100 Books to Become a Behavioral Designer — Part 1

Your Ultimate Reading Guide to Designing for Behavior Change

Samuel Salzer
Aug 23 · 13 min read

How to become a behavioral designer.

Behavioral Design is the practice of designing for behavior change*. The fundamental question in behavioral design is always; how can we change behavior for good? Learning the answer is clearly something we can all benefit from, and it becomes especially useful when you aim to change behavior in a large population, for example, with a product, service, or policy. Most people think they are intuitively good at this, while in fact, quite the opposite is true (see Dunning-Kruger effect). Changing behavior at scale is incredibly hard and it’s not something we are born knowing how to do. Instead, behavioral design requires learning a unique skill-set based on insights, methods, and tools from a wide range of disciplines, including everything from behavioral economics to cognitive psychology, and service design. We also need to develop the ability to understand and weigh in the ethical considerations to ensure we create value (and not harm) through our interventions. Due to the complex nature of acquiring this skill-set, one of the most common questions I receive is the following:

You might relate to this, and even I can recall asking myself the very same question several times earlier in my career. However, I’m happy to tell you there’s no longer any reason for this being so hard. I have created this resource together with some of the leading minds in the industry to help you learn this practice and find ways to use it for good. The books detailed in this guide are a mix of those who have helped me create a successful behavioral design career combined with books personally nominated by the likes of Richard Thaler, Dan Ariely, Tali Sharot, Nir Eyal, Robert Cialdini, and Angela Duckworth, to name a few.

So, here you go —the ultimate reading guide to becoming a behavioral designer. Time to get started. (Hint: Choose a book and start reading it!).

*There are several definitions of behavioral design. I use a wide definition where the focus is on the outcome (behavior change) and less on the fields involved. Another more “field focused” example is Irrational Lab’s definition: “using behavioral science insights to inform design decisions”.

Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

Before you get started.

Here are three excellent resources to help you get the most out of this guide:


If you prefer a list of all 100 books in a PDF, then you can download it here 📚

Level 1. Building a foundation

Whatever you are trying to learn, it’s essential to build a solid foundation — to understand the core principles of the subject. The primary purpose of this level is to help you develop a better understanding of the human mind and what guides our decision making. You will be introduced to books that will help you grasp the fundamentals of psychology, behavioral economics, behavioral biology, personality theory, habit formation, evolutionary psychology + much more. These are some fantastic books that will forever change the way you look at the world (and perhaps even yourself).

Book recommendations included in this part

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst

Paperback | Audiobook | Kindle

THE BOOK IN SHORT
What causes a behavior to happen? This is the question that Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky dedicates the pages of this book to help us understand. The result is one of the most dazzling tours of the science of human behavior ever attempted, a grand synthesis that harvests cutting-edge research across a range of disciplines to provide a subtle and nuanced perspective on why we ultimately do the things we do…for good and for ill.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT
Behave will teach you everything you need to know about what influences human behavior. You will learn how multiple disciplines such as behavioral biology, evolutionary psychology, neuroscience, and behavioral psychology each form a piece in the puzzle of understanding why we do what we do. Warning: Not the easiest read, so if you’re just getting started, perhaps begin with another one on the list.

Category: Neurobiology, Evolutionary Biology, Neuroscience


Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

Paperback | Audiobook | Kindle

THE BOOK IN SHORT

Drawing on four decades of scientific research on human motivation, in Drive, Daniel Pink exposes the mismatch between what science knows and what business does — and how that affects every aspect of our lives. Pink argues that the secret to high performance and satisfaction in today’s world is the deeply human need to direct our own lives, to learn and create new things, and to do better by ourselves and our world. He demonstrates that while the old-fashioned carrot-and-stick approach worked successfully in the 20th century, it’s precisely the wrong way to motivate people for today’s challenges.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT
Human motivation is often an enigma, and while there are many models for explaining it, this book offers an excellent foundation for understanding the drivers behind why we behave as we do — both in the workplace and beyond. This book should especially be seen as a nice introduction to Self-Determination Theory and provides a good start on how to think about human motivation.

Category: Psychology, Motivational Theory



Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want

Paperback | Audiobook | Kindle

THE BOOK IN SHORT
How good are you at knowing the minds of others? How well can you guess what others think of you, know who really likes you, or tell when someone is lying? Mindwise introduces the latest science about our ability to understand the most complicated puzzle on the planet — ourselves and other people — and the surprising mistakes we routinely make.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

This book offers an introduction to how our mind works and our, at times, irrational side. It provides great insights into how people form beliefs and make decisions about others (and themselves), something essential to understanding if you aim to influence or change the choices that people make.

Category: Cognitive Psychology


Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me)

Paperback | Audiobook | Kindle

THE BOOK IN SHORT

This book is about the stories we create to make it through our lives of repeated mistakes. It suggests that when we make mistakes, we must calm the cognitive dissonance that threatens our feelings of self-worth. And so we create fictions that absolve us of responsibility, restoring our belief that we are smart, moral, and right. The book offers a fascinating explanation for this game of self-deception — how it works, the harm it can cause, and how we can overcome it.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

“You must not be fooled, and you’re the easiest person to fool.” Mistakes were made (but not by me) reminds me of this classic quote from Richard Feynman. While the book focuses on the psychology behind what happens in our mind when we screw up, it also hints at a great understanding of how our minds work and the process in which we create our world-view. Not only will you be more aware of how you are fooling yourself, but this book will also provide a delightful glimpse into the intricate process behind how people make decisions and form beliefs.

Category: Social Psychology


Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Nominated by: Robert Cialdini, Kristen Berman, and Seth Stephens-Davidowitz

Paperback | Audiobook | Kindle

THE BOOK IN SHORT

Predictably Irrational shows that we not only make astonishingly simple mistakes every day, but we make the same “types” of mistakes. We consistently overpay, underestimate, and procrastinate. We fail to understand the profound effects of our emotions on what we want, and we overvalue what we already own. From drinking coffee to losing weight, from buying a car to choosing a romantic partner, the book explains how to break through these systematic patterns of thought to make better decisions.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

This best-selling classic is not only a great introduction to behavioral economics, but it’s also a fun and easy read. Written by professor Dan Ariely of Duke University, this book will get you hooked on the fascinating exploration of the irrational side of human nature. A great book to start with if you are entirely new to the field.

Category: Behavioral Economics


Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

Paperback | Audiobook | Kindle

THE BOOK IN SHORT

In Sapiens, Dr. Yuval Noah Harari covers the whole of human history, from the very first humans to walk the earth to the radical — and sometimes devastating — breakthroughs of the Cognitive, Agricultural and Scientific Revolutions. Drawing on insights from biology, anthropology, paleontology, and economics, he explores how the currents of history have shaped our human societies, the animals and plants around us, and even our personalities. Bold, wide-ranging, and provocative, Sapiens challenges everything we thought we knew about being human: our thoughts, our actions, our power … and our future.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

You have probably heard about this book, and there is a good reason for that. More than just a history book, Sapiens provides a captivating peek into the nature and past of our species. By reading the book, you will better understand how we got here and as the synopsis suggests, it’s easier to understand what we will do tomorrow if we can understand what we did yesterday.

Category: History, Anthropology


Spent: Sex, Evolution, and Consumer Behavior

Paperback | Kindle

THE BOOK IN SHORT

Evolutionary psychology — the compelling science of human nature — has clarified the prehistoric origins of human behavior and influenced many fields ranging from economics to personal relationships. In Spent Geoffrey Miller applies this revolutionary science’s principles to a new domain: the sensual wonderland of marketing and status-seeking that we call consumer culture. The book examines the hidden factors that dictate our choices in everything from lipstick to cars, from the magazines we read to the music we listen to. It’s a bold and revelatory book that illuminates the unseen logic behind the chaos of consumerism and suggests new ways we can become happier consumers and more responsible citizens.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

This is a wild book. It takes you on a ride through our evolution, from that of our stone-age ancestry all the way to eventually finding ourselves taking selfies in a convertible Ferrari on Times Square. How did we get here? This book offers a unique blend of evolutionary psychology, personality theory, and consumer behavior to help us better understand the lives we live and the things we buy. Safe to say, Spent will make you look at the world in a very different light.

Category: Evolutionary Psychology, Personality Theory


The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do In Life And Business

Nominated by: Jonah Berger

Paperback | Audiobook | Kindle

THE BOOK IN SHORT

The Power of Habit explores recent scientific discoveries that explain why habits exist and how they can be changed. Along the way, you will learn why some people and companies struggle to change, despite years of trying, while others seem to remake themselves overnight. At its core, the book argues that the key to exercising regularly, losing weight, becoming more productive, and achieving success is understanding how habits work.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

Habits are the holy grail of behavior change. Just imagine the consequences if you were able to change the habits of your users, clients, and colleagues, not to mention your own. This book offers a great introduction and helps you discover the foundations of habit formation, the habit loop, and begin to think about how long-term behavior change happens.

Category: Behavioral Psychology


Thinking, Fast and Slow

Nominated by: Tali Sharot, Dan Ariely, Susan Weinchenck, and Stephen Wendel

Paperback | Audiobook | Kindle

THE BOOK IN SHORT

Thinking Fast and Slow takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and introduces the two systems that drive the way we think. Beyond explaining these two systems, the book will also help you understand the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning the next vacation — each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions. In short, an illuminating book about how we think and make decisions.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

This one is simply a must-read. Written by Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, it is the behavioral economics book and a fantastic read. While fascinating, still be prepared that it’s not the easiest one to get through. It will take some effort to make it to the final page, but once you do, you’ll be forever grateful that you did.

Category: Behavioral Economics, Cognitive Psychology


100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People

Paperback | Kindle

THE BOOK IN SHORT

We design to elicit responses from people. We want them to buy something, read more, or take action of some kind. Designing without understanding what makes people act the way they do is like exploring a new city without a map: results will be haphazard, confusing, and inefficient. This book combines real science and research with practical examples to deliver a guide every designer needs. With it, you’ll be able to design more intuitive and engaging work for print, websites, applications, and products that matches the way people think, work and play.

WHY YOU SHOULD READ IT

Few books will offer you as high degree of fascinating insights per page like this one. While written for UX/Service Design folks, this book is a must for anyone interested in changing behavior in our digital world. It indeed provides more than 100 gems, which is no surprise given that it’s written by Susan Weinchenck, one of the leaders and pioneers of her field.

Category: Psychology, Service Design, UX Design

Please clap 👏👏 if you find this list helpful. Thanks!

That’s it (for now)

These are the first 10 books in this series but don’t worry; three more parts are available below. While it’s easy to want to check out the whole list, don’t be afraid to take this moment to relax, find a place to comfortably lean back, and then start reading one of the great books introduced above.

If you prefer a list of all 100 books in a PDF, then you can download it here 📚


Samuel Salzer is a behavioral designer, author & keynote speaker helping value-driven organizations around the world to create habit-forming products and services using insights from behavioral economics and applied behavioral science.

For questions or queries, get in touch here.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

Credit to everyone who helped make this, and future parts in this guide possible through your book recommendations and endorsements. It is humbling to have so many great people in our wide-spread community be so eager to help out and contribute.

Thank you to everyone listed below, I greatly appreciate your contributions.

Dan Ariely | Jonah Berger | Charlotte Blank | David Buss | Yu-kai Chou | Robert Cialdini | Wendy De La Rosa | Angela Duckworth | Nir Eyal | Zac Fitz-Walter | BJ Fogg | Evelyn Gosnell| Adam Grant | Dan Heath | Aline Holzwarth | Tim Houlihan | Rob Haisfield | Michael Hallsworth |Scott Barry Kaufman | Zarak Khan | Steve Martin | Riitta Mettomäki | Katherine Milkman |Kurt Nelson | Ingrid Melvær Paulin | Dan Pink | Steven Pinker | Robert Sapolsky | Tali Sharot | Koen Smets | Dilip Soman | Seth Stephens-Davidowitz | Richard Thaler | Matt Wallaert | Susan Weinchenck | Stephen Wendel

Names listed alphabetically. For simplicity, I avoided titles (you can assume everyone has a PhD.)

Credit to Goodreads — Most of “The book in short” sections are adapted synopsis from Goodreads.

No affiliate links have been used in this article.

Behavioral Design Hub

One place for everything related to behavioral design

Samuel Salzer

Written by

Behavioral designer, author and keynote speaker. Helping organizations create habit forming products. Curator for the popular newsletter www.HabitWeekly.com

Behavioral Design Hub

One place for everything related to behavioral design

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