Monday, January 24, 2011

Books I Like

On my literary travels last year, I came across lots of books that helped me build a stronger understanding of how improv works in the brain. Not all of them look relevant to applied improv at first sight, so I decided to put together a short reading list of a few of my favorites for anyone interested in exploring the same topics. It's my hope to expand this list in future posts.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion (Collins Business Essentials)
Robert Cialdini
An astonishing book. In essence, it’s a guide to the operating system of human social behavior. Cialdini reveals ways that human beings run on automatic while trying to get along and shows how those behaviors are routinely exploited by the unscrupulous. This book is invaluable for anyone interested in not being manipulated by others, but is also incredibly useful from an improv standpoint. The chapter about the ‘authority principle’ is essentially a lesson on Status. However, there’s a lot more in here that improv hasn’t explored as deeply. The ‘reciprocity principle’, for instance, has a lot in common with ‘make your partner look good’ but seems to go deeper. The research that Cialdini recounts suggest a wealth of possible games that have yet to be explored.

Influencer: The Power to Change Anything
Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, and McMillan
The best book I’ve read so far on enabling social change. Simultaneously readable and scholarly--this book encourages a data-driven approach to understanding organizational culture, and doesn’t pull punches about just how hard it can be to make a lasting difference. It outlines a clear plan of the steps that leaders need to take if they really want to mend the communities they work in.
There’s plenty here too for applied improvisers who don’t happen to be working directly with business. ‘Influencer’ provides a useful guide to the effect of human motivations on group behavior and draws on real life examples like drug rehabilitation programs and disease prevention projects in the developing world.

Predictably Irrational, Revised and Expanded Edition: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
Dan Ariely
An approachable, clearly written book on the growing field of behavioral economics. While there are other books out there that also do a good job at introducing this material (eg: Sway by the Brafman brothers), Predictably Irrational lays out each important result in a clear and concise way.
For those out there who haven’t looked into behavioral economics, I highly recommend exploring it. It sheds a great deal of light on many quirks in the human decision making process--such as why we like free gifts so much, and how the credit crunch happened. This new field is rife with experiments that cry out for adaptation into improv games.

On Intelligence
Jeff Hawkins
This is a book on how the human neocortex works. Mr Hawkins wants to duplicate the learning system it employs and use it in software to create intelligent machines. His company, Numenta, is making great headway in this department, and has already developed software for motion detection and fraud analysis based on insights from biology.
At first sight, this might not seem like a book for applied improv enthusiasts, but in fact it was one of the most important books I read last year. It makes it very clear exactly what the brain does that’s so special, and how human learning actually works. Locked in here is the secret of why ‘I suck and I love to fail’ is such an important concept.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Dan Pink
A friendly, highly digestible account of motivation theory research. While this book has some things in common with Influencer, its thrust is more inspirational in tone. Dan Pink shows how the principles of Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose broadly define what people want out of life, and how some of the most enlightened business leaders in the world have been able to put those ideas to work.
In essence, the book is an appeal to managers to stop thinking in terms of cash incentives and old-fashioned economics, and to use modern psychology instead. Gratifyingly, his message lines up tightly with the kind of motivational wisdom that improvisers have been using for a long time. There are plenty of examples that trainers can grab hold of and apply directly with their clients.

Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul
Stuart Brown
This book is a must for applied improv enthusiasts. It lays out research that shows how the act of playing activates the oldest, most highly evolved system for learning that human beings have. The message is clear: training that doesn’t incorporate play isn’t really training. Sure, it might be informative, and even slightly useful, but nothing enables soft skill acquisition like the collaborative social experimentation that’s signaled by laughter.
This book very successfully explodes the myth that play is somehow trivial and that real business is serious, and reveals that the reverse is usually true. Effective businesses, communities and institutions leave room for play and laughter, while trying to be ‘serious’ tends to lead to impaired decision-making.

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