Not Predictably Irrational

irrational2It’s somewhat rare when I get to sit down and read a book, especially a heavy-duty, intellectual book.  I might manage to muddle through the latest Richard Dawkins tome, usually many months after it comes out, but that’s not a common occurrence.  I did have someone recommend to me that I pick up Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely, specifically because I am often extremely critical of the ability of most people to act in rational, intellectual ways.  However, I don’t think I’m getting the lesson from it that I was expected to.  Please note, I’m writing this as I’m reading the book and therefore, it might feel a bit disconnected, but please try to muddle through.

Ariely notes that people’s reactions are typically not rational, they will make decisions based on emotional responses and social pressures that really, if they had stopped to think about it for a moment, make no sense at all and are often the worst choice of those available.  He describes numerous social experiments that have been performed that show that people will pay more money overall, buying things they don’t even want, to get “free shipping” than they would have paid just for the product they wanted and shipping alone.  I tested myself on every single example he gave and honestly, I’d be the guy who broke their test model because I do act rationally on every decision I make.  I would never have bought things I didn’t want in order to get free shipping.

In fact, I think there are some cases where he didn’t think out the test parameters very carefully.  In one, he offered an expensive brand of French chocolate vs. a Hershey’s Kiss and showed that the rational choice would have been to get the more expensive chocolate and bypass the cheaper (or even free) Kiss.  That’s not what would be going through my mind. I’m diabetic.  I can’t have either chocolate.  If I was going to be picking one, I’d be doing it to give to someone else, thus I’d choose something based on what I know they like, not any kind of financial motivation.  But to be honest, I think there is something he wasn’t considering at all in his free vs. pay scenarios. People are much more likely to take something for free, even if they have no interest in it, simply because it’s available.  That’s why people who hand out flyers and coupons get so many people taking them, even if they have no interest whatsoever in the subject matter and why most of those coupons end up deposited in trashcans nearby.  It’s a matter of convenience, not a matter of cost.  But I digress.

There was a bit on the division between social norms and financial norms, how the expectations and actions of people who are being paid for a task differ from the expectations and actions of people who are asked to do something in a social setting, “as a favor”.  The conclusions were that most people would work harder, the more money they got paid, but people doing it out of perceived social expectations would work harder still.  However, I don’t look at it that way at all.  If I give my word that I will do a thing, whether I get paid or not and no matter how much I get paid, I will give it my all and perform my best regardless.  Even with no financial gain and no potential for any social advance at all, after all, I’m almost certainly never going to see these people doing the test again, if I am willing to perform the task, it will be performed to the highest standard of which I am capable.  I am neither motivated by financial gain or social status.  I am motivated by dignity and self-respect.

Likewise, when he spoke of the “Running of the Brides”, where brides-to-be will fight each other over drastically discounted designer wedding gowns, I see no use in that at all either.  It’s like the Black Friday sales, where people will give up dinner with their families at Thanksgiving to stand in a line at a store and hopefully score some cheap booty.  I’d never do that.  I don’t care what’s being given away.  I simply don’t have that mentality.  I’d rather pay full price and maintain my dignity than run around like an animal, punching and kicking other people to save a couple of bucks.  He describes how most people in a given situation would screw over their neighbors in a heartbeat but I don’t understand that kind of thought process.  I pay the fair rate and I take no more than I need, regardless of the situation, because I am not an evil or cruel person.  In fact, I’m more likely to take less than I might want, just to leave things for others, even complete strangers.  I don’t get why so many people are dicks.

In another experiment, he told his class that they had to turn in three papers over the course of the semester, they could select any date they wanted for those papers to be due, but once chosen, they could not change the dates, nor be late. The most rational choice, of course, is to pick the last day of the semester for all of them since you could turn them in early without penalty, this was a study on people’s willingness to procrastinate.  I don’t procrastinate.  I get things done early, not just early in fact, but absurdly early.  The idea of leaving anything for the last minute is anathema to me.  I’ve been in situations like the above, where I could decide when my work was due and invariably, I turn it in virtually immediately.  Just knowing that I have work to do is enough to spur me to finish it right away.  I’d have had all three papers turned in within the first two weeks, had I been in his class.

Now it’s not my intention to go through this book, experiment by experiment, study by study, and say I have nothing in common with the conclusions because that much is true.  Whether you’re talking about self-control (I have it), the influence emotion has on decisions (it doesn’t affect me), etc., I simply do not line up with any of the test groups that he describes.  Why?  Because I’m a rational individual.  No matter how many experiments and studies Mr. Ariely describes, I always fall on the rational side.  I evaluate claims fairly, I neither fall for dishonest ideas, nor am unjustifiably critical.  I think logically about claims and do not allow emotion to run away with me. I see things as they actually are but apparently, I am virtually alone in this, if Ariely’s results are to be believed and I have no reason to doubt them.  It seems that when a person can get away with lying for a reward, far too many people will do it.  I will not.  For me, character counts.  I am an inherently honest person.  Even if nobody else knows I’m lying, I know and I simply won’t do it.  He argues that most people would steal a pencil from work but I won’t.  It’s not mine.  There are no circumstances whatsoever under which I would steal from my employer or take someone else’s food from a refrigerator or abscond with an abandoned piece of property.  It’s just  not right, yet his findings show that most people will do so without a second thought.  What’s wrong with people?

And before anyone says anything, I’m not trying to claim to be special.  I’m not.  I honestly don’t understand the actions of people in any of these studies.  I cannot relate to them at all.  Apparently, most people will happily steal, screw others over, rip off their employers, make bad decisions and do just about anything you ask them to if you get them horny first.  What the actual fuck?  Maybe the human species is more screwed up than even I thought.  I don’t think any of this comes from upbringing either.  While I think my parents were good people, I don’t think they had any special tricks or secrets to childrearing.  They taught me the importance of being honest and the importance of hard work.  They didn’t necessarily push me to be rational and critical, I grew up in a very religious household and asking questions, especially about religion, is frowned upon, yet I picked that up somewhere along the line and that’s what caused me to jettison religion.  So please, I don’t see how the people in most of Ariely’s studies qualify as decent human beings, at least not the ones who cheated, stole, etc.  These are not things to be lauded, they’re things to be punished and maybe, with the lax liberal ideals on punishment, that explains a lot of what we see, after all, the majority of the studies were conducted on college students.

Oh, there are a few things that I had to question in general of course.  He wrote of an experience he had at Burning Man, where no one exchanged money, they just traded gifts and services as payment for everything they needed and he seemed genuinely surprised how it worked.  Why?  The barter system is how every economy gets started.  If you have a goat and you want grain, you trade your goat to the farmer and he milks the goat or slaughters it for meat.  Money is simply a unit of transfer that represents some undefined barter property.  It has an agreed upon value so that when deciding whether or not to trade, you can weigh the intrinsic value of the property against the artificial value of the paper to see if it makes sense.  This isn’t something new, this is something tremendously old. It’s just an observation that I thought should be pointed out.

Now I honestly don’t know what to think.  This was an interesting books, I’m neither telling people to go buy it or not, it’s available from the Amazon link at the top if you want to check it out but I get nothing one way or the other.  Clearly, people don’t have to be the dicks that I see in these studies.  People can choose to be moral, rational, intellectual individuals.  I did it.  I know others who have done it.  Why can’t everyone?  That’s the real question and we need a good answer to it.  Why has humanity failed so miserably?  Chime in if you think you know.

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