from harpercollins.com

The following is my review of Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which ran in the inside beat section of the Daily Targum today.

We humans like to think of ourselves as rational. We think things through, we reason, we make the best decision possible. After all, isn’t that one of the main traits separating us from other life forms?

In Predictably Irrational, author and MIT professor Dan Ariely says: not necessarily. Not only that, he says that when we’re irrational, we’re consistently irrational, never wising up. It might be a risky assertion, if not for his wealth of empirical evidence backing him up.

Ariely distinguishes traditional economics, which assumes people are all rational decision makers, from behavioral economics, which makes no such assumption and therefore devotes greater attention to the decision-making process. As you might have guessed, Ariely is a behavioral economist, and he delights in exposing our irrationality wherever he can find it.

His interest in decision-making was born out of rather un-delightful circumstances, however – a freak accident that left him a severe burn victim with a prolonged hospital stay. He describes one of his first experiments as an attempt to prove to nurses that slowly removing bandages from patients would be ultimately less painful than quickly ripping them off, which produced shorter, sharper pain.

The book is reminiscent of Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics in that each chapter centers around a different social science experiment, which is explained in layman’s terms to prove a greater point. Ariely does this well, avoiding dry description and keeping the writing engaging throughout.

For example, Ariely, in an attempt to prove that people are irrationally enthusiastic about free items, describes an experiment in which participants were given the choice between a lower-quality and higher-quality piece of chocolate.

In the first trial, the higher-quality chocolate was priced at 15 cents, the lower-quality chocolate at one cent. 31 percent of participants chose the lower-quality chocolate.

For the second trial, the more expensive chocolate cost 14 cents, and the cheaper brand was free – the same difference in cost. This time, however, 69 percent of participants chose the lower-quality brand – simply because it was free, Ariely argues. The participants failed to take anything else into consideration.

There are minor weak points – frequently, Ariely inserts quick, snarky asides that sometimes feel forced and unnecessary – his descriptions of his experiments and hypotheses are entertaining enough on their own. Also, the reader may at times want even more description of what we – and policymakers – could do to fight our irrational urges.

These, though, are minor quibbles in what is a very interesting, and potentially helpful, book. It is so interesting, in fact, that declining to give it a look would be – dare we say it – irrational.

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