Decision Psychology

A blog about the psychology of decision making, with a particular focus on visualizations and uncertainty.

 what do bestsellers tell us about society?

One of my favorite questions when using literature as a lens is: what can be said about a society that values this text? So with the arrival of Sunday’s New York Times bestsellers list, I am curious what can be said about a society that made these books bestsellers. Let’s take a look at the top 10.


  1. A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS by Khaled Hosseini. (Riverhead, $25.95.) A friendship between two women in Afghanistan against the backdrop of 30 years of war.


        2   THE WHEEL OF DARKNESS, by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. (Warner, $25.99.) A Tibetan abbot asks the F.B.I. agent Aloysius Pendergast to help recover a stolen relic with evil powers.



, by Kathy Reichs. (Scribner, $25.95.) The forensic anthropologist Temperance Brennan is asked to examine the skeleton of a young girl in Canada, where, many years ago, her best friend disappeared.



 , by Christine Feehan. (Berkley, $24.95.) A Seattle counselor for battered women is wooed by a shape-shifter in Brazil; the 18th Carpathian novel.




, by Terry Brooks. (Del Rey/Ballantine, $26.95.) The second volume of the Genesis of Shannara series is set in postapocalyptic Seattle.




 , by Denis Johnson. (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.) The Vietnam War in the experience of military intelligence officers.



 , by Sandra Brown. (Simon & Schuster, $26.95.) A disgraced N.F.L. quarterback struggles to remake his life.



 , by Chelsea Cain. (St. Martin’s Minotaur, $23.95.) A detective obsesses over the beautiful, sadistic serial killer who nearly tortured him to death.



, by James Patterson and Michael Ledwidge. (Little, Brown, $27.99.) A police officer’s attempt to get back at her husband goes dangerously awry.



 , by Ann Packer. (Knopf, $24.95.) The relationship between two old friends is shaken when the daughter of one of them attempts suicide.

 I notice two basic themes emerge:

 The story of a relationship between two people

 The story of someone trying to get something done

 Now, this is pretty broad, of course. But it speaks to a trick that political communication scholars have known for a while: it’s much easier to get people involved with a really good personal story than with a general call to action.

There are two aspects to this. One, people can be engaged by the story of an individual affected by a community problem. Current bestseller A Thousand Splendid Suns is an example of this; Dave Eggers’ What Is the What is another recent example. Second, reading about someone doing something can make you want to do something too. I’m sure everyone can remember an example of that. I admit I was overcome with wanting to be a dancer after seeing Center Stage, which if nothing else shows the text in question doesn’t even have to be very good to have an effect. I also remember a lovely little film that the Jewish Family Service of Seattle shows new volunteers, which inspired me to assist in the many ways they help the community.

 I feel like the second phenomenon is more recognizable but less utilized. And really, it is a bit more intuitive, isn’t it? If you read a powerful story about someone who needs help, you want to help but don’t know how. If you read a powerful story about someone helping those in need, you want to help and now know a way, or at least have someone else to support. These stories give people a means to action, instead of just a call to it. I wish more organizations would partner with talented artists to put more of these stories into mainstream culture.

 Personally, I hope I can someday use my writing skills to give people a means to act for social change, and I hope I can find an organization to partner with and find a story to tell. Hmm, this seems like a non-profit waiting to happen!

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