Archive for March 2010

Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely

March 16, 2010

Yesterday all the past. Auden, “Spain”

Ariely is a behavioral economist at Duke. This book describes numerous studies that he has done on irrationality in human behavior, including relationships, buying and selling, honesty, and the placebo effect. The book summarizes the studies in a loose and easy way–there are no graphs in the book. Writing down the Ten Commandments (as many as they could remember) made test-takers less likely to cheat. Duke students in possession of basketball tickets thought that they were worth more than students without them were willing to pay (the “endowment effect,” which also appears when home sellers want more than what buyers will pay). Ariely and his wife valued their unusually remodeled home as a treasure and priced it accordingly, but prospective buyers just found it odd and wouldn’t make an offer till some of the changes were undone.

His approach makes the book readable for the nonspecialist, but as a result, his conclusions are not very compelling. It’s hard to tell how much is really scientific and how much is just validation of Ariely’s own opinions about human nature. In order to make the book readable for nonspecialists, he avoids getting into the gritty details of numbers that, one assumes, are contained within his studies. There is a list of sources at the back of the book with citations to the published articles, if you want to look them up.

This approach really doesn’t work very well. If the author is going to persuade us that his science is good, he needs to show us the science, even at the risk of turning off those who aren’t specialists. The effect of the book is a series of anecdotes about odd little experiments, from which broad conclusions are drawn.