Book: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational
Squiggles. Soft fonts and soft colour schemes represent the soft, balanced tone of the author very well.

A happy investigation into life’s tiny decisions. A classic.
280 pages, ★★★★

The author, Dan Ariely, survived an explosion when he was 18. Lying on his hospital bed, his body covered in burns, he began to contemplate the irrationality of what had just happened. This accident spawned a fascination with irrationality—out of which, this Predictably Irrational was born.

Chapter 1 explains how people think in relative, not absolute, terms. Not only our senses, but also our perception of value, is relative. Expensive upgrades (like insurance and optional extras) only seem worthwhile when you’re buying something even more expensive. (A $330 pasta machine seems cheap when compared with a $1000 KitchenAid, but not on its own.)

Chapters 5 and 6 talk about self-control. Our aroused selves (chapter 5) and our future selves (chapter 6) don’t listen to what our present selves are saying. This explains why people sometimes don’t use condoms, don’t save for the future, and don’t do their homework on time, even when students are allowed to create their own deadlines. (Even I do it, too—I didn’t write my promised Chinese Sencha review yesterday.)

Chapter 8 ventures into economics. I like how Dan Ariely comments not only on the experimental psychology aspects (where participants click coloured doors on a computer in an experiment), but also on what these experiments teach us about real-life situations as well (he argues in favour of long-term relationships and marriage, which I like). I find this comforting to read. When I agree with an author’s moral standing, I’ll enjoy reading their books more, and probably learn more as well. (In contrast, see my unflattering reviews of such morally-bankrupt stories as I Love DollarsHocus Pocus and The Time Traveller’s Wife.)

Chapters 9 and 10 talk about appearances. A big, red, placebo pill priced at $2.50 works better than a small, white placebo pill priced at 10 cents. Coca-cola tastes better than Pepsi, but only if you’re told what you’re drinking. Likewise, the idea that “top universities” give you a “top-notch education” is largely based on fantasy. I found that out myself.

Finally, chapters 11 to 13 are really summaries. I enjoyed them, yet skimmed them.

Dan Ariely is an excellent science communicator. I am very comfortable reading an author who writes with such politeness and balance (sometimes, he even adds concluding sentences that ward off critics—in the style of “don’t get me wrong”). He has a rare ability to deliver the outcomes of scientific research in clear, easy-to-understand language. He illustrates each chapter with poignant examples, including some from his own life—but only when they are most appropriate. The Jobst suit example served perfectly in chapter 10.

Predictably Irrational is a guide to the tiny decisions in life; a piecemeal, micro-bible, and at the same time, light, interesting and balanced to read. ★★★★

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