The Books That Influenced B. F. Skinner

harvard guide to influential books

Found in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking.

B.F. Skinner is a legendary psychologist. Building on those who came before him, he is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning. His analysis of human behavior culminated in Verbal Behavior and Walden Two.

Here is what Skinner had to say about which books influenced him and why.

Bacon is Shake-speare by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence

How Plants Grow: A Simple Introduction to Structural Botany by Asa Gray

Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex by Ivan P. Pavlov

The Problems of Philosophy (1911) by Bertrand Russell

Behaviorism by John B. Watson

He writes:

The books that have been most important in leading me to my present position as a behaviorist are not books that I would recommend to anyone seeking to understand that position. They were important, not so much because of their content, but because of their bearing on my life at the time I read them. A mere accident sent me to Sir Edwin-Durning-Lawrence’s Bacon is Shake-speare, and that book sent me in turn to all I could find of, and about, Francis Bacon. I have acknowledged the role of three great Baconian principles in my life, but I would not send anyone to Durning-Lawrence to discover them.

Gray’s How Plants Grow, my high-school botany text, taught me, with the example of the radish, how living things pass on to the future the contributions they have received from the past. Later I found the same theme in Hervieu’s “La Course du Flambeau,” but I would not send anyone there for further instruction. I was greatly influenced by the first third of Bertrand Russell’s Problems of Philosophy. According to his biographer it was “written at speed for the American market,” and it certainly is not regarded as one of Russell’s great books. Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes taught me the importance of controlling laboratory conditions, but I soon departed from the Pavlovian paradigm. John B. Watson was important, of course, but I read only his Behaviorism, a book written for the general public. I am not sure I ever read his Psychology, from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist.

This is all perfectly reasonable, since, after all, if anything I have done is “creative,” should we expect to find it in anything I have read?

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson.

The Best Books of 2014: Your Overall Favorites

best reads 2014

From how to read books and raise kids to philosophy and finance.




The third annual (2012, 2013) look at your favorite reads featured on Farnam Street. You’re a well-read bunch.

In no particular order:

Fiasco: The Inside Story of a Wall Street Trader

FIASCO is the shocking story of one man’s education in the jungles of Wall Street. As a young derivatives salesman at Morgan Stanley, Frank Partnoy learned to buy and sell billions of dollars worth of securities that were so complex many traders themselves didn’t understand them. In his behind-the-scenes look at the trading floor and the offices of one of the world’s top investment firms, Partnoy recounts the macho attitudes and fiercely competitive ploys of his office mates.

Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In

Since its original publication nearly thirty years ago, Getting to Yes has helped millions of people learn a better way to negotiate. One of the primary business texts of the modern era, it is based on the work of the Harvard Negotiation Project, a group that deals with all levels of negotiation and conflict resolution.

It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone

Despite the age-old saying, individuals everywhere still have a hard time realizing that it’s not all about them. Robin Dreeke uses his research and years of work in the field of interpersonal relations and behavior to help readers focus on building relationships with others in “It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques for Building Quick Rapport with Anyone”. As the head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program within the Counterintelligence Division, Dreeke has used the techniques listed in “It’s Not All About Me” with skilled professionals within the FBI as well as with sales professionals, educators and individuals across the country and world.

Collected Maxims and Other Reflections

Deceptively brief and insidiously easy to read, La Rochefoucauld’s shrewd, unflattering analyses of human behavior have influenced writers, thinkers, and public figures as various as Voltaire, Proust, de Gaulle, Nietzsche, and Conan Doyle.

Letters from a Self-Made Merchant to His Son

A must read.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

Why do some children succeed while others fail? The story we usually tell about childhood and success is the one about intelligence: success comes to those who score highest on tests, from preschool admissions to SATs. But in How Children Succeed, Paul Tough argues that the qualities that matter more have to do with character: skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control. How Children Succeed introduces us to a new generation of researchers and educators, who, for the first time, are using the tools of science to peel back the mysteries of character.

Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience

This spectacular collection of more than 125 letters offers a never-before-seen glimpse of the events and people of history—the brightest and best, the most notorious, and the endearingly everyday.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition

You’ll learn the six universal principles, how to use them to become a skilled persuader—and how to defend yourself against them. Perfect for people in all walks of life, the principles of Influence will move you toward profound personal change and act as a driving force for your success.

How to Read a Book: The Classic Guide to Intelligent Reading

Originally published in 1940, this book is a rare phenomenon, a living classic that introduces and elucidates the various levels of reading and how to achieve them—from elementary reading, through systematic skimming and inspectional reading, to speed reading. Readers will learn when and how to “judge a book by its cover,” and also how to X-ray it, read critically, and extract the author’s message from the text.

Meditations: A New Translation

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (a.d. 121–180) succeeded his adoptive father as emperor of Rome in a.d. 161—and Meditations remains one of the greatest works of spiritual and ethical reflection ever written. With a profound understanding of human behavior, Marcus provides insights, wisdom, and practical guidance on everything from living in the world to coping with adversity to interacting with others. Consequently, the Meditations have become required reading for statesmen and philosophers alike, while generations of ordinary readers have responded to the straightforward intimacy of his style.

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger, 3rd Edition

Seeking Wisdom is the result of Bevelin’s learning about attaining wisdom. His quest for wisdom originated partly from making mistakes himself and observing those of others but also from the philosophy of super-investor and Berkshire Hathaway Vice Chairman Charles Munger. A man whose simplicity and clarity of thought was unequal to anything Bevelin had seen.

Confessions of a Sociopath: A Life Spent Hiding in Plain Sight

Confessions of a Sociopath takes readers on a journey into the mind of a sociopath, revealing what makes them tick and what that means for the rest of humanity. Written from the point of view of a diagnosed sociopath, it unveils these men and women who are “hiding in plain sight” for the very first time.

The Books That Influenced Edward O. Wilson

harvard guide to influential books

Too often life gets in the way of reading and thinking. Rarely are we given a chance to look back at what influenced our thinking. Sometimes these are small fragments — words, thoughts, marginalia, ideas, or even a book.

The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking contains an annotated listing of the books that mattered to over a hundred Harvard University faculty members along with some commentary on why.

Here is Pulitzer-winning writer and naturalist E.O. Wilson’s contribution.

I was an adolescent, from fifteen to eighteen years of age, when I encountered the books that were to have the most profound and lasting influence on my life. Thereafter I read thousands of books, many of equal or superior quality, and put most to good use; but I have to confess that individually they have had a steadily declining effect on my world view, style and ambition. Hence I can only offer you works that might, either literally or as examples of a genre, influence a certain kind of young person to take up a career as a biologist and naturalist. More I cannot promise.

Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Even as a small child I dreamed of going on faraway expeditions to collect insects and other animals. This book set my imagination on fire, and I was thereafter a nesiophile, a lover of islands, the concrete symbols of new worlds awaiting exploration. The compulsion was one of the mental factors that led me in later years to develop (with Robert H. MacArthur) the theory of island biogeography, which has become an influential part of ecology.

Heredity and Its Variability by Trofim D. Lysenko

Although I was later to see Lysenkoism for what it was, false in conception, political in aim, and very nearly the death of Soviet genetics, I was enchanted by this little book when I encountered it at the age of sixteen. It appealed to my mood of rebelliousness. It seemed to me that Lysenko was offering a radical and effective challenge to conventional science, and that even the callow and inexperienced might have a chance to proceed directly to new realms of discovery.

An Essay on Morals by Philip Wylie

When I was a seventeen-year-old college student, these Menckenesque essays broke me out of the fundamentalist Protestant faith in which I had been raised and moved me toward the secular humanism with which I increasingly identify today. I still find Wylie a delightful read.

Arrowsmith by Sinclair Lewis

The perfect young man’s book: a vision of a pure life devoted to the search for scientific truth, above money grubbing and hypocrisy. How I longed to be like Arrowsmith, to find my mentor in a real Gottlieb. The feeling was intensified when I discovered Jack London’s Martin Eden shortly afterward.

What Is Life? by Erwin Schrodinger

This taut little book, which I encountered as a college freshman, invited biologists to think of life in more purely physical terms. Schrodinger was right of course, as witness the rise of molecular biology soon afterward. For me his arguments suggested delicious mysteries and great challenges. (Later, I was especially pleased when a reviewer likened my own book Genes, Mind, and Culture, published with C. J. Lumsden in 1981, to What Is Life? saying that it offered a comparable challenge from biology to the social sciences.)

Systematics and the Origin of Species from the Viewpoint of a Zoologist by Ernst Mayr

By defining the biological species in strong, vital language and connecting the process of species formation to genetics, Mayr opened a large part of natural history to a more scientific form of analysis. This is an example of a very heuristic work, which invited young scientists to join an exciting quest in field research. More than forty years after its publication, I am still wholly involved in this effort.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

I hope that I have not missed the editors’ purpose entirely by listing books that affected one rather rebellious adolescent in the 1940s, but I was quite surprised myself when I came up with this list after careful reflection. Let me make partial amends by citing the work that I pull off the shelf most often, and gives me the greatest pleasure, now that I am in my fifties: Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. For this work reflects the point to which I have come, in company with such a magnificent spirit who “bears in mind that all that is rational is akin, and that it is in man’s nature to care for all men, and that we should not embrace the opinion of all, but of those alone who live in conscious agreement with Nature.

Best Books for Investors: A Short Shelf

I’ve already outlined 12 books the sophisticated investor should read.

Now Jason Zweig, WSJ reporter and author of Your Money and Your Brain, chimes in with the books he recommends for investors.

(If you’re not looking to be a practitioner, I’d recommend reading Buffettology, which is very under-appreciated).

Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich, Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them

In clear, simple prose, Belsky and Gilovich explain some of the most common quirks that cause people to make foolish financial decisions. If you read this book, you should be able to recognize most of them in yourself and have a fighting chance of counteracting some of them. Otherwise, you will end up learning about your cognitive shortcomings the hard way: at the Wall Street campus of the School of Hard Knocks.

Peter L. Bernstein, Against the Gods: The Remarkable Story of Risk

The late polymath Peter Bernstein poured a long lifetime of erudition and insight into this intellectual history of risk, luck, probability and the problems of trying to forecast what the future holds. Combining a stupendous depth of research with some of the most elegant prose ever written about finance, Bernstein chronicles the halting human march toward a better understanding of risk—and reminds us that, after centuries of progress, we still have a long way to go.

John C. Bogle, Common Sense on Mutual Funds

The founder of the Vanguard Group and father of the index-fund industry methodically sorts fact from fiction. Following his logical arguments can benefit you even if you never invest in a mutual fund, since Bogle touches on just about every crucial aspect of investing, including taxes, trading costs, diversification, performance measurement and the power of patience.

Elroy Dimson, Paul Marsh and Mike Staunton, Triumph of the Optimists

Neither light reading nor cheap (it’s hard to find online for less than about $75), this book is the most thoughtful and objective analysis of the long-term returns on stocks, bonds, cash and inflation available anywhere, purged of the pom-pom waving and statistical biases that contaminate other books on the subject. The sober conclusion here: Stocks are likely, although not certain, to be the highest-performing asset over the long run. But if you overpay at the top of a bull market, your future returns on stocks will probably be poor.

Richard Feynman, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! or What Do You Care What Other People Think?

These captivating oral histories of the great Nobel Prize-winning physicist ostensibly have nothing to do with investing. In my view, however, the three qualities an investor needs above all others are independence, skepticism and emotional self-control. Reading Feynman’s recollections of his career of intellectual discovery, you’ll see how hard he worked at honing his skepticism and learning to think for himself. You’ll also be inspired to try emulating him in your own way.

Benjamin Graham, The Intelligent Investor

Originally published in 1949, called by Warren Buffett “by far the best book on investing ever written,” this handbook covers far more than just how to determine how much a company’s stock is worth. Graham discusses how to allocate your capital across stocks and bonds, how to analyze mutual funds, how to take inflation into account, how to think wisely about risk and, especially, how to understand yourself as an investor. After all, as Graham wrote, “the investor’s chief problem—and even his worst enemy—is likely to be himself.” (Disclosure: I edited the 2003 revised edition and receive a royalty on its sales.) Advanced readers can move on to Benjamin Graham and David Dodd, Security Analysis, the much longer masterpiece upon which The Intelligent Investor is based.

Darrell Huff, How to Lie with Statistics

This puckish riff on how math can be manipulated is only 142 pages; most people could read it on a train ride or two, or in an afternoon at the beach. As light as the book is, however, it is nevertheless profound. In one short take after another, Huff picks apart the ways in which marketers use statistics, charts, graphics and other ways of presenting numbers to baffle and trick the public. The chapter “How to Talk Back to a Statistic” is a brilliant step-by-step guide to figuring out how someone is trying to deceive you with data.

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

Successful investing isn’t about outsmarting the next guy, but rather about minimizing your own stupidity. Psychologist Daniel Kahneman, who shared the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2oo2, probably understands how the human mind works better than anyone else alive. This book can make you think more deeply about how you think than you ever thought possible. As Kahneman would be the first to say, that can’t inoculate you completely against your own flaws. But it can’t hurt, and it might well help. (Disclosure: I helped Kahneman research, write and edit the book, although I don’t earn any royalties from it.)

Charles P. Kindleberger, Manias, Panics, and Crashes

In this classic, first published in 1978, the late financial economist Charles Kindleberger looks back at the South Sea Bubble, Ponzi schemes, banking crises and other mass disturbances of purportedly efficient markets. He explores the common features of market disruptions as they build and burst. If you remember nothing from the book other than Kindleberger’s quip, “There is nothing so disturbing to one’s well-being and judgment as to see a friend get rich,” you are ahead of the game.

Roger Lowenstein, Buffett: The Making of an American Capitalist

This book remains the most comprehensive and illuminating study of Warren Buffett’s investing and analytical methods, covering his career in remarkable detail up until the mid-1990s. If you read it in conjunction with Alice Schroeder’s The Snowball, you will have a fuller grasp on what makes the world’s greatest investor tick.

Burton G. Malkiel, A Random Walk Down Wall Street

In this encyclopedic and lively book, Malkiel, a finance professor at Princeton University, bases his judgments on rigorous and objective analysis of long-term data. The first edition, published in 1973, is widely credited with helping foster the adoption of index funds. The latest edition casts a skeptical eye on technical analysis, “smart beta” and other market fashions.

Bertrand Russell, Sceptical Essays or The Scientific Outlook

Russell is Buffett’s favorite philosopher, and these short essay collections show why. Russell wrote beautifully and thought with crystalline clarity. Immersing yourself in his ideas will sharpen your own skepticism. My favorite passage: “When a man tells you that he knows the exact truth about anything, you are safe in inferring that he is an inexact man…. It is an odd fact that subjective certainty is inversely proportional to objective certainty. The less reason a man has to suppose himself in the right, the more vehemently he asserts that there is no doubt whatever that he is exactly right.” Think about that the next time a financial adviser begins a sentence with the words “Studies have proven that….”

Alice Schroeder, The Snowball: Warren Buffett and the Business of Life

With unprecedented access to Buffett, Schroeder crafted a sensitive, personal and insightful profile, focusing even more on him as a person than as an investor—and detailing the remarkable sacrifices he made along the way. If you read it alongside Lowenstein’s Buffett, you will have an even deeper understanding of the master.

Fred Schwed, Where Are the Customers’ Yachts?

First published in 1940, this is the funniest book ever written about investing—and one of the wisest. Schwed, a veteran of Wall Street who survived the Crash of 1929, knew exactly how the markets worked back then. Nothing has changed. Turning to any page at random, you will find gleefully sarcastic observations that ring at least as true today as they did three-quarters of a century ago. My favorite: “At the end of the day [fund managers] take all the money and throw it up in the air. Everything that sticks to the ceiling belongs to the clients.”

“Adam Smith,” The Money Game

In the late 1960s, the stock market was dominated by fast-talking, fast-trading young whizzes. The former money manager George J.W. Goodman, who wrote under the pen name “Adam Smith,” christened them “gunslingers.” In this marvelously entertaining book, Goodman skewers the pretensions, guesswork and sheer hogwash of professional money management. Reading his mockery can help sharpen your own skepticism toward the next great new investing idea—which almost certainly will turn out to be neither great nor new.

Not sure what to get the book worm on your list? Start here

From the library of Farnam Street

All of the 2014 reading lists together in one shareable place. Start here if you’re still searching for the perfect gift for the book lover on your list. (The curious can compare with the 2013 edition.)

Financial Times: Best Books of 2014

The Financial Times published their list of the best books in 2014. If you have a bibliophile on your list, this is the place to start.

Economics

Business

Politics

History

Science

Art

Architecture & Design

Literary Non-Fiction

Fiction

Poetry

Travel

Sport

Food

Crime

Science Fiction

Children’s Fiction

Young Adult Fiction

 


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