Behavioral economics have become increasingly popular in the social sector, and for good reason: to create solutions that achieve their intended impact, we have to understand how people actually behave. In our MovingWorlds Institute professional development program, behavioral economics is consistently a favorite module because of its tremendous potential to improve impact outcomes.
By blending insights from psychology, cognitive science, and traditional economics, behavioral economics gives us a more complex and nuanced view into how we make decisions, and how we can help ourselves and others make better ones.
Whether you’re working to create sustainable social change from within a corporation, a nonprofit, or your own social enterprise, behavioral economics can help you get there. The 34 books linked below will help you get started, and for more detailed guidance step-by-step check out our complete guide to using behavioral economics for social impact.
1. Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard Thaler
Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler is widely considered to be the founding father of behavioral economics. If you’re new to the concept, this book is the perfect place to start. Thaler challenges the traditional economic model of humans as “rational actors,” showing that our behavior is far more complex in reality. By understanding actual human behavior, we can develop new models and insights to help us make better decisions in our lives, our businesses, and our governments.
2. Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
Nudge will help you translate the principles of behavioral economics into action to drive behavior change. If you understand how people think, you can “nudge” them towards the best decision by changing the context in which choices are presented.
3. Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath
In Switch, the Heath brothers explain how our minds are ruled by two systems – one emotional, and the other rational – which are constantly competing for control. By learning how to unite the two, you can push against the status quo to drive positive change on a large scale.
4. Contagious: Why Things Catch On by Jonah Berger
In Contagious, Jonah Berger explores why some ideas and solutions become wildly popular while others fail. If you’re trying to get a product or idea off the ground, this book provides a set of actionable techniques to help you get information to spread by designing messages, advertisements, and information that people will share.
5. Everything Is Obvious: *Once You Know the Answer by Duncan J. Watts
Sociologist and network science pioneer Duncan Watts shows how “common sense” reasoning often tricks us into believing that we understand more about human behavior than we actually do. By understanding how and when common sense fails, we can improve how we plan for the future, as well as understand the present.
6. Freakonomics by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
In Freakonomics, economist Steven Levitt examines the inconsistencies of everyday life, reaching conclusions that challenge conventional wisdom. The authors show that economics is ultimately about incentives: how people get what they want and need.
7. Good Economics for Hard Times by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
We must work together to deal with today’s most pressing social, environmental, and economic challenges. In Good Economics for Hard Times, the Nobel Prize winning authors argue that the resources to address these challenges are out there, and make a compelling case for multilateral cooperation to mobilize those resources in the most effective way.
Learn more about Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s work at Poverty Action Lab
8. How Change Happens by Cass R. Sunstein
If you’re trying to affect social change or start a movement, this book can help you do it. Sunstein focuses on the role of social norms in blocking or catalyzing change, and shares what kinds of nudges are most effective in moving those norms in a more sustainable direction.
9. Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion by Robert B. Cialdini
To create social change, you’re going to have to influence people to join your cause. In this book, Cialdini explores the psychology of why people say “yes” and how to apply these principles ethically in business and everyday situations.
10. Irrational Exuberance by Robert Shiller
If you’re interested in impact investing and the psychology of investment markets, this book is for you. Nobel Prize winning economist Robert Shiller explains that psychologically driven volatility is an inherent characteristic of all asset markets, and suggests ways that policy makers and individuals can decrease their risk before the next bubble bursts.
11. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die by Chip and Dan Heath
How do you get an important social impact idea to “stick” and become widely adopted? In Made to Stick, The Heath brothers will change the way you communicate by revealing the six principles that winning ideas have in common, and how you can apply them to make your own messages stickier.
12. Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
We make decisions every day that happen in the blink of an eye, almost without thinking, but they don’t always lead to the best outcomes. Blink reveals that the best decision makers aren’t those who have the most information or time to deliberate, but rather those who have perfected the art of “thin-slicing” — filtering the few factors that matter from an overwhelming number of variables.
13. More Than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm, Learn, and Stay Healthy by Dean Karlan and Jacob Appel
This is a must-read book for anyone who wants to work with and develop solutions for vulnerable and under-served communities. The authors explain why investments so far by governments and individuals to address global poverty haven’t generated results, and offer an alternative approach that incorporates behavioral economics to help changemakers actually move the needle on well-being around the world.
14. Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones by James Clear
To achieve your goal of creating positive social change, you’ll have to build the daily habits to get you there. Atomic Habits will reshape the way you think about progress and success, and give you the tools and strategies you need to transform your habits and take you to new heights.
15. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World by Adam Grant
If you’ve ever felt like the odd-person-out for challenging the status quo, Originals is for you. Grant explores how to recognize a good idea, speak up without getting silenced, build a coalition of allies, choose the right time to act, and manage fear and doubt. Full of groundbreaking insights about rejecting conformity and improving the status quo, Originals will inspire you to embrace nonconformity as the asset that it truly is.
16. Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty by Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo
If you want to help create a world without poverty, you first have to understand the daily realities of experiencing poverty. In this book, the Nobel Prize winning authors delve into the daily decisions facing these populations, and set forth a radical rethinking of the economics of poverty to help changemakers target their efforts in the most effective way.
Learn more about Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s work at Poverty Action Lab
17. Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
Human beings are error-prone, unlike the rational actor model of traditional economics. In this book, Dan Ariely shows that because the mistakes we make are systematic and predictable, we can leverage those insights to develop new strategies, tools, and methods to help us make better decisions and improve our overall well-being.
18. Redirect: Changing the Stories We Live By by Timothy Wilson
In Redirect, Timothy Wilson shares a scientifically-based approach to help us break free from the self-limiting beliefs and assumptions that hold us back. Wilson demonstrates the remarkable power small changes can have on the ways we see ourselves and our environment, and how we can use the approach of story-editing in our everyday lives to create lasting change.
19. Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan by Francesca Gino
If you’re struggling to close the gap between your impact ideas and reality, this book can help you get back on track. Without realizing it, simple, irrelevant factors can have profound consequences for our decisions and behavior. Sidetracked will help you understand and identify the nuances of how your decisions get derailed, and give you more control over keeping them on track to reach your goals.
20. Small Is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered by E. F. Schumacher
This book is a must-read for anyone passionate about sustainability and conscious capitalism. Economist E. F. Schumacher makes the case against excessive consumption, presenting logical and effective arguments for building economies around the needs of communities, rather than corporations.
21. Start at the End: How to Build Products That Create Change by Matt Wallaert
If you’re trying to design socially impactful products and services that change behavior, this book is an essential road map. Start at the End offers a new framework for design grounded in behavioral economics that starts with outcomes instead of processes, helping you understand what people want to do (and why they aren’t already doing it) so that you can build products and services to bridge the gap.
22. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
We constantly think about what the future will look like, but how can we use our powers of imagination to make better decisions rather than limiting ourselves? Combining insights from psychology, cognitive neuroscience, philosophy, and behavioral economics, Daniel Gilbert reveals what scientists have discovered about our uniquely human ability to imagine the future, and about our capacity to predict how much we will like it when we get there.
23. Barking Up the Wrong Tree: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Success Is (Mostly) Wrong by Eric Barker
What makes successful people different than everyone else? Conventional wisdom is full of advice that Eric Barker argues is just plain wrong. In Barking Up the Wrong Tree, he reveals the extraordinary science behind what actually determines success, and most importantly, how anyone can achieve it (even if you weren’t the class valedictorian!)
24. Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know by Malcolm Gladwell
You’ll have to work with people you don’t know to get a new idea off the ground, but how do you do that effectively? In Talking to Strangers, Gladwell argues that something is wrong with the tools and strategies we use to make sense of people we don’t know, and that because we don’t know how to talk to strangers, we are inviting conflict and misunderstanding in ways that have a profound effect on our lives and our world.
In this groundbreaking book about the way we behave, Dan Ariely examines the contradictory forces that drive us to cheat and keep us honest. Drawing on experiments and research, Ariely reveals the motivations behind these irrational – yet, entirely human – behaviors, and how we can account for them.
26. The Last Mile: Creating Social and Economic Value from Behavioral Insights by Dilip Soman
A social impact solution is only as valuable as its ability to reach its target beneficiaries. Many products providing essential value for under-served populations are difficult and expensive to access because of barriers in the last mile – where the consumer actually makes a choice. In The Last Mile, Dilip Soman shows how to use insights from behavioral science in order to close that gap, providing a range of practical tools with which to overcome common last mile difficulties.
27. The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less by Barry Schwartz
Anyone who has ever experienced “analysis paralysis” when facing too many options is already familiar with the paradox of choice. In this book, Barry Schwartz explains at what point choice becomes detrimental to our psychological and emotional well-being. He offers eleven practical steps on how to limit choices to a manageable number, have the discipline to focus on the most important and ignore the rest, and ultimately derive greater satisfaction from the choices we have to make.
28. The Power of Moments: Why Certain Experiences Have Extraordinary Impact by Chip and Dan Heath
We all have certain experiences that elevate and change us. In The Power of Moments, the Heath brothers explore what makes those moments unique, and how we can learn to create more of those moments for ourselves and others to drive transformative change.
29. The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems by Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin
In this book, the authors lay out a counterintuitive approach to problem-solving: to drive change, we must leverage positive deviants — the few individuals in a group who find unique ways to look at, and overcome, seemingly insoluble difficulties. By seeing solutions where others don’t, positive deviants spread and sustain needed change.
30. The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
The tipping point is that magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behavior crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire. In this book, you’ll learn how other ideas and products have successfully “tipped”, and how to apply those insights to change the way you think about selling products and disseminating ideas.
31. The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home by Dan Ariely
We know that human beings behave irrationally, but is that necessarily a bad thing? In this book, Dan Ariely explores a more positive and personal take on human irrationality’s implications, and shares how to leverage that irrationality to make real personal and societal changes.
32. Think Twice: Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition by Michael Mauboussin
No matter what kind of work you do, you’ll encounter situations where you have to make a judgement call. This book explores why it’s so hard to make sound decisions, and the preventable cognitive errors that lead to the wrong ones. Think Twice shares how to avoid common mental missteps that prevent us from coping with the complex realities inherent in important decisions, leading to better outcomes.
33. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
In this book, Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman takes us on a tour of the mind and explains the two systems that shape our judgments and decisions: one that is fast and intuitive, and one that is slow and rational. By understanding how these systems work, Kahneman reveals how we can use different techniques to guard against the mental glitches that often get us into trouble.
34. When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink
Timing is everything, both in terms of small decisions like daily schedules and big decisions like when to launch a new product or company. In When, Daniel Pink distills cutting-edge research and data on timing and synthesizes it into a fascinating, readable narrative packed with stories and practical takeaways, giving us compelling insights into how we can live richer, more engaged lives.
Like this list? Make sure to check out our other reading lists for social intrapreneurs, entrepreneurs, and career-changers by following #SocentReadingList on social media.
For more information and guidance on this topic, check out our complete guide to using behavioral economics for social impact. Looking for even more personalized support? Apply to our MovingWorlds Institute Global Fellowship to join a community of changemakers on the same journey to leading positive change.