Rebecca's Reviews > Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely
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Feb 23, 13

bookshelves: age-adult-books, nonfiction, dude-books
Read from August 31 to September 01, 2011

Read in Sept. 2011. Completely fascinating and I'd like to re-read it.

Favorite quotes:

We don’t even know what we want to do with our lives—until we find a relative or a friend who is doing just what we think we should be doing. Everything is relative, and that’s the point.

That’s a lesson we can all learn: the more we have, the more we want. And the only cure is to break the cycle of relativity.

We call this type of behavior herding. It happens when we assume that something is good (or bad) on the basis of other people’s previous behavior, and our own actions follow suit.

But there’s also another kind of herding, one that we call self-herding. This happens when we believe something is good (or bad) on the basis of our own previous behavior.

You might begin by questioning that habit. How did it begin? Second, ask yourself what amount of pleasure you will be getting out of it. Is the pleasure as much as you thought you would get? Could you cut back a little and better spend the remaining money on something else? With everything you do, in fact, you should train yourself to question your repeated behaviors.

The difference between two cents and one cent is small. But the difference between one cent and zero is huge!

Moreover, introducing market norms into social exchanges, as we have seen, violates the social norms and hurts the relationships. Once this type of mistake has been committed, recovering a social relationship is difficult.

But once the fine was imposed, the day care center 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. Needless to say, this was not what the day care center intended.

What’s the upshot? If you’re a company, my advice is to remember that you can’t have it both ways. You can’t treat your customers like family one moment and then treat them impersonally—or, even worse, as a nuisance or a competitor—a moment later when this becomes more convenient or profitable. This is not how social relationships work. If you want a social relationship, go for it, but remember that you have to maintain it under all circumstances.

The point is that while gifts are financially inefficient, they are an important social lubricant. They help us make friends and create long-term relationships that can sustain us through the ups and downs of life. Sometimes, it turns out, a waste of money can be worth a lot.

For teenagers, this problem is most likely exacerbated, and thus sex education should focus less on the physiology and biology of the reproductive system, and more on strategies to deal with the emotions that accompany sexual arousal.

Giving up on our long-term goals for immediate gratification, my friends, is procrastination.

What do these results suggest? First, that students do procrastinate (big news); and second, that tightly restricting their freedom (equally spaced deadlines, imposed from above) is the best cure for procrastination. But the biggest revelation is that simply offering the students a tool by which they could precommit to deadlines helped them achieve better grades.

What’s the bottom line? We have problems with self-control, related to immediate and delayed gratification—no doubt there. But each of the problems we face has potential self-control mechanisms, as well. If we can’t save from our paycheck, we can take advantage of our employer’s automatic deduction option; if we don’t have the will to exercise regularly alone, we can make an appointment to exercise in the company of our friends. These are the tools that we can commit to in advance, and they may help us be the kind of people we want to be.

what we have too often in preventive health today—complete freedom to fail.


When we have problems with self-control, sometimes we delay tasks that we should do immediately. But we also exhibit problems with self-control when we attend too frequently to tasks that we should put off—such as obsessively checking our e-mail.

Much of our life story can be told by describing the ebb and flow of our particular possessions—what we get and what we give up.

What made each match seem perfect was not the Chinese woman’s talent, but nature’s ability to make us instantly attached to what we have.

Is the feeling of partial ownership causing the upward spiral we often see in online auctions? Is it the case that the longer an auction continues, the greater grip virtual ownership will have on the various bidders and the more money they will spend?

We also converted the carriage house in the garden into a small combination office-apartment. Sometimes we would pack our laundry basket with some wine, food, and clothing, and escape to the carriage house for a “weekend away.”

In the end, the buyers didn’t want our home. They wanted theirs. This was a very expensive lesson, and I certainly wish we had had a better sense of the effect of our modifications on potential buyers.

In running back and forth among the things that might be important, we forget to spend enough time on what really is important. It’s a fool’s game, and one that we are remarkably adept at playing.

The truth is that they could have made more money by picking a room—any room—and merely staying there for the whole experiment! (Think about that in terms of your life or career.)

How can we unshackle ourselves from this irrational impulse to chase worthless options? In 1941 the philosopher Erich Fromm wrote a book called Escape from Freedom. In a modern democracy, he said, people are beset not by a lack of opportunity, but by a dizzying abundance of it. In our modern society this is emphatically so. We are continually reminded that we can do anything and be anything we want to be. The problem is in living up to this dream. We must develop ourselves in every way possible; must taste every aspect of life; must make sure that of the 1,000 things to see before dying, we have not stopped at number 999. But then comes a problem—are we spreading ourselves too thin?

We need to drop out of committees that are a waste of our time and stop sending holiday cards to people who have moved on to other lives and friends. We need to determine whether we really have time to watch basketball and play both golf and squash and keep our family together; perhaps we should put some of these sports behind us. We ought to shut them because they draw energy and commitment away from the doors that should be left open—and because they drive us crazy.

What my friend (and also the donkey and Congress) failed to do when focusing on the similarities and minor differences between two things was to take into account the consequences of not deciding.

When we believe beforehand that something will be good, therefore, it generally will be good—and when we think it will be bad, it will bad.

The brilliant satirist Alexander Pope once wrote: “Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.” To me, it seems that Pope’s advice is the best way to live an objective life.

All these electronic transactions, with no physical exchange of money from hand to hand, might make it easier for people to be dishonest—without ever questioning or fully acknowledging the immorality of their actions.
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