A Few Bookish Questions With Psychologist Catherine Sanderson

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How’s it goin, everyone? Let’s do a few things today. First, you all are getting a sneak peak at my official Read More Books logo! Family friend Alyssa Broussard did a bang-up job on it, and she’s working on the official RMB bookmark next.

Second, I wanted to send along a few fun links your way that I’m not sharing elsewhere. I really enjoyed these stories and I think you will too:

A Few Bookish Questions With Catherine Sanderson

Finally, I’m happy to share this great interview with professor and psychologist Catherine Sanderson. Her newest book, Why We Act, was a great read. Based on her insightful answers below, I added a lot of books to my list.

1. What got you on the path of exploring this specific topic [why people act immorally] within the spectrum of morality and ethics?

My oldest child started college about three years ago, and during his first two weeks, a student died in his dorm. And the story of his death—even if you don't know the particulars—are all too familiar. The student was drunk, he fell and hit his head, and his friends watched over him for hours—they cared about him and wanted him to be okay. So, they put him in bed, they checked to make sure he was still breathing, they strapped a backpack to his shoulders to make sure he wouldn't roll onto his back, vomit, and then choke to death. But what they didn't do, for nearly 19 hours, was call 911. And when they finally did make the call, it was too late. The student was rushed to the hospital, but by that point was unconscious; his family flew in to be with him as they disconnected him from life support. He died—19 years old, in his first two weeks of college. As a mom, as a professor, all I could think of, was how things could have been different if someone had made the call faster—maybe that student would still be alive. And that story was the prompt from this book. 

2. Are there books or stories you came across that especially stood out and fueled your interest in moral rebels?

Yes! I'm a psychology professor, so that's the literature I was most familiar with before starting to write this book. But as part of writing Why We Act, I really immersed myself in all types of literature about how people respond in different types of emergencies—the Holocaust, the Civil Rights movement, fraternity hazing, and so on. One of my favorites was On the Courthouse Lawn, by Sherrilyn Ifill, which examines the number of people who watched lynchings being carried out and—in virtually all cases—stood by silently. As a White American—with many deep Southern roots—this was one of the books that has stayed with me. 

Another was A Mother's Reckoning, by Sue Klebold, the mother of one of the Columbine shooters. Her book describes how very, very normal their family life was—right up until that moment in April. In fact, she worried when hearing about the shooting whether her son was safe. Her story is a vivid portrayal of the diverse factors that contribute to school shootings—including different types of mental illness (depression, sociopathy) as well as the accessibility of guns. And understanding these factors is an essential component to preventing future tragedies.  

And one final book that I really enjoyed was Fraternity, by Alexandra Robbins. Fraternities pretty frequently get a bad rap—largely because they are almost always written about when bad things happen (hazing, alcohol poisoning, sexual assault). But this book is a thoughtful and nuanced examination of what leads young men to join fraternities, and the benefits they can and do provide. As the mother of two sons (one in a fraternity), I appreciated the balanced approach showing that social forces can promote good behavior as well as bad. 

3. Do you have book recommendations for delving more into human psychology on a grander scale? Do you have any favorites in the field?

Asking a psychology professor for just a few book recommendations in the field is like asking a parent to choose a favorite child! I have many, many recommendations, but in the interest of time, I'll share three that provide insights into different parts of my field.

First is The War for Kindness: Building Empathy in a Fractured World, by Jamil Zaki. This book describes cutting-edge research on the benefits of empathy and how this trait can be strengthened with effort.  

Next is a book by Jennifer Eberhardt. Biased: Uncovering the Hidden Prejudice That Shapes What We See, Think, and Do, which examines the influence of unconscious racial bias—in schools, work settings, and the criminal justice system—and provides strategies for addressing this problem.  

And last, but definitely not least, is Stumbling on Happiness, by Harvard professor Daniel Gilbert. This book is a lively and engaging overview of research on what does—and does not—predict happiness. 

4. I imagine most of your reading is in the non-fic/research realm. What do you read for fun, outside of work?

In all honesty, most of my reading for fun these days is not books—most is newspapers (I read The New York Times every day, and The Washington Post pretty frequently)! I've typically gravitated towards fiction, but I recently read a non-fiction book that I'm now recommending to everyone: The Only Plane in the Sky, by Garrett Graff. This book is an oral history of 9/11, and includes interviews from a range of different people about that day—from first responders to survivors to family members to government officials. Maybe that doesn't really count as "fun"—but I found the book absolutely gripping.  

[Jeremy’s note: So did I! You can read my review here.]

5. Do you have any all-time favorite books that especially impacted your life and/or work?

One again, I have several—including ones that have impacted me on a personal level, and others that have impacted by professional work. A few are fiction: The Great Gatsby is one, Jonathan Franzen's Freedom is another, as is Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. A non-fiction favorite is When Breath Becomes Air (by Paul Kalanithi), which I made the mistake of reading while on a plane (and assume my sobbing probably freaked out my seat-mate). And I return almost weekly to Anne Lamott's book about the process of writing, Bird By Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

[Jeremy’s note: my take on When Breath Becomes Air and Bird by Bird.]

6. What are you reading and enjoying right now? What's next on your list?

On my nightstand right now are Connie Schultz's new book, The Daughters of Erietown, and Lily King's Writers & Lovers. I'm looking forward to both!   

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