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Reader’s Den

September Reader's Den: Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely, Part 2

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Welcome to Part 2 of the Reader's Den blog on Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely.

Let's take a look at how the author describes what brought him to his research:

"My immersive introduction to irrationality took place many years ago while I was overcoming injuries sustained in an explosion. The range of treatments in the burn department, and particularly the daily “bath” made me face a variety of irrational behaviors that were immensely painful and persistent. Upon leaving the hospital, I .... became engrossed with the idea that we repeatedly and predictably make the wrong decisions in many aspects of our lives and that research could help change some of these patterns." (from his website)

I think a lot of us can identify with being a in a situation where we felt we knew better how to do things - even maybe thought it was obvious that there was a better way—and didn't understand why it wasn't clear to the people in charge. It's great to see an example of frustration and suffering leading to rigorous study and a better understanding of ourselves, and hopefully smarter procedures.

Throughout the book, Ariely takes us from his daily experiences and walks us from those to the questions they spark in him and the related research.

“Some time ago I decided to go watch firsthand one of the most infamous acts of raw, unabashed supply-and-demand capitalism in action. I am talking of course about Filene’s Basement’s 'running of the brides.'"

This leads him to investigate what makes typically peaceful people yell, push and fight over a deal. And:

“Suppose you’re a fan of the Philadelphia Eagles and you’re watching a football game with a friend who, sadly, grew up in New York City and is a rabid fan of the Giants. You don’t really understand why you ever became friends, but after spending a semester in the same dorm from you start liking him, even though you think he’s football-challenged.”

This leads to a discussion of how two people can watch the same thing and come up with very different conclusions based on what their expectations are.

He then takes it further. After discussing how expectations can affect what we see, the author moves on to more personal implications of how expectations affect our actual performance.

“One stereotype of Asian Americans, for instance, is that they are especially gifted in mathematics and science. A common stereotype of females is that they are weak in mathematics. This means that Asian American women could be influenced by both notions.

In fact, they are. In a remarkable experiment, Margaret Shin, Todd Pittinsky, and Nalini Ambady asked Asian-American women to take an objective math exam. But first they divided the women into two groups. The women in one group were asked questions related to their gender. For example they were asked their opinions and preferences regarding coed dorms, thereby priming their thoughts for gender-related issues. The women in the second group were asked questions related to their race. These questions referred to the languages they knew, the languages they spoke at home, and their family’s history in the United States, thereby priming the women’s thoughts for race-related issues.

The performance of the two groups differed in a way that matched the stereotypes of both women and Asian Americans. Those who had been reminded that they were women performed worse than those who had been reminded that they were Asian-American.” (!)

Interesting, no? Keep reading the book for more insights like this.

Questions for discussion

  1. Which study particularly surprised you?
  2. Was there a study that particularly resonated with you?
  3. Were there any that you saw as having big implications?
  4. What idea about human behavior are you longing to see tested in a study?

Want to help keep the discoveries going? The author is part of an organization called the "Center for Advanced Hindsight" (nice name). If you're interested in contributing to their research you can take one of their weekly 5-10 minute surveys, or sign up to be notified in the future of a bigger project.

Further reading

If you're looking for more fun non-fiction reading that give insights into human nature, try the following:

Freakonomics My Life as An ExperimentAn Anthropologist on MarsThemAnnoyingThe (honest) Truth About Dishonesty

Thanks for joining us in the Reader's Den.

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