[Review] Predictably Irrational

I’ve talked a couple of times on this site about how I go about picking the next book I’m going to read. The book in this review came to me through a somewhat different route.

I listen to a podcast about technology called This Week In Tech (or TWIT for short). It allows me to keep up on all things tech and is quite entertaining. If you’re like me, and are interested in technology, it’s certainly worth checking out. Not to mention, quite often they talk about books.

In this case, the book was Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, and I’m guessing I would not have picked this book up if not for the discussion on the TWIT podcast. However, I’m very glad I did.

The Blurb on the Back

When it comes to making decisions in our lives, we think we’re in control. We think we are making smart, rational choices. But are we?

In a series of illuminating, often surprising experiments, MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely refutes the common assumption that we behave in fundamentally rational ways. Blending everyday experience with groundbreaking research, Ariely explains how expectations, emotions, social norms, and other invisible, seemingly illogical forces skew our reasoning abilities.

Not only do we make astonishingly simple mistakes every day, but we make the same types of mistakes, Ariely discovers. We consistently overpay, underestimate and procrastinate. We fail to understand the profound effects of our emotions on what we want, and we overvalue what we already own. Yet this misguided behaviors are neither random nor senseless. They’re systematic and predictable — making us predictably irrational.

Comically Serious

I don’t know that I would have picked this book up under my general meanderings if it wasn’t for TWIT, since books about behavioral science, and more specifically behavioral economic science, really aren’t my usual cup of tea. However, Dan Ariely does a nice job of making behavior economics interesting and entertaining.

One of the most interesting part of this book is the fact that you can very easily see yourself in any of these experiments, and most likely you would respond like the people mentioned in the book. One example of this is an experiment in which the author pretends to be working for a beer company and offers free samples of four different beers to tables of four people at a restaurant. He picks one person at the table and asks which beer he would like to sample, and then goes around asking everyone else. The first person picked the one they wanted the most, but as the author went around the table, the diners inevitably managed to pick all the four types of beer. Now, when the author returned with sheets asking the diners to rate their beers, who do you think liked theirs the best? That’s right, the person who picked first (and got to pick what they really wanted).

Now ask yourself if you’ve ever been at a restaurant and changed what you ordered because the person who ordered before you picked your fist choice. I know I’ve done it, and I’m pretty sure I wasn’t as happy with my meal when it finally did show up.

This book is filled with many things like this. One experiments show that we are unwilling to let options disappear, even when we know those options aren’t worth that much. Simply losing the ability to choose something else scares us.

Another experiment shows that if you want to sell something, create something that’s easy for someone to compare it to. The makers of the first bread machine actually created a bigger, more expensive bread machine just to sell the one they really wanted to sell.

Basically Profound

The experiments described in the book are varied and numerous, but the off-the-cuff, “pal sitting next to you” manner in which Dan Ariely writes, makes the book that much more enjoyable. I am the pinnacle of ignorance when it comes to behavior science, so it was nice that Mr. Ariely was able to make the material (which could have been dry) very digestible and entertaining without making me feel like I was being talked down to.

Now, on the other side of that, and my only real complaint about the book, is the fact that in some cases the details of things are glossed over. In certain cases I would have liked to have seen more in-depth discussion of the specific topic being addressed. But that is a small complaint, and an understandable problem with a book such as this.

I enjoyed my walk through the world of the Predictably Irrational, and I thank the folks at TWIT for discussing it and bringing it to my attention.


Grade: A-
Who would like this book: People even remotely interested in what makes people behave the way they do.
Who would not like this book: People who are already familiar with behavioral science. I imagine this would be a rather rudimentary book for them.

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