(by D. Ariely)

Predictably irrational

MIT Professor Dan Ariely needs no introduction; he is one of the biggest names in the field of Behavioural Economics. Ariely studies the way we think, decide and operate – and in chapter after chapter he shows that we are far from being the rational creatures we think we are!

In one of the amazing studies in the book he shows for instance that the way we ‘frame’ something (p. 41) often determines how others are going to take it (remember Tom Sawyer and how he got his friends to paint that wall? For classroom management purposes, this is crucial; if we introduce activities saying ‘Now, this may hurt a little…’ chances are students are going to feel the pain!)

This leads to the hugely important subject – expectations: quick Q: would you like a beer with a drop of balsamic vinegar in it? (p. 159) A: It depends on whether you know it in advance or not! If you do, chances are you are going to dislike it. Expectations colour perceptions. How many times has this prejudiced us against certain students?

Ariely’s interests range from beverages to education. Here is another Q for you: which students do better in academic work: those who are free to choose their own deadlines, or those where the professor ‘democratically’ decides for everyone? Incredibly, it is the latter! (p. 115) This finding may go against our cherished beliefs, but in fact it ties in very smoothly with notions of ‘ego depletion’ (Baumeister). The very process of deciding exhausts us, with the result that we are both more stressed and produce poorer-quality work.

Ariely writes in the simple, effortless and straightforward style that you find among people with a real command of their subject. Rather than bombarding the reader with studies and facts, he goes through each experiment in detail, ensuring that the reader manages to grasp the key concept in all its fine details. He then goes on to consider the possible applications of the findings in various fields of life – not just work. Yet what I like best about this book is that he also uses examples from his own life – sometimes funny, sometimes poignant.

OK – now here is one last idea from the book: a little ‘conjuring trick’ for shamelessly manipulating students (pp 9 – 10): You give them a choice for H/W: they can read a long article or they can write a short essay. But you really want them to write that essay. Piece of cake – you give them a third option; writing an even longer text! Now, nobody is going to change that, right? Yes, but because the short essay is better than the long one, students also assume it’s preferable to the article too! Brilliant!! 🙂