Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

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Blame Malcolm Gladwell, but after Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, social psychologists of every stripe have been coming out of the woodwork to publish in the pop science market in figuring, reasonably enough, that there's a bit of money to be made on the side. We imagine International Journal of Psychology royalties would pale in comparison.

Dan Ariely is one. His book does what it says on the tin, by way of explaining a number of social experiments that he and his colleagues have run in the last few years, loosely themed around the observation that we don’t always act as sensibly as logic would dictate.

All fine — as you would expect, some of Ariely’s examples are eyebrow raising — but it really shouldn’t be news and it certainly doesn’t require Dan Ariely to tell us that our liberal western societies aren’t as rational as we like to think (incontrovertible proof of that, not offered in Ariel’s book, being the politicians we elect and the amount of attention and money we collectively devote to cosmetics, fashion, celebrity and professional sport), especially as deeper epistemological examination reveals the idea of “rationality” isn’t wildly coherent anyway.

Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini’s investigation into whether late pickup fees on parents at a daycare centre would be effective deterrent, and which concluded quite the opposite, is interesting:

“Before the fine was introduced, the teachers and parents had a social contract, with social norms about being late. Thus, if parents were late — as they occasionally were — they felt guilty about it — and their guilt compelled them to be more prompt in picking up their kids in the future. But once the fine was imposed, the daycare centre had inadvertently replaced the social norms with market norms. Now that the parents were paying for their tardiness, they interpreted the situation in terms of market norms. In other words, since they were being fined, they could decide for themselves whether to be late or not, and they frequently chose to be late.”

but even here others have done a better job: David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years puts that observation in much better context to much more powerful effect.

But just as some anecdotes are enlightening, the implications of others are not nearly as plain or convincing as Ariel thinks they are, and some of his experiments struck me as being particularly glib, superficial and susceptible to plenty of alternative interpretations.

And what Ariel's book lacks is any further theoretical drive: OK, so we are predisposed to behave in silly or odious ways — but what's your point? In what underlying way are our irrational proclivities linked? What conclusions can we draw; what can we learn; what strategies can we adopt to counteract the harmful effects of our fecklessness?

Ariely implies, but doesn't say, that some sort of regulation is required to save us. But given that it is also our irrational proclivities by which we arrive at these politicians (and the political institutions through which they organise themselves) I’m not sure he leaves us any better off than when we started?