book review: Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely

fun writing, fascinating experiments, lots of learning; not enough introspection

Dan Ariely was a victim of serious burns as a youth which left his body covered with serious burns. After surviving the burns and the consequent treatments, he designed some experiments to see how to make treatments less painful, then went back to his hospital and shared the findings with the staff.

In this book, Ariely shares a host of experiments that he has carried out in behavioral economics (the branch of economics that looks at how people deviate from the standard economic assumption of people being logical, calculating, and rational). The experiments are fun, fascinating, and insightful. He shows us our irrational obsession with free things using experiments with Hershey kisses and truffles; he shows the oft unnoticed power of “anchoring” prices in an experiment with random numbers and an auction. He and his colleagues do experiments in bars, malls, and classrooms. This is a great introduction to behavioral economics.

One minor weakness is that – like most popular empirical economics books – Ariely is trapped by the work that he himself has done, with minor supplements by others, and so the book jumps around a bit. That said, he has done enough interesting stuff that this isn’t a major flaw.

My main gripe was the lack of introspection as to how much these experiments apply to non-experimental settings. In the introduction, he tells us, “I would like you to think about experiments as an illustration of a general principle, providing insight…not only in the context of a particular experiment but, by extrapolation, in many contexts of life” (p. xxi). Why? Should we just take Dan’s word for it? Beyond the question of extrapolation from the experimental setting, the vast majority of experiments are on undergraduate or graduate students, with little meditation on whether results might vary for different demographics.

That said, I thoroughly enjoyed the read. Read it, enjoy it, share stories with your friends, and take a few minutes to think through the questions that Ariely didn’t.

And would someone – please – design a better-looking cover for the second edition?!

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