10 things I learnt from Ariely’s Predictably Irrational

It took me quite a bit of time to finish reading this book not because it is hopelessly dense with stuff that slides off the cranium, a symptom of excessive jargon, or because it was of garangutan length.

It took me time to look at human stupidity in the eye.

A book by a human on human irrationality fulfills my dose of irony for the day. Nevertheless, the author starts the book with his magnesium flare explosion which allowed him to observe human behaviour in the most routine yet unusual situations. Take, for instance, the removal of bandages in hospital when he was young. Nurses would yank the bandages off his burnt skin, leaving him to deal with sharp pain and sharper questions that never left the confines of the play pen of his head all along. How did the nurses know that stripping the bandage off quickly ensures lesser pain is inflicted?

Fact was, they didn’t. It was easier for them to deal with the task, as opposed to slowly peeling off bandages.

I harbour deep respect for the man because he has not stopped learning or asking questions.

When we read reviews before choosing to watch a movie, or ask friends admit a place before deciding to move, how can we not want to know about ourselves so that we don’t make the mistake we repeatedly do?

So here are nine things I learnt!

<1> We tend to think relatively more often than we think. While evaluating, it is easier with ‘comparables’ around, as opposed to none. He writes about what he calls the ‘decoy effect’.

What if you are single, and hope to appeal to as many attractive dating partners as possible at an upcoming singles event?

Ariely’s advice would be to bring a friend who has your basic physical characteristics “(similar coloring, body type, facial features)”, but slightly less attractive. Why?

Because the folks you want to attract will have a hard time evaluating you with no comparables around. However, if you are compared with a “-you,” the decoy friend will do a lot to make you look better, not just in comparison with the decoy but also in general, and in comparison with all the other people around. It may sound irrational (and I can’t guarantee this), but the chances are good that you will
get some extra attention. Of course, don’t just stop at looks.

If great conversation will win the day, be sure to pick a friend for the singles event who can’t match your smooth delivery and rapier wit. By comparison, you’ll sound great. Now that you know this secret, be careful: when a similar but better-looking friend of the same sex asks you to accompany him or her for a night out, you might wonder whether you have been invited along for your company or merely as a decoy.

<2> To make man covet a thing, it is only necessary to make that thing difficult to attain.


<3> Herding: When other people’s behaviour and experiences affect your decision-making process.

Self-herding: When your past experiences affect your current decisions.

So in order to really see what you’re heading into, ask question about whatever it is you want to decide about. Why did you decide that? Dig deeper.

<4> Fear of loss goads us into choosing freebies over what we would’ve bought had the bait not been hanging. So the next time you see something free up for grabs, it would help to compute the net benefit that each option would give you.

On the other side of the fence, nothing pulls people in faster than stuff up for free.

<5> Knowing features of a product beforehand modifies our perception of its working and our levels of satisfaction. Reflecting on the relationship between the price of a product and its features helps clear the smoke.


<6> Setting a moral benchmark reduces dishonesty to a certain extent.

<7> Greater the distance between the person and actual currency (think coupons, tokens, application, even time) greater the cheating. Ariely’s experiments found that people hesitate to steal cash, even if no one is looking and there might be no chances of getting caught.

<8> While ordering in a restaurant, it helps to have in mind what you wish to order.

Ariely’s experiment in this regard saw that, in a bid to appear unique individuals, customers were inclined to order something no one else had ordered, even if it went against their tastes. The first person, of course, is not influenced by anyone’s choices.

Ordering privately is also a good way out.

<9> Compared to money, social norms are much cheaper and a lot more effective in getting work done; it is also important to stick to either market norms or social norms. You can’t keep switching between the two when it suits you.

<10> Arousal obfuscates reasoning. Yeaaaah, well.

In case you feel like reading, here’s  Predictably Irrational.


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