Updated: Feb 22
This past June, high schoolers in our book club read Freakonomics by Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. It was a fascinating glimpse into the unconventional truths that economic data may reveal about society and history. We explored the ubiquity of incentives while answering wacky questions like: Do sumo wrestlers cheat? Why do drug dealers live with their moms?
Freakonomics was engaging and comprehensible — suitable for readers without prior economics knowledge, and perfect for those keen on exploring the field further. If you enjoyed Freakonomics, you might just enjoy these five books as well.
Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
If you ever take a social psychology or behavioral economics class, you’ll likely cover research conducted by Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky. The dynamic duo’s findings on cognitive biases and prospect theory are foundational to the field of behavioral econ itself — in fact, they won Kahneman the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2002! Thinking, Fast and Slow observes the intersection between how we expect people to behave versus how they actually behave. Readers will examine the impact that our mental biases have on finance, securities markets, etc. A truly iconic read that has been mentioned in several of my classes to date.
The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis
You may have seen the entertaining 2015 hit starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, and Brad Pitt (talk about a stacked cast!). The movie is a strong recommendation, and so is the original nonfiction book it's based off of. From the author of Moneyball and The Blind Side, The Big Short examines the 2008 financial crisis, focusing on the individuals who successfully bet against the market. If that sounds unconventional, it was — and there are a lot of colorful personalities included in the book. The book can get slightly technical at times, making it a perfect choice for anyone interested in learning more about the financial side of econ.
Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell
Gladwell is such a staple in the field of social psychology. Frankly, any one of his books would be a solid option for readers interested in the intertwining of economics with social psych. In Blink, Gladwell explores thin-slicing, which is “our ability to use limited information from a very narrow period of experience to come to a conclusion.” Gladwell makes the argument that these off-the-cuff decisions are sometimes superior to carefully plotted decisions. It’s a controversial exploration of our mind’s processes, but as per any Gladwell work, it is rife with creative metaphors and scientifically-driven anecdotes.
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith
Taking it back a few centuries, this pick is for readers who want a serious dive into the history and philosophy of economics. You will likely not go through an introductory economics class without hearing about Smith’s magnum opus; this classic is fundamental to the development of modern-day free market theory. The Wealth of Nations covers issues of labor, stocks, wealth accumulation, politics, and government. While not an easy read, it’s unbelievably influential. Certainly a way to earn brownie points from your future econ professor!
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
Former risk analyst and options trader Taleb develops and shares the black swan theory — that rare but shocking events in history (e.g. a global pandemic; or in the case of the theory’s name, the discovery of the black swan) are only unprecedented until they happen (up until then, swans were considered exclusively white), and that humans are keen on rationalizing or simplifying these surprising discoveries in hindsight. It’s a dense read and several steps harder than Freakonomics, but definite classroom cred to those who tackle it. Students looking for a heady intellectual challenge will be excited to dive right into this iconic meld of econ and math.
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Robert Powers (M.A. Johns Hopkins) is the college consultant at College Torch. He is an expert in colleges and the college admissions process. Parents, join his private Facebook group for Parents of College-Bound Students.