Whether you’re a formal student of psychology, or just someone fascinated with the science of human behavior, reading psychology books is an excellent way to broaden your knowledge. If you’re just getting started, you may feel confused by the variety of names, authors, and the numerous subfields. Deciding which psychology books to start with can also be a difficult experience.
A good way to determine which psychology book to read is by looking first at the classics. By classics, we mean books in psychology that have been instrumental in directing the course of psychology throughout its history. These books are considered essential because they serve as a basis for some of the most dominant schools of thought in psychology. We’ve listed these books down below to make it easier for you to choose.
Taking on these classics can feel overwhelming. That’s a normal feeling. You don’t have to read everything on this list right away. You can gradually build your knowledge by reading just a few of the essential psychology books we’ve listed down below. With a little patience, you can have an impressive grasp of psychological knowledge just from reading some of the books in this list.
This post is a resource for readers looking for must-read books about psychology. It lists sample books that explore a wide range of psychology topics, from psychoanalysis, to cognitive science, to positive psychology. These books, written by thought leaders and prominent figures in the field, shaped what psychology is today. If you are a student of psychology, these books should be a part of your personal bookshelf.
Here are 20 essential psychology books every student of psychology should read.
Table of Contents
The Story of Psychology
Author: Morton Hunt
Field: History of Psychology
What it’s about:The Story of Psychology writes in clear and concise detail the influences that shaped the history of psychology, from Socrates’ early musings on the humanity, to Freud’s thoughts on the unconscious, to psychologists of the modern era studying how we think and behave. For anyone interested in how psychology evolved throughout the years, this psychology book is a must-read.
The Blurb: Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Spinoza, Mesmer, William James, Pavlov, Freud, Piaget, Erikson, and Skinner. Each of these thinkers recognized that human beings could examine, comprehend, and eventually guide or influence their own thought processes, emotions, and resulting behavior. The lives and accomplishments of these pillars of psychology, expertly assembled by Morton Hunt, are set against the times in which the subjects lived. Hunt skillfully presents dramatic and lucid accounts of the techniques and validity of centuries of psychological research, and of the methods and effectiveness of major forms of psychotherapy.
What it’s about: Dreams are a source of wonder and fascination for most people. They are a window into the hidden minds of others. They offer insights into the hidden desires and fears of the subconscious. They can also act as a catalyst for self-discovery, helping us understand our habits and personality traits. In The Interpretation of Dreams, Sigmund Freud wrote a blueprint for dream interpretation, which he described as the “royal road” to the unconscious.
The Blurb: First published in 1899, Sigmund Freud’s groundbreaking book, The Interpretation of Dreams, explores why we dream and why dreams matter in our psychological lives. Delving into theories of manifest and latent dream content, the special language of dreams, dreams as wish fulfillments, the significance of childhood experiences, and much more, Freud offers an incisive and enduringly relevant examination of dream psychology. Encompassing dozens of case histories and detailed analyses of actual dreams, this landmark work grants us unique insight into our sleeping experiences.
What it’s about:Man and His Symbols is one of Carl Jung’s most prominent works. A former protege of Freud, he departed from the teachings of his mentor and developed his own theories of the unconscious. In Man and His Symbols, Jung wrote about his thoughts on how we can understand the symbols that occur in our dreams. Written for the lay reader, Man and His Symbols was Jung’s attempt to bring forth his theories and teachings to the public.
The Blurb: Man and His Symbols owes its existence to one of Jung’s own dreams. The great psychologist dreamed that his work was understood by a wide public, rather than just by psychiatrists, and therefore he agreed to write and edit this fascinating book. Here, Jung examines the full world of the unconscious, whose language he believed to be the symbols constantly revealed in dreams. Convinced that dreams offer practical advice, sent from the unconscious to the conscious self, Jung felt that self-understanding would lead to a full and productive life. Thus, the reader will gain new insights into himself from this thoughtful volume, which also illustrates symbols throughout history. Completed just before his death by Jung and his associates, it is clearly addressed to the general reader.
Neurosis and Human Growth: The Struggle Towards Self-Realization
Author: Karen Horney
What it’s about: Esteemed psychoanalyst Karen Horney discusses her theory of the concept of neurosis in the book Neurosis and Human Growth. More specifically, Horney differentiates between actions motivated by anxiety and actions driven by a person’s full range of emotions. Horney was one of the first psychologists to focus on neurotic development, and what happens when a child is constantly subjected to perceptions of a hostile world.
The Blurb: In Neurosis and Human Growth, Dr. Horney discusses the neurotic process as a special form of the human development, the antithesis of healthy growth. She unfolds the different stages of this situation, describing neurotic claims, the tyranny or inner dictates and the neurotic’s solutions for relieving the tensions of conflict in such emotional attitudes as domination, self-effacement, dependency, or resignation. Throughout, she outlines with penetrating insight the forces that work for and against the person’s realization of his or her potentialities.
What it’s about: Everyone’s familiar with the concept of classical conditioning. You associate the sound of a bell with the arrival of the food and, soon enough, a dog will start drooling at the sound of a bell. Classical conditioning has become such a popular psychology concept that it has even pervaded pop culture; case in point, that one scene in The Office where Dwight associates the sound of a computer with mint. Conditioned Reflex by the Nobel-prize-winning physiologist Ivan Pavlov provides details on how he discovered the mechanisms behind classical conditioning, a concept that would pave the way for the rise of behaviorism in psychology.
The Blurb: Pavlov’s description on how animals (and humans) can be trained to respond in a certain way to a particular stimulus drew tremendous interest from the time he first presented his results. His work paved the way for a new, more objective method of studying behavior. The impact on Pavlov’s work on all subsequent psychological thought has been overwhelming and the volume remains the best introduction to his contributions. Until this work appeared, Pavlov’s findings were known only through individual monographs, most of which had appeared in hard-to-find periodicals published in Eastern Europe. In a series of lectures delivered in 1924, however, Pavlov reviewed his entire course of experiments, summarized his conclusions and outlined his psychological system. This book, which is an expanded version of these lectures, is still an important statement of Pavlov’s work.
What it’s about: The psychologist B.F. Skinner is best known for his work on operant conditioning, a type of associative learning that strengthens or weakens a behavior through reinforcement or punishment. In About Behaviorism, B.F. Skinner lays out his ideas and discoveries regarding behaviorism, which, during his time, was an emerging challenger to the more dominant school of psychoanalysis.
The Blurb: The basic book about the controversial philosophy known as behaviorism, written by its leading exponent.
What it’s about: The psychiatrist Eric Berne wrote Games People Play as a handbook on navigating social relationships. The book is based on the concept of transactional analysis, a method of understanding behavior by analyzing the roles we assume in human interactions. Games People Play is one of the first psychology books to emphasize the role of social relationships and the “games” we play with the people with interact with.
The Blurb: We play games all the time–sexual games, marital games, power games with our bosses, and competitive games with our friends. Detailing status contests like “Martini” (I know a better way), to lethal couples combat like “If It Weren’t For You” and “Uproar,” to flirtation favorites like “The Stocking Game” and “Let’s You and Him Fight,” Dr. Berne exposes the secret ploys and unconscious maneuvers that rule our intimate lives. Explosive when it first appeared, Games People Play is now widely recognized as the most original and influential popular psychology book of our time. It’s as powerful and eye-opening as ever.
What it’s about: The influential psychologist Jean Piaget spent most of his career studying the minds of children and how they perceived the world around them. Piaget is most popularly known for his theory of cognitive development. In the book The Psychology of the Child, Piaget describes his theories in detail, explaining his decades-long research on child development, including the stages of cognitive development children undergo. If you are interested in developmental psychology and would love to learn more about how kids think, The Psychology of the Child is an essential addition to your to-read list.
The Blurb: Here Jean Piaget, with the assistance of his long-time collaborator Barbel Inhelder, offers a definitive presentation of the developmental psychology he has elaborated over the last forty years. This comprehensive synthesis traces each stage of the child’s cognitive development, over the entire period of childhood, from infancy to adolescence.
What it’s about: Erik Erikson is one of the most influential psychologists in history. His seminal work on the psychosocial stages of development shaped the direction of developmental psychology. In his book The Life Cycle Completed, Erikson concludes his decades-long research on lifespan psychology by focusing on the life of the very old.
The Blurb: For decades Erik H. Erikson’s concept of the stages of human development has deeply influenced the field of contemporary psychology. Here, with new material by Joan M. Erikson, is an expanded edition of his final work. The Life Cycle Completed eloquently closes the circle of Erikson’s theories, outlining the unique rewards and challenges—for both individuals and society—of very old age.
What it’s about: Conducted on the heels of World War II, Stanley Milgram‘s notorious obedience experiments shocked the psychological community, drawing condemnations but also revealing uncomfortable truths about the nature of obedience. Milgram’s book, Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View, provides a first-hand account of what happened when the obedience experiments were being conducted. It also provides insights and explanations from Milgram about the conclusions of the study. If you have always been fascinated by this controversial experiment, then Obedience to Authority is a psychology book that should be on your to-read-next list.
The Blurb: In the 1960s, Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram famously carried out a series of experiments that forever changed our perceptions of morality and free will. The subjects—or “teachers”—were instructed to administer electroshocks to a human “learner,” with the shocks becoming progressively more powerful and painful. Controversial but now strongly vindicated by the scientific community, these experiments attempted to determine to what extent people will obey orders from authority figures regardless of consequences. “Milgram’s experiments on obedience have made us more aware of the dangers of uncritically accepting authority,” wrote Peter Singer in the New York Times Book Review.
What it’s about: Carl Rogers revolutionized how psychotherapy is done, pulling the practice away from seeing patients as medical specimens towards regarding them as human beings capable of growth and actualization. In his book On Becoming a Person, Carl Rogers shares his insights on psychotherapy, collected over thirty years, where he emphasizes how patients — or in his term “clients” — should be treated within a therapeutic setting. Anyone who plans to become a therapist should read Carl Rogers’ psychology book, On Becoming a Person.
The Blurb: The late Carl Rogers, founder of the humanistic psychology movement, revolutionized psychotherapy with his concept of “client-centered therapy.” His influence has spanned decades, but that influence has become so much a part of mainstream psychology that the ingenious nature of his work has almost been forgotten. A new introduction by Peter Kramer sheds light on the significance of Dr. Rogers’s work today. New discoveries in the field of psychopharmacology, especially that of the antidepressant Prozac, have spawned a quick-fix drug revolution that has obscured the psychotherapeutic relationship. As the pendulum slowly swings back toward an appreciation of the therapeutic encounter, Dr. Rogers’s “client-centered therapy” becomes particularly timely and important.
What it’s about: In the book Man’s Search for Meaning, psychiatrist Viktor Frankl details his experiences in the Auschwitz concentration camp during World War II. During his harsh detention, he was able to gain insights into what would eventually become his own version of therapy, called logotherapy, the concepts of which are extensively discussed in the book.
The Blurb: Psychiatrist Viktor Frankl’s memoir has riveted generations of readers with its descriptions of life in Nazi death camps and its lessons for spiritual survival. Between 1942 and 1945 Frankl labored in four different camps, including Auschwitz, while his parents, brother, and pregnant wife perished. Based on his own experience and the experiences of others he treated later in his practice, Frankl argues that we cannot avoid suffering but we can choose how to cope with it, find meaning in it, and move forward with renewed purpose. Frankl’s theory-known as logotherapy, from the Greek word logos (“meaning”)-holds that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
What it’s about: In Hierarchy of Needs: A Theory of Human Motivation, psychologist Abraham Maslow details his concept of the hierarchy of needs, the concept that would define his career. He would also elaborate in this book on the term “self-actualization,” which according to Maslow is the realization of a human’s full potential.
The Blurb: Arguably the best known example of such a characteristic is Self-Actualization, an innate motivating force unique to the human species. It was in this landmark publication that Maslow provided the first published representation of Self-Actualization at the pinnicle of a hierarchy of human needs. According to Maslow Self-Actualization refers to the desire for self-fulfillment, in essence to become everything that one is capable of becoming. This classic publication is essential reading for psychology students, educators and professionals.
What it’s about: In A Guide to Rational Living, Albert Ellis demonstrates how rational emotive behavior therapy, or REBT, can challenge maladaptive thinking that often derail our mental health. Ellis’ REBT inspired an entire new set of techniques in psychotherapy, including the development of the widely practiced cognitive behavior therapy (CBT). Another must-read for would-be therapists and counselors, A Guide to Rational Living is a psychology book that deserves a space on every psychology student’s shelf.
The Blurb: If you have the rigorous honesty necessary to conduct self-analysis, this book can be the most important one you have read. For although it makes no promises, it can help you more than all the other self-help books put together. Rational Emotive Behavioral Therapy can teach any intelligent person how to stop feeling miserable about practically anything. Direct, get-to-the-heart-of-the-problem methods teach you what you often do to needlessly upset yourself and what you can do, instead, to make yourself emotionally stronger. These practical, proven methods of changing your self-defeating emotions and behaviors reflect the authors’ vast experience as therapists and as teachers of therapists from all over the world, and have been backed by literally hundreds of research studies. A Guide to Rational Living provides much sought-after answers for individuals with problems, and it can help everyone to feel better about themselves and to deal with their lives more effectively. (from AlbertEllis.org)
What it’s about: Legendary psychologist Albert Bandura, who only passed away in 2021, wrote Self-Efficacy: The Exercise of Control as a way of detailing one of his most prominent concepts, self-efficacy, or the belief in one’s capability or competence. One of the most important psychology books of the last century, Self-Efficacy has proven to be an essential read not only within psychology, but also in sociology, medicine, and management.
The Blurb: With over 20 years of research by renowned psychologist, Albert Bandura, Self-Efficacy articulates his theory that believing one can achieve what one sets out to do results in a healthier, more effective, and generally more successful life.
What it’s about: Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice talks about one of the most extensively studied domains of psychology — the concept of intelligence. In this book, psychologist Howard Gardner argues that intelligence is not a single, linear entity, but rather a concept that can take form in many different modalities, like visual-spatial intelligence, logical-mathematical intelligence, and interpersonal intelligence. For anyone captivated by the complex concept of intelligence, Multiple Intelligence is the psychology book for you.
The Blurb: Howard Gardner’s brilliant conception of individual competence is changing the face of education today. In the ten years since the publication of his seminal Frames of Mind, thousands of educators, parents, and researchers have explored the practical implications of Multiple Intelligences (MI) theory — the powerful notion that there are separate human capacities, ranging from musical intelligence to the intelligence involved in understanding oneself. Multiple Intelligences: The Theory in Practice brings together previously published and original work by Gardner and his colleagues at Project Zero to provide a coherent picture of what we have learned about the educational applications of MI theory from projects in schools and formal research over the last decade.
What it’s about: Elizabeth Loftus is best known as an expert on memory. She has conducted research on false memories and eyewitness testimonies. Loftus is often hired as an expert consultant for legal cases, including those of Ted Bundy, O.J. Simpson, Rodney King, Oliver North, Martha Stewart, Lewis Libby, Michael Jackson, the Menendez brothers and the Oklahoma City bombers. In The Myth of Repressed Memory, Loftus debunks the notion of the concept of “repressed memory,” a key concept in psychoanalysis that states that some undesirable or traumatic memories are buried into the unconscious.
The Blurb: This book reveals that despite decades of research, there is absolutely no controlled scientific support for the idea that memories of trauma are routinely banished into the unconscious and then reliably recovered years later. Since it is not actually a legitimate psychological phenomenon, the idea of “recovered memory”–and the movement that has developed alongside it–is thus closer to a dangerous fad or trendy witch hunt.
What it’s about: One of the most popular books on the intricacies of the human mind, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat is a psychology book that everyone should read at least once. Authored by Oliver Sacks, it depicts peculiar cases he’s encountered in his lengthy career as a neurologist. One of the cases described in the book is that of a man who suffers from visual agnosia, which disables him from recognizing faces and objects. The case would serve as the inspiration for the book’s title.
The Blurb: If inconceivably strange, these brilliant tales remain, in Dr. Sacks’s splendid and sympathetic telling, deeply human. They are studies of life struggling against incredible adversity, and they enable us to enter the world of the neurologically impaired to imagine with our hearts what it must be to live and feel as they do. A great healer, Sacks never loses sight of medicine’s ultimate responsibility: “the suffering, afflicted, fighting human subject.”
What it’s about: When Martin Seligman became president of the American Psychological Association, he declared “positive psychology,” a previously unheard concept, to be the direction of psychology in the modern era. It was a protest against previously dominant perspectives in psychology that focused on maladaptive behavior, instead of what made humans exceptional. Considered the father of positive psychology, Seligman wrote Authentic Happiness, one of the first books on the field. In Authentic Happiness, Seligman argued that happiness can be harnessed by acknowledging and taking advantage of our strengths as human beings.
The Blurb: According to esteemed psychologist and bestselling author Martin Seligman, happiness is not the result of good genes or luck. Real, lasting happiness comes from focusing on one’s personal strengths rather than weaknesses—and working with them to improve all aspects of one’s life. Using practical exercises, brief tests, and a dynamic website program, Seligman shows readers how to identify their highest virtues and use them in ways they haven’t yet considered. Accessible and proven, Authentic Happiness is the most powerful work of popular psychology in years.
What it’s about: Flow is a book written by notable positive psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who conceptualized “flow,” or more commonly known as being “in the zone.” In Flow, Csikszentmihalyi discusses the research behind flow, and how it can be harnessed to optimize our lives.
The Blurb: Legendary psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s famous investigations of “optimal experience” have revealed that what makes an experience genuinely satisfying is a state of consciousness called flow. During flow, people typically experience deep enjoyment, creativity, and a total involvement with life. In this new edition of his groundbreaking classic work, Csikszentmihalyi (“the leading researcher into ‘flow states’” —Newsweek) demonstrates the ways this positive state can be controlled, not just left to chance. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience teaches how, by ordering the information that enters our consciousness, we can discover true happiness, unlock our potential, and greatly improve the quality of our lives.
Where to get: You can buy a hard copy or Kindle version of Flow on Amazon.