Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely

People are more likely to take risks when they feel sexy – this may be news to no-one, but research by economic behaviourist Dan Ariely shows just why ‘sex sells’.

His chapter on ‘The influence of arousal’ sees 25 college guys take an intimate survey on sexual preferences and limits: they do this twice, both in non-aroused and aroused states. Responses to the second survey show how desire can redraw the boundaries of what we consider attractive, and even how far we’re prepared to break the law.

Ariely’s research is all about the subtle ways our peer groups, advertisers and even environment affects our choices – all the things which make people ‘predictably irrational’. Why do we overvalue the things we┬ásell, but undervalue how much we’re prepared to pay someone else? Does decor make food seem tastier and, therefore, worth paying more more for? Why are ‘free’ offers so potent? Ariely digs into this in a lot of detail, from the experiments he’s set up and run on campuses all over the world, to what the statistics mean. There’s also a degree of philosophising by the author as to how exactly this kind of research might benefit societal problems.

This is a book for marketers, clearly, but also statisticians, students, and anyone even vaguely interested in the forces of influence. It’s also a reasonable primer in learning to read statistics and think beyond news headlines critically. While not quite as immersive as Freakonomics (and arguably a bit drier), it is more applicable to everyday consumers – and that means most of us.

“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 behaviour. Essentially, once we become the first person in line at the restaurant, we begin to line up behind ourself in subsequent experiences. Does that make sense? Let me explain.”

Similar to: Freakonomics, The Undercover Economist.

Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely. Thorsons, 2009


Words: my own except where quoted.

Jellybeans by Patrick Fore.