Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely | Review

Three glass tumblers hold coffee with varying amounts of milk added. The first cup holds black coffee, the last very milky.

Do nice napkins make coffee taste better? Predictably Irrational examines the mysteries of human behaviour.

One chapter of Predictably Irrational sees Professor Ariely round-up 25 college guys to take a survey on sexual preferences and boundaries. They do this twice, both in non-aroused and aroused states.

It turns out being aroused changes the way people answer questions. It can cause them to take more risks, or to ignore personal morals – and the law.

If this sounds invasive, there’s a reason.

Ariely’s research in this book is about the subtle ways peer groups, advertisers and even social environment affects our choices – all the things which make people ‘predictably irrational’.

Why do we overvalue the things we sell, but undervalue how much we’re prepared to pay others? Do fancy napkins make food seem tastier – and therefore, worth paying more more for? Why do we love free offers?

This is a book for marketers, clearly, but also statisticians, students, and anyone even vaguely interested in the forces of influence. It’s also a reasonable primer in learning to read statistics and think beyond news headlines critically.

While not quite as immersive as Freakonomics (and arguably a bit drier), it is perhaps more applicable to unconscious consumers – and that means most of us.

“But there’s also another kind of herding, one that we call self-herding. This happens when we believe something is good (or bad) on the basis of our own previous behaviour. Essentially, once we become the first person in line at the restaurant, we begin to line up behind ourself in subsequent experiences.”

Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely

Quoted edition published by Thorsons, 2009

What to read next
  • Freakonomics (statistics, everyday economics, consumerism)
  • Factfulness (critical thinking, reasoning, understanding influences)
  • How to be Right (critical thinking, reasoning)

Picture credit: Nathan Dumlao