Introduction to Psychology with Better Readings

Ditch the dated textbook and read things that are more enjoyable and informative

Psychology, the study of human cognition and behavior, is of at least some interest to nearly everyone, especially college students. Psychology is one of the most popular majors on college campuses today, making Introduction to Psychology one of the most popular courses college students take.

I’ve taught Introduction to Psychology at three different colleges and universities, but each class is nearly the same: each institution has required a standard publisher-issued textbook with the same set of chapters with the same information and standardized exams that constrain instructor creativity.

My courses have liberally deviated from the content contained in these books as much as possible, and at the end of lectures I like to recommend popular books to students that, unlike the standardized textbook provided, might actually get them interested in the study of psychology.

What could intro psychology look like in popular books? Check out my list below to learn a new introduction to psychology.


Chapter 1: Introduction and History of Psychology

Learn about how the brain has been thought about across history, and the impact that has had on research and scholarship. Learn the characteristics of WEIRD people, why such changes occurred over time, and what impact WEIRD psychology has on our understanding of human psychology.

Required Reading:

The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience by Matthew Cobb

The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous by Joseph Henrich

Chapter 2: Psychological Science Methods

Learn about what contributes to the production of bad science, false positives, and replication failures, in addition to an introduction of how statistics and data can be used to warp your perception of research – and how to spot such tricks for yourself!

Required Reading:

Science Fictions: How Fraud, Bias, Negligence, and Hype Undermine the Search for Truth by Stuart Richie

Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World by Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West

Chapter 3: The Nervous System

Learn about what the cutting-edge of neuroscience and genetics can teach us about what makes us who we are, and understand how noise and randomness in our brain development contribute to individual differences, psychopathology, and more.

Required Reading:

Innate: How the Wiring of Our Brains Shapes Who We Are by Kevin Mitchell

Chapter 4: Sensation and Perception

Learn about neuroscience by taking a journey from the smallest neurotransmitter to our deep evolutionary past, and understand how our brains sense and perceive our environment to produce our behavior.

Required Reading:

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky

Chapter 5: Learning and Memory

Learn about the world’s most extraordinary learning machine: the human brain. This book will explain the four pillars of learning and their applications from classrooms to artificial intelligence.

Required Reading:

How We Learn: Why Brains Learn Better Than Any Machine . . . for Now by Stanislas Dehaene

Chapter 6: Cognition and Thinking

Learn about experience through the eyes of animals wildly different than you, and think about what intelligence means for different animals. Then learn about the specifics of evolutionary cognition and how such mental adaptations have evolved.

Required Reading:

The Shape of Thought: How Mental Adaptations Evolve by H. Clark Barrett

Metazoa: Animal Life and the Birth of the Mind by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Chapter 7: Human Development

Learn about the resilience of child development and how parents can cultivate environments to promote the full potential of their children. Then, learn about middle adulthood development and, in particular, how our parenting and mating systems have impacted women’s evolution.

Required Reading:

The Gardener and the Carpenter: What the New Science of Child Development Tells Us About the Relationship Between Parents and Children by Alison Gopnik

The Slow Moon Climbs: The Science, History, and Meaning of Menopause by Susan Mattern

Chapter 8: Personality

Learn about why children turn out the way they do, the role of peers and parents in personality development, and what behavior genetics research has to say about our individuality.

Required Reading:

No Two Alike: Human Nature and Human Individuality by Judith Rich Harris

Chapter 9: Emotions

Learn about emotions from a comparative perspective, with exciting research from a variety of animal species. It’s not only humans that have rich emotional lives – animals are more like us than you may realize.

Required Reading:

Mama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves by Frans de Waal

Chapter 10: Consciousness

Learn about the implications of our own awareness of our being, with an accessible overview of consciousness, working through what it means, various philosophies, and exciting hypotheses.

Required Reading:

Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind by Annaka Harris

Chapter 11: Social Psychology

Learn about how humans have evolved over time to be an ultra-cooperative and social species, and how these social foundations have resulted in the societies we know today, and may have led to the self-domestication of our species.

Required Reading:

Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society by Nicholas Christakis

The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution by Richard Wrangham

Chapter 12: Health Psychology

Learn about humans transition to bipedalism, what our bodies have evolved to physically do, why such activity and movement matter for our health, and the consequences of modernity and sedentary lives on our health and longevity.

Required Reading:

Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do Is Healthy and Rewarding by Daniel Liberman

Chapter 13: Human Sexuality

Learn about the fundamental nature of human sexual reproduction, why it’s important, and the downstream consequences for social behavior between men and women. Sex matters for more than just reproduction – find out why.

Required Reading:

Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look at Human Behavior by Bobbi Low

Chapter 14: Abnormal Psychology

Learn about the true frontier of psychopathology with a new evolutionary perspective on common mental illnesses such as anxiety and depression. Ditching the categorical checklist model of psychopathology, evolutionary perspectives offer a new and more actionable framework for why we experience maladaptive mental states.

Required Reading:

Good Reasons for Bad Feelings: Insights from the Frontier of Evolutionary Psychiatry by Randolph Nessee

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