Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (2008)

The research conducted by Dan Ariely was first brought to my attention by (my personal Happiness Guru) author Gretchen Rubin, who mentions Arielly in both of her books and on her podcast, “Happier.” Ariely, a Behavioral Economist at MIT, sets out to demonstrate that humans do not make decisions — economic or otherwise — purely based on rational reasoning, but rather we make our choices using a complicated mix of practicality, emotion, and mental short cuts.

While this seems like an obvious statement to make, and too simple a premise to support an entire book, but it turns out that most people believe that other people make decisions based on emotion, that other people can be manipulated by marketing or merchandising efforts, but we are all certain it we are not susceptible to those forces. Of course, we are all fooling ourselves. Ariely sets out several research-based examples to show us the invisible forces at work helping to shape our decisions.

The book argues that we make a majority of our decisions based on short cuts that our brain employs when faced with choices, both large and small. Ask anyone and they will assure you that their decisions are made by painstaking research and purposeful reasoning. Ariely argues that many, many decisions are made for us — without us even realizing it — by the manufacturers and marketers whose products we use, and even the bureaucratic processes we take part in. Instead of the deep-thought analysis we may think we employ, Ariely’s research suggests that we are far more likely to decide based on ease, familiarity, repetition, popularity and split-second comparisons.

Of course, the book is not setting out steps for us to eliminate our reliance on these mental shortcuts as that would be impossible; we simply make too many decisions every day in order to pause to complete a cost/benefit, supply/demand analyses. Airely simply is drawing our attention to the forces at work to shape our choices so that next time we are asked to start paying $1 more per cup coffee we might stop to reflect on our commitment to that coffee.

As far as non-fiction goes, it is not the most compelling book I have read of late but it does present some interesting arguments. Some of the points of the book are laid out nicely in the TED Talks Dan Ariely has given in the past several years. If you prefer to skip the book but would still like the cliff-notes version check out these talks (the first link is directly related to the research from Predictably Irrational):


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