Issues I have with Popular (Behavioural) Science Books




Not too long ago I published a list of my favourite ten books in behavioural science. It was a popular article, but apparently also quite controversial. Controversial because there isn’t a single book on there that would also be considered very famous in behavioural science/behavioural economics. If you look at that list, you won’t find Ariely, I don’t think Kahneman and Sunstein are on there. And don’t expect to find Freakonomics on there, because I have started reading all 4 (!) books in the freakonomics series, and haven’t managed to get more than 5 chapters into either of them, because they bore me to death. To be honest, I haven’t finished reading Thinking Fast and Slow either, for the similar reasons. I don’t know what it is, but the writing style makes it almost impossible to get through. And without exposing anyone, I’m not nearly alone in that last opinion. So what is it about these popular science books that makes me tune out at a maximum of 5, relatively short, chapters?

I think the answer came to me when reading “Dollars and Sense” by Ariely, who is known for writing popular behavioural science books, and co-authored by Jeff Kreisler. I study money. Specifically payment methods, but I know a lot about people perceive and (mis)handle money. As such, you should think I would have really enjoyed This book explains how people handle money. It should be right up my street right? Well… No. I hated it. From all the popular science books I’ve read, I thought it was one of the worst. Although, it has to be said, I did finish it! Which seems to be a marker of quality in my case… So the more towards my own topic I go, the less I enjoy reading popular science books. Well, at least we figured that out. It says more about me and my knowledge than it does about the quality of the book (potentially…). That is something I can work with. I think.


As happy as I was with this initial “epiphany” the more I thought about it, the more it irked me. Why couldn’t I enjoy a good popular behavioural science book?! We were recommended reading all these damn books as soon as we started the masters (MSc Behavioural and Economic Science, Warwick). Nudge, Misbehaving and literally anything by Ariely were thrown at us. References were taken from this book to exemplify and explain certain biases and phenomena. And of course, the entire idea behind Thinking Fast and Slow, dual system reasoning, was mentioned every other day. Which is fine if you had read those books already. I hadn’t… So lagging behind about 14 popular science books on all my friends, peers and role models, I figured I should get my ass in line. I bought or borrowed all those books and read through them at record pace (I’m a fast reader anyway, it didn’t take that long). You will be very unsurprised to know that I didn’t like most of these books. Nudge was boring, and most of the research I had already read the report or academic paper on (I blame my excellent undergraduate degree for that). Dual system theory got introduced to me about five years before the book by Kahneman came out. And so the entire list of books had been had, yet I felt more like I had been had.


You might be wondering by this stage, is this article going anywhere, or is just a behavioural scientist whining about other behavioural scientists not being able to write books that entertain her. Well, I am whining, but I am whining with a cause! I think, and I have discussed this with others, that popular science books are great for sparking curiosity about the field. Any field, really. They are great marketing ploys. Almost gateway drugs into the actual research behind those books. I’m also not arguing that some of these books aren’t very well researched (they are) or well-written (subjective) and I’m definitely not arguing that no effort was put into these books (I’m sure they required a lot of time and effort). But these books are snacks, not full meals. They spark curiosity, but they can’t satisfy a real hunger for knowledge. Now you might be arguing that this is not the goal of a popular science book. And you’re probably right. Popular as a category demands that it’s accessible to a lot of people. As a result, you need to keep quite a few things more basic. Which is fine overall, but it’s boring me (woe is me).


There has to be something between a popular science book and an academic textbook or an academic paper. As an academic, I need depth, but I’d like it to be written in an entertaining (read: non-academic) manner as well. Maybe it’s time we go a bit deeper?




Also, if you're reading this article and thinking: "what is this woman on about? I've read plenty of popular science books that go DEEP! Well, please do let me know which books or which authors I should look into. I'm so ready to learn!

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