Review: Predictably Irrational–The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

5 Star, Decision-Making & Decision-Support

Predictably IrrationalAlmost Did Not Buy, Reviews Too Negative–This Was Worth My Time, March 29, 2008

Dan Ariely

I almost did not buy this book as I sought to explore the new literature on behavioral and cognitive science. The negative review are too negative. You get from this book what you bring to it in open mindedness, in my opinion.

My truth-teller, off-setting the reality that this is a double-spaced book that inflates 120 pages of thought into 240 pages of easy to digest presentation, is the author’s unique provision in the end-notes of both direct references to seminal works that each chapter is based on, with additional references suggested, AND his recognition of 17 collaborators, each with a long paragraph of biographic information. This is in short a worthy work, it was worthy of my time, and I do not agree with those who are dismissive or cavalier about this book.

As with Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness and other works of this ilk, they seem to be blessed with an immaculate conception that fails to recognize the work of the 1960’s and 1970’s (e.g. Herbert Simon, “satisficing,” but I no longer mark this down–this is a new generation thinking new thoughts, and I have decided it is too much to expect them to go back more than 20 years.

The opening of the book is impressive. The author was burned on 70% of his body by a magnesium flare, and his probing of his own pain and how the nurse’s had settled on fast painful ripping off of the bandages (with no medication.

Key point early in the book: most people don’t know what they want until they see it in context. This is one reason I am planning an edited work in 2009 on Cultural Intelligence. As Howard Bloom teaches us in Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century, we (and our policy makers) know nothing of “the other,” and I have concluded that peace starts in kindergarten and we have to separate the Israelis and the Palestians, and literally baby sit two new generations from birth to the age of 35.

The rest of the book is easy to read, has excellent real-world examples, and each chapter generally ends with a short appendix with real results. This is not a fluff book, it is a serious book that the light reader will mistake for fluff.

+ Relatively and “bracketing” matter (sell what you want by bracketing it with a more expensive option above and a trashy cheap thing below)

+ Decoys matter (e.g. a middle option that makes the “combined option” a “no brainer”)

+ Publishing salaries actually sets off ego wars at the top and churn at the bottom that leads to more turnover and more wasteful employees costs.

+ Imprinting is used by the author to explain “anchoring” (e.g. black pearls anchored in setting of most expensive diamonds, this is an example of how the SELLER is setting the price, not the buyer).

+ “Free” is never really free. It can blind rational choice and it can “cost” time, choice, and a higher value that is obscured (e.g. my cotton socks disintegrate within months, whereas the cotton socks I inherited from an earlier era are still lasting forever).

+ HOWEVER, I especially liked the way the author explored “free” as a device for policy furtherance, e.g. make vehicle registration “free” if you own a hybrid car.

+ Social versus market norms are discussed. The author does not discuss Open Money (see my comment for a link to my keytone at Gnomedex) or Yochai Benckler’s [[ASIN:0300125771 The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom].

+ I especially like the way the author discussed how the poorly-paid border patrol and coast guard employees have made their own peace with the drug dealers–they have the same understanding the CIA clandestine service has with the KGB and local counter-intelligence services: we do not kill, kidnap, or even embarrass each other, we all just present to bedoing our job and the only people fooled are Congress and the taxpayers. Similar, the drug dealers understand that if they do not shoot to kill, neither will we….

+ One chapter offers a fascinating study on the impact of sexual arousal (a marker for passion). This quote from page 97 is priceless:

“Prevention, protection, conservatism, and morality disappeared completely from the radar screen. They were simply unable to predict the degree to which passion would change them.”

+ The author discusses Smart Cards and their ability to impose a restraining influence with emails, I urge one and all to dump their existing ursurous cards and turn to Interra and other similar community-based cards with high social value.

+ We over-value what we own or possess. (I would add, we also over-value credentialing and under-estimate how painfol our rote school system is, which kills creativity by the seventh grade in some of our brightest kids.)

+ Stereotypes influence behavior on both sides of the viewpoint.

+ Placebo effect is real, something the American Medical Association absolutely does not want you to know (see also Alternative Cures: The Most Effective Natural Home Remedies for 160 Health Problems among many excellent works in this area.

+ Options can confuse and divert.

+ There is a pricing effect (very high priced menu item drives folks toward the second most expensive, which they would not have chosen absent the “higher” bracket item)

+ Character costs. USA loses $525 million a year to robberies, and $600 BILLION a year to employee theft (this does not count procrastination and government issues, such as every second IRS employee a complete loser while the others do twice the work).

+ Harvard MBA students participated in a series of tests that conclusively demonstrated that people will cheat if given an opportunity to do so; they will cheat twice as much with “in kind” versus cash opportunities, but they will not cheat “wildly” even if assured of not being caught. See also The Cheating Culture: Why More Americans Are Doing Wrong to Get Ahead

+ Religion DOES have a good moral effect, as do honor codes and reminding people of the Ten Commandments from time to time. See Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom in America for the Founding Father’s deliberate mix of securlar tolerant government with a desire for a strong religious aspect to community for precisely this reason.

I can see how some might feel this book is less than they were expecting, but I do not agree. This book may be well-marketed and not the deep social science research that some buyers might have been hoping for, but I for one find it completely satisfactory and well worth my time. The author’s crediting of 17 collaborators, and the unique goodness of the end-notes carry the day with me.

See also
The World Cafe: Shaping Our Futures Through Conversations That Matter
Society’s Breakthrough!: Releasing Essential Wisdom and Virtue in All the People
Building a Knowledge-Driven Organization
Collective Intelligence: Creating a Prosperous World at Peace

My earlier lists (the first ten or so out of 70) focus on strategy, intelligence, information, and offer many other pointers to useful books somewhat related to the larger universe of cognitive science and decision support.