Practical psychology books for software engineers

Derek Jones from The Shape of Code

So you have read my (draft) book on evidence-based software engineering and want to learn more about human psychology. What books do I suggest?

I wrote a book about C that attempted to use results from cognitive psychology to understand developer characteristics. This work dates from around 2000, and some of my book choices may have been different, had I studied the subject 10 years later. Another consequence is that this list is very weak on social psychology.

I own all the following books, but it may have been a few years since I last took them off the shelf.

There are two very good books providing a broad introduction: “Cognitive psychology and its implications” by Anderson, and “Cognitive psychology: A student’s handbook” by Eysenck and Keane. They have both been through many editions, and buying a copy that is a few editions earlier than current, saves money for little loss of content.

“Engineering psychology and human performance” by Wickens and Hollands, is a general introduction oriented towards stuff that engineering requires people to do.

Brain functioning: “Reading in the brain” by Dehaene (a bit harder going than “The number sense”). For those who want to get down among the neurons “Biological psychology” by Kalat.

Consciouness: This issue always comes up, so let’s kill it here and now: “The illusion of conscious will” by Wegner, and “The mind is flat” by Chater.

Decision making: What is the difference between decision making and reasoning? In psychology those with a practical orientation study decision making, while those into mathematical logic study reasoning. “Rational choice in an uncertain world” by Hastie and Dawes, is a general introduction; “The adaptive decision maker” by Payne, Bettman and Johnson, is a readable discussion of decision making models. “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases” by Kahneman, Slovic and Tversky, is a famous collection of papers that kick started the field at the start of the 1980s.

Evolutionary psychology: “Human evolutionary psychology” by Barrett, Dunbar and Lycett. How did we get to be the way we are? Watch out for the hand waving (bones can be dug up for study, but not the software of our mind), but it weaves a coherent’ish story. If you want to go deeper, “The Adapted Mind: Evolutionary Psychology and the Generation of Culture” by Barkow, Tooby and Cosmides, is a collection of papers that took the world by storm at the start of the 1990s.

Language: “The psychology of language” by Harley, is the book to read on psycholinguistics; it is engrossing (although I have not read the latest edition).

Memory: I have almost a dozen books discussing memory. What these say is that there are a collection of memory systems having various characteristics; which is what the chapters in the general coverage books say.

Modeling: So you want to model the human brain. ACT-R is the market leader in general cognitive modeling. “Bayesian cognitive modeling” by Lee and Wagenmakers, is a good introduction for those who prefer a more abstract approach (“Computational modeling of cognition” by Farrell and Lewandowsky, is a big disappointment {they have written some great papers} and best avoided).

Reasoning: The study of reasoning is something of a backwater in psychology. Early experiments showed that people did not reason according to the rules of mathematical logic, and this was treated as a serious fault (whose fault it was, shifted around). Eventually most researchers realised that the purpose of reasoning was to aid survival and reproduction, not following the recently (100 years or so) invented rules of mathematical logic (a few die-hards continue to cling to the belief that human reasoning has a strong connection to mathematical logic, e.g., Evans and Johnson-Laird; I have nearly all their books, but have not inflicted them on the local charity shop yet). Gigerenzer has written several good books: “Adaptive thinking: Rationality in the real world” is a readable introduction, also “Simple heuristics that make us smart”.

Social psychology: “Social learning” by Hoppitt and Laland, analyzes the advantages and disadvantages of social learning; “The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter” by Henrich, is a more populist book (by a leader in the field).

Vision: “Visual intelligence” by Hoffman is a readable introduction to how we go about interpreting the photons entering our eyes, while “Graph design for the eye and mind” by Kosslyn is a rule based guide to visual presentation. “Vision science: Photons to phenomenology” by Palmer, for those who are really keen.

Several good books have probably been omitted, because I failed to spot them sitting on the shelf. Suggestions for books covering topics I have missed welcome, or your own preferences.