The Most Important Psychology Books
Why compile a list of the most important psychology books? Well, I have had the pleasure of interviewing some wonderful minds from the world of psychology. Psychology is a subject with a vast array of subsections that can be delved into. As such, this list is a very difficult challenge for the psychologists who I have asked the impossible question – ‘what are the most important psychology books?’. Naturally, each of my guests leans in the direction of their area of expertise; but collectively, I feel this list of the most important psychology books offers an eclectic mix.
As someone who openly admits to being intellectually lacking, but passionately inquisitive on the subject of psychology – this list is selfishly as much for me as it is for you. I’d also like to thank the guests who did undertake the difficult challenge of just nominating 2 or 3 books that fit the bill of ‘most important psychology books’; as there were many who felt the task simply too impossible to even consider partaking in. Please meet our expert panel who will help us discover the most important psychology books.
Rui Miguel Costa
Rui Miguel Costa was awarded his PhD in Psychology by the University of the West of Scotland and is currently a researcher and core member of the WJCR – William James Center for Research at ISPA – Instituto Universitário in Lisbon, Portugal. He is studying effects of relaxation and meditation techniques on well-being, body awareness, and sexual function. Rui is also interested on how new technologies are leading to new kinds of psychopathology.
Angeliki Yiassemides, PhD is an independent Jungian scholar and a Developmental Psychologist (MA, MPhil, Columbia University). She holds a PhD in Psychoanalytic Studies with a focus on Analytical Psychology. She has conducted research for the National Science Foundation of the USA, as well as for Columbia University in the City of New York. Angeliki is also the author of Time and Timelessness.
Julia Mossbridge, PhD, is a Scientist at IONS and the Director of the IONS Innovation Lab. She is also a Visiting Scholar in the Psychology Department at Northwestern University. Her research interests include time and the unconscious mind, intuition, dreaming, soundscape influence on mood, and models of transformation and transcendence. Julia is the author of numerous books, including The Garden and Transcendent Mind.
Niko Kohls is a medical psychologist with a focus on the relationship between human attitudes, preferences and values. He earned his PhD from the University of Freiburg, as well as a habilitation in medical psychology from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Munich. In addition to publishing more than 100 scientific articles, he has been invited to give more than 250 keynote lectures on health and organizational behaviour.
Marc Wittmann, PhD, studied psychology and philosophy at the Universities of Fribourg, Switzerland, and Munich, Germany. He then went on to receive his PhD at the Institute of Medical Psychology, University of Munich. He is also a research fellow at the Institute for Frontier Areas in Psychology and Mental Health in Freiburg, Germany. Marc is also the author of the MIT Press book, Felt Time
Mark Elliott studied experimental psychology at the University of London, psychophysics at the University of Leipzig, and electrophysiology at the Max-Planck Institute for Cognitive Neuroscience. He is a measurement scientist with backgrounds in general psychology and cognitive science. His scholarly lineage originates in the German Gestalt Schools; he’s also a former President of the International Society for Psychophysics.
You’ve met the panel and now it is time to discover their nominations for the most important psychology books.
This is a book written by Wilhelm Wundt, one of the founding fathers of experimental psychology, dealing with the question of how psychologists should deal with them more clandestine aspects of human consciousness. In this book, Wundt argues that hypnotism and suggestion should not be considered to be domains of experimental psychology but rather be relegated into the realms of psychiatry with all the implications that are still visible today.
It is impossible to dissociate the individual from the accumulation of cultural influence and perhaps this book, more than any other, clearly identifies the individual as a product of this influence. But not only. This book also identifies the individual as centred in a complex and dynamic matrix of cultural values, which changes and which, as the values become less personal, or less immediate, become more codified and symbolic.
Leading off from this distillation from cultural or personal psychological content is an abstract, almost occult content, the understanding of which, according to Jung and contributors, allows interpretation of mythologies.
Man and his Symbols had a profound and lasting effect on my thinking. I read this and other works in the analytical psychology tradition in my teens, many years before I sat my psychology degree, or for that matter my PhD. For my PhD I began to examine psychophysical dynamics, which has lead, via Gestalt theory back to this book.
What is described in Man and His Symbols are codices for the creation and change of psychological content and the creation of psychological value from that content. Consider a symbol for one moment; any symbol – the value and indeed the power of that image is perhaps based entirely on its shared psychological valance. It achieves this by virtue of the manner in which it changes – it’s dynamic, and this is something that interests me now very much indeed.
I am lead back to this book, not only because there is a natural evolution in my thinking, but partly because there is little accessible material of a similar type, so well written. I am also led back partly because there is a certain beauty in the logic of the arguments presented: Their currency as scientific statements may have suffered (and indeed one might say the same for other powerful ideas, for example, the idea of Gestalt) but in fact, there remains considerable wisdom; wisdom which waits patiently as science proceeds, in its own inexorable fashion, to catch up.
This was Jung’s last work before his death in 1961. The book, unlike most of Jung’s brilliant writings, targets a wide non-academic/professional audience. It contains several beautiful illustrations to facilitate understanding of his theory of symbols: their function and interpretation, and in particular their appearance in dreams.
As it is stated in the book itself “Throughout the book, Jung emphasizes that man can achieve wholeness only through a knowledge and acceptance of the unconscious—a knowledge acquired through dreams and their symbols.” This approach to the psyche is perhaps one of the most fundamental aspects of Jungian theory, and it is as complex as it is profound. Man and His Symbols manages to illustrate the above aspect of Jung’s theory to the reader in a simple yet enchanting manner.
Nicholas Humphrey’s ideas come perhaps closest to an explanation of what consciousness is and does. In his account consciousness started when, evolutionary speaking, a motor reaction to sensory stimulation was fed back internally. This recurrent feedback of the own motor act at some stage became the present-moment feeling of what it is like to be. Say, an organism moves towards sugar in the environment.
This motor act becomes fed back again and again and a sense of sweetness evolves as a temporally extended perception of what is out there (an object) for me (the self). Conscious awareness, present moment experience, is therefore extended over time. Accordingly, we feel ourselves as conscious agents. Consciousness has a survival value because our lives (our self) become extremely valuable as we consciously experience and feel sadness, happiness, hunger and thirst. Consciousness gives significance to things.
My first choice for a book that qualifies as one of the most important psychology books is Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit. The experience of women in the 20th and 21st centuries is largely the experience of navigating the reality that men still don’t necessarily believe that we have minds, experiences, creativity, and expertise of our own. This book speaks to what it feels like to be a woman who must navigate this.
Rui Miguel Costa:
After a long silence since the fall of polytheist pagan traditions, dreams regain their due importance in the human psyche by becoming a focus of scientific inquiry, even if rather speculative, by the mind and writings of Sigmund Freud. Dreams are the Royal Road to the unconscious, as Freud wrote.
In the Interpretation of Dreams, the revolutionary concepts of unconscious, libido, and repression, are introduced in a comprehensive way. Even for persons who disagreed largely with Freud, the modern study of dreams begins here.
Here, the study of sexuality received a huge impulse. Thereafter, the thought that forces hidden to consciousness operate in us is inescapable: the impact in fields ranging from psychotherapy to advertisement is enormous.
Perhaps it is not excessive to say that with the Interpretation of Dreams, self-discovery expanded its horizons as much as the discovery of the external cosmos will some years after. Notably, although Freud has been criticized by many scientists, it was Freud that Einstein invited to explain in published correspondence why humans have warfare, and how it can be stopped.
Neither a scientific text or aimed to contribute to scientific theory, ‘His Bloody Project’ is nonetheless one of the most deliberately ‘psychological’ of any novel have read. If one wanted a challenging psychological experience, one might choose Auster or Woolf, but if you want a deliberate dissection of the psychotic mind you should read this book.
This was a surprise gift, given by a colleague visiting to help me teach my students about the neuroscience of the psychopath. It sat on the bookshelf for almost two years before I started to read and I could not put it down until I had finished. Set on the North West coast of Scotland in the mid-Nineteenth Century, it is the story of a multiple murder told partly as a third person narrative, but mainly in the words of the murderer.
Attention to detail is extraordinary but most engaging is the dispassionate account of the prisoner as he tells his tale ahead of his trial. The psychopath is psychologically complete, an almost perfect psychological specimen, with no flaw or obvious neurosis. Incurably dangerous, the murderer, is dispassionately aware of his crime and consequences, and accepts his fate willingly, well, almost until the end.
His Bloody Project also includes an interesting historical portrait of the very beginning of the modern psychiatric profession: ‘Travels in the Borderland of Lunacy’ describes the account of a criminal anthropologist, subpoenaed by the advocate of the murderer to support a plea of insanity. Ultimately, the judgment of this professional is empirical and objective, but largely a mixture of opinion and prejudice.
It illustrates nonetheless, the initial mindset out of which modern professional standards have evolved. The book in its entirety shows quite clearly the impossibility of a complete and satisfactory psychological judgment. His Bloody Project was nominated for the 2016 Man Booker Prize.
My next choice for this list of the most important psychology books is The Interpersonal World of the Infant by Daniel Stern. The psychology of the self introduced by Heinz Kohut is exemplified in this book explaining the importance of mirroring, twinship, connection, and self-awareness.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell is the most illuminating and influential book ever written regarding the hero’s journey. Campbell explains his theory – largely influenced by Carl Jung – of the archetypal journey of the hero from a mythological and psychological perspective: the stages of the journey that appear in myths and stories from antiquity to the modern age.
These myths have been told and retold throughout our human history; Campbell’s genius lies in his ability to articulate poetically and majestically the motifs behind every great story, from Buddha, to Prometheus, to Luke Skywalker. This exceptional book has influenced numerous writers, musicians, filmmakers, thinkers and artists since its publication; it will undoubtedly inspire your own journey through life.
This is a groundbreaking book looking into the essence of human nature that has unfortunately not received the impact it would have deserved. Religious and mystical experiences are investigated both from a phenomenological and psychological level as well as their impact on health. This book is simply a must-read for everyone interested in psychology.
Rui Miguel Costa:
This is a groundbreaking insight into one of the most mysterious aspects of the human mind. William James describes ecstatic religious and mystical experiences attained by a variety of means with a marvellous sense of observation.
Here we see that mystical experiences are not something confined to priests, saints, and the religious realm, but rather psychological states attainable by those who are temperamentally so inclined. Mystical experiences are yet making their first steps into scientific inquiry, and the sinuous and arduous climbing walk began with this seminal book.
As dreams in Freud’s metapsychology, mystical experiences emanate from a “distinct region of consciousness”; they are transient states, sometimes facilitated by some practices, sometimes spontaneous, that create a sense of “intellectual” knowledge – often termed revelation or illumination – that is hardly transmittable by words. Many “professional mystics”, as James calls them, have constructed elaborate interpretations for their experiences which lay ground to religious and mystical traditions.
However, in the Varieties of Religious Experience, we can be led to seek the commonalities and triggers underlying them all. I hope one day there will be a better understanding of mystical experiences. It is a most challenging, and ultimately crucial question for psychological science.
Today William James would probably have given his book the title The Varieties of Spiritual Experience. Based on a lecture series James develops his ideas of how through spiritual/religious rituals, through strong belief but also out of a clear blue sky, sometimes in situations of utmost distress, humans have non-ordinary peak experiences that change their lives.
James who experimented with different methods of inducing altered states of consciousness not only gives a scientific account of such border areas of investigation but also provides vivid reports from people’s experiences ranging from psychopathological extremes to spiritual health. This book is still timely, in its depth and insight it is a textbook for any scholar or practicing person of any form of spirituality who wants to learn about non-ordinary states of consciousness.
‘Plans and the Structure of Behavior’ is considered by some to be one of the most important books in psychological science in the second half of the Twentieth Century. In it, Miller, Galanter and Pribram reject a reductionist shift from behavior to physiology to show that a scientifically acceptable language can be used to describe psychological function without recourse to a physiological level of description.
Published in 1962, ‘Plans’ includes reviews of the computational theories of Turing, McCulloch and Pitts, of the precise formulations of grammar modelled by Chomsky, and of concept learning by Bruner, Goodnow, and Austin. And in some opinions, these reviews remain the most elegant ever written.
Why is ‘Plans’ so important? It is held up as the book that ushered in the cognitive revolution in psychological science, triggering much of the research covered in Neisser’s later work ‘Cognitive Psychology’. It is also believed to be the book that ended the era of Skinnerian behaviourism.
In a contemporary sense, by providing the first real alternative to the Reflex Arc as a fundamental model of behavior, it presaged the introduction of complex-systems theory to psychology, which emerged as a working paradigm probably first in Haskin’s Laboratories, in New Haven Connecticut during the mid-1980’s. My scientific interest, which is an interest in psychophysical dynamics, owes a very great deal to this line of theoretical development.
But ‘Plans’ is important to me because of my great friendship with, and debt of gratitude to Gene Galanter, never payable since Gene passed in 2016. Knowing Gene allows the contents of ‘Plans’ another context: this is the context of the scientific avant-garde, and the personalities inhabiting that milieu who were both willing and able to break convention to advance the landscape of thinking.
Gene was certainly unafraid to rise to the challenge of breaking with convention, and unafraid to move ahead and bring tangible outcomes from his work. Cited over 8,000 times ‘Plans’ is an important contribution to psychological science, born of the unique intellectual radicalism of the late 1950’s and early to mid-1960’s, and of course to the personalities who expressed this radicalism in their work.
Rui Miguel Costa:
A brilliant union between poetry and the psychology of esthetical experience. According to Huxley’s breathtaking idea, the sense of beauty we feel with many forms of art is due to psychological transportation to a “mental place” – the antipodes of the mind, as he calls it – located in the deep unconscious where luminous and colourful shapes and landscapes dwell.
We are commonly unaware of these “visionary objects”, which can become vivid in consciousness by some altered states of consciousness, including the experiences with psychoactive substances and hypnotic states that Huxley was familiar about.
However, some forms of art allow this transport in a less radical fashion, but on a more daily basis. Huxley goes to the point of calling this “far-away” mental region the Heaven that many mystical traditions describe. If there is Heaven, there is Hell, which is the same place but experienced with horror, not with the blissful rapture of Heaven.
This may seem too ethereal, but the experience of these luminous colorful shapes and landscapes is a reality in altered states of consciousness that are now a focus of scientific interest. Science might one day uncover if, and how, they influence the esthetical experience, even if unconsciously.
The former US FBI director speaks to his anecdotal observations about the psychological and character traits required in good leadership, what happens when good leaders fail, and what happens when poor leaders are placed in positions they are not equipped to handle.
This popular but at its time controversial book is so important because it constitutes the link between Otto Rank’s hard to read psychoanalytic theory of death denial and the empirically tested research agenda of the contemporary social psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski.
Their work has been summarized in their book The Worm at the Core, wherein a series of empirical studies it is shown how being forced to think about personal death changes our attitudes and behavior.
Conscious and subconscious death reminders let us become more positive to people of our feelings in groups: family and friends, fellow citizens of our culture, our own race. It lets us become more adverse to people from felt outgroups. Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, provided the conceptual basis for how existential concerns underlie everyday choice and decisions on war and peace.
Social psychologist`s Ellen Langer`s book paved the way for applying positive psychology and mindfulness in important areas such as elderly care and clinical practice following a western approach. The merits of the book are that it provides many examples that can easily be put into application.