Jenny Baker
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Pop Psychology Book Club

Carrie Ott-Holland

Let’s trade professional dirty secrets. I’ll go first: My earliest interest in psychology began with 80s and 90s popular self-help books. In elementary school, my parents took a class on the MBTI (Myers-Briggs) framework and taught me words like “extraversion” that suddenly helped me better understand the behavior of kids on the playground. In 5th grade, I discovered my mom’s copy of The Seat of the Soul—written by a “spiritual psychologist” featured recently on The Oprah Winfrey Show. The book was well-beyond my elementary school vocabulary, but that was part of the appeal—I had never read a book that directly discussed concepts like compassion, conflict, trust, and power. Over the coming years of my youth, I’d wander over to the “Psychology” section of Barnes&Noble so that I could page through The Four Agreements, Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. These authors were talking about what made people tick, and I needed to know everything they had to say.

Fast-forward several decades: By the end of graduate school, I had forsaken the pop psychology I devoured in the 90s in exchange for statistics courses, the cleanly formatted and vigorously defended issues of the Annual Review of Psychology, and an occasional Harvard Business Review article. I now cringe every time someone at a party starts discussing Enneagrams. I take a deep breath when someone proclaims they’re just a “right-brained thinker.” And sharing that The Four Agreements played any role in my journey to become an organizational psychologist feels—well—embarrassing!1

But let me take a guess at your professional secret: You, my psychologist friend, did not first become interested in our field when you stumbled upon the Journal of Applied Psychology. Maybe a high school English teacher walked you through Maslow’s hierarchy or Freud’s id, ego, and superego. Maybe you were curious why your friends and family members can act so differently from one another. Or maybe, like me, you started reading some of the bizarre self-help books of the 70s, 80s, and 90s (Who Moved My Cheese? Anyone?). Your initial interest didn’t come from numbers and research; you were inspired by an idea or a story showing how humans are complex.

As a practitioner, it’s become clear that leaders—and their employees—are reading and learning about topics in our field from a wide range of popular sources: Tiktok, The Atlantic articles, and “airplane” books (i.e. easy to read self-help or management titles that you can buy at an airport and finish by the end of your flight).  Fortunately, the pendulum of pop psychology has moved much closer to “evidence based” than it was in the 90s. More articles and books in this genre are written by professors and researchers using peer-reviewed findings. Even journalists covering psychology-related topics pair their narrative storytelling with published research.

Let’s face it, journalists and other popular psychology authors are often a LOT better at storytelling than I-O psychologists. This got me thinking: What if we approached popular psychology/management/self-help books as a field not with the intention of poking holes but with the goal of extracting the stories, quotes, and metaphors that could help us explain our field to others? What if we could skip to the good parts and steal ideas and expressions that could help us influence others?

It’s based on this premise that I’m kicking off a new TIP segment on popular psychology books. This past year, I’ve been writing a popular press book proposal and have delved into research communication as a field. I’ve taken a second look at popular management and psychology publications. I’m talking about the mainstream publications that our students, business leaders, friends, and family are reading. In each segment, I’ll be reviewing a popular management or psychology book not to dissect its limitations but to extract what quotes, stories, and narratives can help us to amplify the messages we seek to send as a field.

Intrigued? Help pick my first to review! Fill out the form here, or reach out to me directly at I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas for this column.


1 Clearly, not embarrassing enough that I’m unwilling to share this story with the readers of TIP.



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