Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Book Review: Predictably Irrational

Dan Ariely is a behavioral economist. This means, rather than assuming people always behave in their own dispassionate self-interest, he looks for the ways in which people behave irrationally. His book is called Predictably Irrational because his research attempts to predict irrationality.
This aspires to be a book on the level of The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell (in fact, at one point it also mentions the Pepsi Challenge, and Ariely's take conflicts with Gladwell's). Although it doesn't quite reach the counterintuitive heights found in Gladwell's books, it's a very easy read and there's a good nugget or so in each chapter. Many of Ariely's experiments take place in the classroom or with students, so I found several points of real-life application. For one, to eliminate cheating, it's best to ask students to sign something that simply says an Honor Code exists (even if an Honor Code does not exist for your institution!). The Ten Commandments will also suffice as a cheating deterrent. Also, you overvalue what you personally own: this is why so many eBay prices are ridiculous.
A few times connections to current morality structures are glossed over. Anyone who reads the Old or New Testament should know that you make decisions differently (and worse) in the heat of passion. The "reptilian nature" of behavioral economists seems a lot like the "flesh" of St. Paul.
The most illuminating chapter in my view was the one about choices, which describes how we will irrationally hold on to "lesser options" and make our lives worse, just for the sake of keeping our options open. Decide and commit -- that's another virtue that comes out of this book.
In fact, this book reads surprisingly like a book of virtues. Not in every case, but close enough, I find that the structures offered by St. Paul or Jesus already incorporate an understanding of the predictable irrationality of us fleshly humans.
"But Jesus did not commit himself unto them / because he knew all men /
And needed not that any should testify of man / for he knew what was in man."

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