Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Book Review: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

I was initially going to review Ariely's latest book, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How we Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves, but this book inspired me to read his more popular book, Predictably Irrational.

We atheists fancy ourselves to be rational, and proudly so.  Dusty Smith's outro slogan is "Logic!"  The forum formerly attached to the Secular Web spun off and chose as its URL.  An online group calls themselves the Rational Response Squad.

But according to Ariely, we are hard-wired to behave in predictably irrational ways due to cognitive biases.  He turned a devastating burn injury into a burning question of how people make decisions.  Whether to remove bandages quickly or slowly was on his mind during the 23 hours between his daily changes of bandages.  What else did he have to think about?  Later, he studied how people make economic decisions, because economics is is about trading pain (loss of money) for benefits.

He put into words some of my objuections to the Ayn Rand libertarianism that is based on the assumption that people will choose to do what's best for themselves.  You can't plan for rational behavior in humans because humans do not behave rationally.

His book is sometimes a little dry, with summaries of various studies he has conducted, but each study reveals more and more about human tendencies.  The one that inspired me to blog about the book is his study of dishnesty and whether being reminded to be honest by seeing the Ten Commandments would reduce the amount of dishonesty in his subjects.  Despite what we atheists believe, it does indeed remind people to be honest.  Since he was interested in general tendencies, not religious tendencies, it isn't clear whether any kind of reminder will keep people honest, but it's possible.  People will cheat less if they believe they might get caught, so strong believers in a watchful Sky Daddy may feel that Big Brother effect.  But... his studies reveal that people's honesty is dependent on their self-perception more than what others will think.  When there's no chance of getting caught there will be cheating but not to a serious degree.  He also studied whether pledging an honor code would have equal results to the Ten Commandments, and it did.  I went to a college with a strict honor code and people still cheated, but I don't know how many of them would have cheated more, or whether more of us would have cheated.

I will read his further research because he is aware of the potential flaws in studying college students rather than prisoners, trailer trash, or us atheists... all of whom would be major cheaters according to stereotype!  I must admit that having grown up in poverty has made me a bit different from the majority in some of his studies.  I will do things (not necessarily cheating things) that middle class people wouldn't.  I see things slightly differently.

I read this book awhile ago so I can't review its contents in detail, but I want to recommend it to anyone who fancies themselves to be a rational person.  He will be attending The Amazing Meeting this year.  I can't imagine a better speaker for a group of skeptics.  (Also, he has a good sense of humor)
Here he is at Google headquarters explaining irrationality:


L.Long said...

Its sad to find out that all those other people are irrational whether they know it or not. I'm glad to know that all my decisions are always rational as I always apply rational rules. Others may not see my fully rational train of thought but that is only because they are not capable of utilizing their intelligence rationally to be in agreement with my rational conclusions. As I said it is a sad state of affairs.

LadyAtheist said...

I'm sure you'd be the outlier on every test ;-)