Book Review: Predictably Irrational

When I took economics in college, I was told that the marketplace is rational, that humans will find any inefficiencies and exploit them so that they will be immediately removed. The professor and textbooks explained how this was true and gave plenty of examples to provide justification. However, we can all think of times when our decisions don’t seem rational. Predictably Irrational – The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions is a book that gives insight into the sometimes very strange behavior of the human mind and how we as humans will behave irrationally. The author, Dan Ariely, is a professor at Duke University in Psychology and Behavioral Economics. The book blends stories about real life situations where Ariely and his colleagues observed people behaving irrationally and performed experiments to better understand the human behavior in those situations.

Ariely experienced traumatic injury when he was a young man serving in the Israeli army, sustaining burns over the majority of his body. Through the traumatic recovery period, he learned to separate himself from his environment and become a keen observer of human behavior. This skill has helped him in his career, allowing him to consider behavior that many of us probably wouldn’t notice. He used some interesting motivational techniques to get through some of his treatment, effectively designing experiments that helped him get through painful treatments that aided in his healing from his injuries and other health issues. The book is organized into chapters that delve in to different areas of human behavior. For example, he covers the topic of free (or as he calls it FREE!) items and their influence on purchases. Through a series of experiments, he determines that when an item is free, humans will not make rational decisions for products. We will take the free item, even if paying for another item would bring us more enjoyment or utility. Another interesting topic is the impact of sexual desire on decision making. The experiments for that were quite provocative, not like what I remember when I was a subject of psychology experiments as an undergrad as a way to make some quick cash. He also studied procrastination and self control and found that setting firm deadlines on class assignments gave students better grades than allowing students freedom to turn in assignments at their leisure. I’d always suspected this to be the case, not just in school but in my profession of writing software, but now there’s some proof. The book has many more interesting experiments, followed with suggestions on how the knowledge could be used to better our lives.

The application of the information in the book is the most interesting to me. I find myself thinking a little more skeptically about products and advertising since reading the book. I also have considered a few of the techniques suggested for making better decisions in areas where will power is concerned. For example, in order to get through a very difficult drug treatment, Ariely used the reward of watching a movie to help himself do the unwanted task of taking the medication that made him sick. Maybe I can find ways to link things I enjoy with things that I put off, rewarding myself for good behavior.

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