Welcome to Shelf Care, where I review three books related by a theme. These aren’t necessarily the latest releases, but are hopefully books you can’t believe you missed.

This column’s theme: One word titles: investigating human behavior. There’s a popular trend in publishing whereby books about a topic will have a one word title, followed by “: additional context which is absolutely necessary to explain that title”. This is widespread enough to have both become a publishing standard and an idea I can mine repeatedly to write additional reviews of this category of investigative books. However, the challenge here is creating a more focused sub-topic from this deep well of content, and the thread tying these together, apart from the format of the titles, is that they all address human behavior in some way, and all share the properties of being educational, interesting, and entertaining.

So if you like:

Digging up a good read
History
Anthropology
Caving

You might like

Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet, by Will Hunt

Overview

Fascinated by caves and tunnels, Will Hunt examines our long human history with life underground.

Sample passage

It began as a quest to understand my own preoccupation; but with each descent, as I became attuned to the resonances of the subterranean landscape, a more universal story emerged. I saw that we—all of us, the human species—have always felt a quiet pull from the underground, that we are as connected to this realm as we are to our own shadows. From when our ancestors first told stories about the landscapes they inhabited, caves and other spaces beneath our feet have frightened and enchanted us, forged our nightmares and fantasies. Underground worlds, I discovered, run through our history like a secret thread: in ways subtle and profound, they have guided how we think about ourselves and given shape to our humanity.

Takeaway

I really wouldn’t have thought there would have been as much historical information in this, but Hunt looks at the human history of living underground, from neolithic cave dwellers, to miners, to philosophers, to those who live in subways today. He recounts his experiences exploring the Parisian catacombs, and examines the common threads in mythology that relate to the underworld, as a way of understanding our fascination with it.

While I’d have appreciated a bit more on the modern subway dwellers, this is an unexpectedly thorough examination of what we as a species go into the dark, and what we found there.

Or if you like:

Seeing science done
A semester’s worth of sex ed
History, biology, and sociology
Science writing with a bit of a smart ass twist

You might like

Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, by Mary Roach

Overview

Mary Roach delves in to the history of research on human sexuality, covering historical, biological and social aspects to uncover why humans “Bonk”.

Sample passage

Sex is one of those rare topics wherein the desire for others to keep the nitty-gritty of their experiences private is stronger even than the wish to keep mum on one’s own nitty-gritty. I would rather have disclosed to my own mother, in full detail and four-part harmony, the events of a certain summer spent sleeping my way through the backpacker hotels of South America than to have heard her, at the age of seventy-nine, say to me, “Your father had some trouble keeping an erection.” (I had it coming: I’d asked about the six-year gap between my brother’s birth and mine.)

I’ve been tripping over the cringe factor all year. It is my habit and preference, as a writer, to go on the scene and report things as they happen. When those things are happening to subjects in sex research labs, this is sometimes impossible. The subjects are queasy about it or the researchers or the university’s human subjects review board, and sometimes all three. There are times when the only way to gain entrée into the world of laboratory sex is to be the queasy one yourself: to volunteer. These passages make up a tiny sliver of the book, but writing them was a challenge. All the more so for having dragged my husband into it. My solution was to apply the stepdaughter test. I imagined Lily and Phoebe reading these passages, and I tried to write in a way that wouldn’t mortify them. Though I’ve surely failed that test, I remain hopeful that the rest of you won’t have reason to cringe.

Takeaway

Pretty safe to say Roach has left no stone unturned in investigating all aspects of the research in to human sexuality. From how scientists are doing research (and, like all good reporters, getting right into her subject at one point by standing in as a test subject for what was undoubtedly a very awkward MRI), to the history of how research was done, and how biology does and doesn’t affect humans where sex is involved. Each chapter focuses on a different topic and is written in a slightly conversational tone with interesting footnotes that keeps the reader’s interest in what could have been (despite the subject) a very dry, clinical topic. This may not be everybody’s cup of tea, as nothing is held back, but if you’d like to take a college level sex ed/biology course, you should give Bonk a read.

Or if you like:

Economics
The book Freakonomics, by Dubner and Levitt
Psychology
Design decisions
Guessing what they want you to do

You might like:

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Overview

Behavioral economists Thaler and Sunstein dig in to the many ways the design of anything encourages certain behaviors, whether the designer wants it to or not.

Sample passage

A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions. Although Carolyn is a figment of our imagination, many real people turn out to be choice architects, most without realizing it. If you design the ballot voters use to choose candidates, you are a choice architect. If you are a doctor and must describe the alternative treatments available to a patient, you are a choice architect. If you design the form that new employees fill out to enroll in the company health care plan, you are a choice architect. If you are a parent, describing possible educational options to your son or daughter, you are a choice architect. If you are a salesperson, you are a choice architect (but you already knew that).

As we shall see, small and apparently insignificant details can have major impacts on people’s behavior. A good rule of thumb is to assume that “everything matters.” In many cases, the power of these small details comes from focusing the attention of users in a particular direction. A wonderful example of this principle comes from, of all places, the men’s rooms at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. There the authorities have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal. It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, attention and therefore accuracy are much increased. According to the man who came up with the idea, it works wonders. “It improves the aim,” says Aad Kieboom. “If a man sees a fly, he aims at it.” Kieboom, an economist, directs Schiphol’s building expansion. His staff conducted fly-in-urinal trials and found that etchings reduce spillage by 80 percent.1

The insight that “everything matters” can be both paralyzing and empowering. Good architects realize that although they can’t build the perfect building, they can make some design choices that will have beneficial effects. Open stairwells, for example, may produce more workplace interaction and more walking, and both of these are probably desirable. And just as a building architect must eventually build some particular building, a choice architect like Carolyn must choose a particular arrangement of the food options at lunch, and by so doing she can influence what people eat. She can nudge.*

Takeaway

While it might seem that the target audience for Nudge would be people actively involved in design (and I can verify that their comments about software design ring true), it’s a useful primer for everyone to understand the way design choices can intentionally or unintentionally affect your behavior. For example, any system that is designed as opt out (a free trial, cancel any time) will have more participants than one that that is opt in (a free trial, and renew at the end of the month to continue) because it takes effort to take subsequent action. Nudge is filled with numerous examples of how design choices have proved to be successes or disasters, and both are educational.
Having worked in software design for a while, I ended up skimming parts of the book that rehashed things I already knew, but certainly found enough of value to finish the book. For anyone unfamiliar with design concepts, I’d recommend Nudge as a great way to understand how the decisions presented by others in everyday life can be structured to encourage a particular outcome.

So, what other books should be on this list? Leave your thoughts in the comments and stay tuned for my next column.

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