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Book Review of: Predictably Irrational

The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions

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Review of Predictably Irrational, by Dan Ariely (Hardcover, 2008)

(You can print this review in landscape mode, if you want a hardcopy)

Reviewer: Mark Lamendola, author of over 6,000 articles.

This book helps explain some things that marketers need to know. I've never understood why anyone would be enticed by an offer of "free shipping," as there is no such thing. Those pesky UPS drivers just insist on being paid for spending all day delivering packages.

The book provides insights, most of which are based on simple experiments. Each experiment had a control group and was conducted under what appears to be a modicum of rigor. But the experiments may as well have not been conducted. The reason is the test subjects were people under the age of 25 and the testing was for the characteristic of rationality. The subjects are not, therefore, suitable to what they were being tested for.

You can't rent a car if you are under 25. Do you know why? Because humans do not fully develop their judgment centers until that age. The human brain takes a long time to mature, and 25 is the rationality barrier. Thus, the experiments were on subjects who, due to their physical immaturity, are irrational. Testing people in this age group for irrationality is like testing window panes to see if they are transparent.

The experiments are therefore invalid.

That Ariely would even use these experiments in this text is a negative. But he compounds his error by extrapolating the results onto people who have crossed the rationality barrier. This barrier is a physical thing, and there's no getting around that. Quite simply, his test subjects have very different brains from the people upon whom he extrapolates the test results.

That's clearly a foul.

Thus, we have to accept Ariely's conclusions without the support of his experiments. In fact we have to accept them in spite of his experiments.

Fortunately, he draws on other examples and he presents logical arguments. Generally, I agree with his conclusions--or, rather, his conclusions tend to agree with how I already view things. That doesn't mean his conclusions are correct, and he provides precious little to back them up.

Given what I just said, the book has value. The value lies in the questions the author raises and discusses. Ariely takes an open-minded approach and pursues each topic in a style that is engaging, conversational, curious, and mildly entertaining.

I enjoyed reading the book. I liked thinking on the questions Ariely raised. I liked thinking about his answers to those questions, and I liked the fact his answers were often "food for thought" rather than trying to take on a false tone of "absolute truth." He raises some serious social questions, yet doesn't abuse the book as a chance to preach a particular political agenda. He does correctly hint at the irrationality of some failed public policies, such as the disastrously expensive and totally ineffective Sarbanes-Oxley Act, but not in a way that posits that either wing of the Demopublican Party is better than the other.

This is the kind of book that can provide a starting point for people who like to talk about things other than the normal trivia that, irrationally enough, passes for conversation. For example, it would be interesting to take off from his ideas on the "self control" credit card to discuss the actual underlying problem of weak personal discipline. Why is that problem there? What can you do about it? Why do even well-disciplined people have bouts of ill-disciplined behavior? Ariely provides a dozen or so such topics that can make for serious social conversation among friends.

This book consists of 13 chapters and 244 pages of text. It has a long introduction, a short set of backnotes, a fairly robust bibliography, and a decent index.

Chapter 1, The Truth about Relativity, is the most important chapter for marketers. It talks about how people are swayed by one price relative to another.

Chapter 2, The Fallacy of Supply and Demand, talks about how price anchors affect market prices much more than supply v. demand does.

Chapter 3, The Cost of Zero Cost, explores the brain-deadening allure of "free" and provides many examples of how people will spend more to get something for free.

You'll find similarly intriguing topics in the next 10 chapters. Any one of these topics could be expanded to the size of the entire book. But that would make for reading that is just too heavy for most people. This book isn't hard science. It's popular reading. But it's popular reading with some oomph to it. Read the book, ignoring the irrelevant research, and you'll probably find yourself enriched.




About these reviews

You may be wondering why the reviews here are any different from the hundreds of "reviews" posted online. Notice the quotation marks?

I've been reviewing books for sites like Amazon for many years now, and it dismays me that Amazon found it necessary to post a minimum word count for reviews. It further dismays me that it's only 20 words. If that's all you have to say about a book, why bother?

And why waste everyone else's time with such drivel? As a reader of such reviews, I feel like I am being told that I do not matter. The flippancy of people who write these terse "reviews" is insulting to the authors also, I would suspect.

This sound bite blathering taking the place of any actual communication is increasingly a problem in our mindless, blog-posting Webosphere. Sadly, Google rewards such pointlessness as "content" so we just get more if this inanity.

My reviews, contrary to current (non) standards, actually tell you about the book. I always got an "A" on a book review I did as a kid (that's how I remember it anyhow, and it's my story so I'm sticking to it). A book review contains certain elements and has a logical structure. It informs the reader about the book.

A book review may also tell the reader whether the reviewer liked it, but revealing a reviewer's personal taste is not necessary for an informative book review.

About your reviewer

  • Books are a passion of mine. I read dozens of them each year, plus I listen to audio books.
  • Most of my "reading diet" consists of nonfiction. I think life is too short to use your limited reading time on material that has little or no substance. That leads into my next point...
  • In 1990, I stopped watching television. I have not missed it. At all.
  • I was first published as a preteen. I wrote an essay, and my teacher submitted it to the local paper.
  • For six years, I worked as an editor for a trade publication. I left that job in 2002, and still do freelance editing and authoring for that publication (and for other publications).
  • No book has emerged from my mind onto the best-seller list. So maybe I'm presumptuous in judging the work of others. Then again, I do more describing than judging in my reviews. And I have so many articles now published that I stopped counting them at 6,000. When did I stop? Probably 20,000 articles ago! (It's been a while).
  • I have an engineering degree and an MBA, among other "quant" degrees. That helps explain my methodical approach toward reviews.
  • You probably don't know anybody who has made a perfect or near perfect score on a test of Standard Written English. I have. So, a credential for whatever it's worth.

About reading style

No, I do not "speed read" through these. That said, I do read at a fast rate. But, in contrast to speed reading, I read everything when I read a book for review.

Speed reading is a specialized type of reading that requires skipping text as you go. Using this technique, I've been able to consistently "max out" a speed reading machine at 2080 words per minute with 80% comprehension. This method is great if you are out to show how fast you can read. But I didn't use it in graduate school and I don't use it now. I think it takes the joy out of reading, and that pleasure is a big part of why I read.

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