Q: What’s the first thing you read in the morning?
Without fail, when I wake up, I immediately gravitate to the most mesmerizing, so-enthralling-that-I-can’t-put-it-down genre of our era: e-mail. Luckily, on most mornings, my inbox is sprinkled with at least a few e-mails that open the door to exciting stories. Sometimes it’s a gripping New York Times story; in other cases, it’s an article about a mind-boggling new finding from psychology.
Q: What are the best articles and books you’ve read recently?
I loved Barry Schwartz’s call in The Atlantic for a council of psychological advisers to the president. I share his view that the vast majority of government decisions depend heavily on predicting and changing human behavior, and there is a rich body of knowledge in psychology that can inform these decisions. On the book front, I loved The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner, a self-described grump who went globe-trotting in search for the happiest place on earth, and Quiet by Susan Cain, who beautifully integrated science and stories to challenge the “extravert ideal” in Western culture. I also found Jonathan Haidt’s book The Righteous Mind extremely perceptive and provocative in overturning many assumptions that we hold about political and religious ideologies, and I’ve just started reading Decisive, the latest blockbuster from the Heath brothers.
Q: Has your reading of professional journals changed in the past 10 years?
These days I read more widely. A decade ago, I focused primarily on organizational, social, and personality psychology. Now it’s common for me to dive into articles from other branches of psychology, such as developmental or evolutionary psychology, as well as other fields altogether–especially political science, anthropology, sociology, behavioral economics, physics, medicine, and law. In addition to fostering interesting interdisciplinary conversations, I find that this broader knowledge base sparks creative ideas.
Q: How did Give and Take come about? Do you have another book project in mind for the future?
As an organizational psychologist, I’ve long been fascinated by the dynamics of success at work and in life. I started my career in advertising, and I was struck by the fact that my accomplishments depended heavily on my relationships with colleagues and clients. When I looked at the evidence, I noticed that most research on job performance and productivity focused on individual factors like effort, talent, and luck. I decided to study the social forces that shape success. I was particularly excited to get to the bottom of the debate about whether “good guys” finish first or last. As I started conducting research, I stumbled across a surprising pattern: People who focused on helping others with no strings attached were overrepresented at the top and the bottom of most success metrics. After I received tenure, I decided I had the responsibility to share these results with a broader audience, in the hopes of enabling readers to think differently about success and laying the groundwork for organizations to create more sustainable mechanisms for supporting helping behaviors.
Q: The book as object: Is it a pleasure, a necessity, an anachronism?
To me, there are few things in life that blend pleasure and necessity better than a great book. Although I do plenty of reading on Kindle and iPad, the best books are the ones that I feel drawn to own in print–I enjoy being able to comb back through them and lend them to friends, colleagues, and students. The ideal book launches me into the state of complete absorption that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls flow, to the point where I’m so immersed in the narrative that I lose a sense of time and the outside world. At the same time, it leaves me with new insights and a fresh way of seeing the world. One of my hobbies is performing as a magician, and a truly exceptional book is like a spellbinding magic trick: I experience awe and wonder in the moment, and I spend days or weeks puzzling about it afterward.
Q: Do you read blogs? If so, what blogs do you like best?
My favorite blogs are about big ideas in the social and behavioral sciences. I’m a fan of Bob Sutton’s Work Matters blog, which focuses on evidence-based management, and Dan Pink’s blog, which covers captivating topics ranging from motivation to influence to creativity. I also enjoy perusing the counterintuitive studies that frequently appear on the Freakonomics blog.
Q: What are the guilty pleasures in your media diet?
I love reading fiction, especially mysteries and plots that involve superheroes or magic. My all-time favorite books include Ender’s Game, The Zero Hour, and of course the Harry Potter series. I’ve read just about everything written by Joseph Finder, James Patterson, John Grisham, Robert Ludlum, Harlan Coben, Barry Eisler, Stephenie Meyer, Michael Crichton, Dan Brown, Suzanne Collins, and Matt Reilly. I collected comic books for years, and I still love reading them, especially Superman and the X-Men.
Illustration by Monica Hellström for The Chronicle Review.