apply what you have learned about consumer behavior into your insights and market research work.
Designing for Behavior Change, by Stephen Wendel
One step beyond Engaged, we get to Designing for Behavior Change. This book is, essentially, a text book. It is chock-full of examples and how-to’s that will walk you through the whole process of designing your behavioral testing, intervention, products, and more. We have built up to this point so you are ready for the depth in this book and to really start applying. Bonus: he walks you through every step of the process!
Behavioral Science in the Wild, by Dilip Soman and Nina Mažar
As you have continued to learn about behavioral science you will have come a cross a bunch of academic research by now. And, while my list includes a lot of applied case studies, you might still be wondering…do these results translate into companies? Does the industry or approach matter? What happens when we set these concepts loose and start testing, and what can we learn from the results others have gotten? Enter, Behavioral Science in the Wild. A curation of research and applied insights so you can have a better idea of what to expect when you start testing. Hint: don’t expect that everything will generalize, and while you should absolutely do literature reviews and the science is sound, context always matters.
Quit, by Annie Duke
You may be wondering why I ended with a book that is telling you to Quit. While you shouldn’t quit everything, it is important to understand our aversion to quitting and how if you want to win (in life, in games, in business) you need to quit — a lot. Ex-professional poker player and psychologist Annie Duke gives great insight into the value of quitting. And my hope with putting it at the end of the list, and in your year-end reading pile, is that it will come to you at a time of reflection and planning for the next year.
What projects are sunk costs and actually important to get out of? Where should you shift your attention for something bigger? When might your customers be compelled to stick it out, when quitting would actually be better — and how can you help them see that (when, say, choosing you would be a better option than what they are currently doing). We’ve all heard (and likely said) that “Winners never quit, and quitters never win.” Annie shows us how that is absolutely wrong, because winners have to quit in order to win.