Book review: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our DecisionsPredictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dan Ariely is an academic who writes in a very accessible manner, drawing on anecdotes and personal experience to flesh out the numerous case studies he has conducted in his pursuit of trying to explain why people often engage in irrational–yet predictable–behavior. Although some of the humor misfires a bit when he assumes the reader is at the same station of life he is for maximum effect (straight white male) it’s never ill-intended so I was able to roll with it.

Ariely’s methodology is not to simply analyze the case studies of others but to conduct numerous experiments of his own, using people drawn from the public (both willingly and sometimes more covertly), particularly university students. In these experiments, he demonstrates the principles that drive us to make decisions, ranging from what people order in a restaurant or bar based on what others order first, to how enticing free money (with no strings attached) is to an increasingly distrustful public. He also covers the placebo effect and other behaviors that have no apparent rational basis.

In doing so he draws some conclusions on how we can be better aware of the circumstances that trigger irrational responses so we can better control how we react and offers a warning that collectively we may be teetering toward a level of mistrust with institutions that may be very difficult to restore, the downside of which will be more division, cheating and indifference to the welfare of others as we look out for ourselves.

Although some of the possible conclusions are bleak (and may seem more plausible now in 2017 than when the book was originally published in 2009), Ariely retains a hopeful tone throughout. He clearly loves his work and has great fun in trying to puzzle out what makes people act the way they do. This comes through abundantly in Predictably Irrational, making the book an easy recommendation for those looking to gather some food for thought on behavioral economics and the morality and rationality of people in western culture.

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