Un-Cynical Review: Predictably Irrational

If you’re like me, you may occasionally frequent the excellent site If you have checked out what your fellow goodreaders think of Predictably Irrational, you might very easily be turned off by the currently highest rated review – this strange sequence of ramblings:


But then again, if you’re even more like me, you’re generally not that bothered with the opinions of strangers on the Internet who have yet to prove their cognitive prowess to you. Though come to think of it, that probably means you’re not really like me, seeing as you’re reading this, presumably voluntarily.


However, I just wanted to say that I find the assessments of Petra Eggs to be very, very unreasonable, so please ignore them, and include only my own far superior review in your consideration. (Blogger’s note: Alright, I’m poking a bit of fun here, and there’s no question that I’m speaking from the perspective of a straight, white, cis, able-bodied, non-ginger man with no serious allergies, but come the fuck on. If a 20-year-old man doesn’t find the idea of shagging a 60 year-old woman particularly appealing, it’s misogyny?)

Though I’m not at all surprised by Predictably Irrational being considered somewhat controversial. If I was from the same cultural background as the Israeli-American author Dan Ariely, I might have described this book as having chutzpah. But I am not from that background, and I’m probably using the word slightly wrong, The point is that it has a real sting to it that you rarely see in popular science books. Even the really good ones about this and similar subjects (E.g. The Freakonomics series, How Not To Be Wrong) tend to feel a little bit like a collection of amusing and/or interesting anecdotes around a central theme. But Predictably Irrational has some serious direction, with a clear and convincing message. Ariely is not a mere reporter pondering the peculiarities of life; he is a very intelligent man with a message and an impressive arsenal of logic and evidence to back up every single possibly chutzpah-ish testicle kick he delivers.


In an unfairly short summary, Predictably Irrational is a manifesto of the erratic aspects of human nature. Said nature is treated with equal parts affection and fascination by the author Ariely, and he output is a pretty delightful and counter-cultural book about behavioural economics, which manages quite brilliantly to balance being entertaining and informative, with a very strong narrative and personal story. At the age of 18, Ariely was victim of a dramatic accident after which he ended up with severe burns on 70% of his body. His experiences with the subsequent treatments are frequently brought up to back up his points, and to explain why he became interested in behavioural economics in the first place. This works really well, and gives an intimate feel to the book that’s quite rare for the genre.

In a strange way, it is quite similar to the aforementioned Freakonomics books, while at the same time being sort of the opposite. Note that I’m using Freakonomics as a point of reference here mainly because I think it’s a reasonable assumption to guess that you’ve read it. I.e. if you are spending your time reading this when you have not yet read Feakonomics, I strongly disapprove of your priorities.


Very much like with Freakonomics, there is a “common sense on steroids” aspect about this book, with some very engaging experiments and anecdotes being used as evidence, as well as a sharp wit and an enjoyable style of writing. But Freakonomics was all about how people respond to incentives in pretty rational ways, Predictably Irrational makes the point that people are too easily distracted by things like hormones, ownership and the word “free” to really be trusted to react sensibly to the incentives put in front of them. As a matter of fact, Freakonomics mastermind Stephen D. Levitt is named and shamed (While being referred to as a “fabulous economist”) in the introductory note to the readers as a representative of the old school economists, the naive optimists with a hopeless faith in human rationality. I am a massive fan of the Freakonomics series, but I’m also someone who often struggles to understand why people do the things they do, so I find it very hard not to agree with Ariely’s theses of behavioual economics. And given the outcomes of certain recent elections, it must be difficult to argue the case for human rationality these days.


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