Review: Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational

Predictably Irrational
The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions
by Dan Ariely
400 pages
Harper Collins, New York, 2008

This book is an interesting treatment of a topic with which I had been entirely unfamiliar. The author introduces the subject by considering his experiences while undergoing the painful treatments necessary for burn victims. While this personal story doesn’t seem to be overtly on topic, it seems that that is actually the root of this book. As the subtitle suggests, we are often slaves to the little things going on in the background of the mind. Behavioral economics appears to be a mix of psychology and the economy of the small scale. What makes the subject interesting is that the author and his team use small experiments to test theories of the sort that one may have independently imagined. Ariely extrapolates from these little experiments to more general meaning for human behavior.

Unfortunately, most of economics seems to negate the majority of naive right wing theories. I think some people could take the author’s translation of his findings into macroeconomics as “another sign of liberal bias,” but the neutral observer will find the evidence presented readily supportive of his claims. A notable exception to seeming liberal bias of economic reality is that the author’s research shows a specific improvement in honesty immediately following a particular religion-based exercise. As distasteful as I find this, I can certainly believe that certain people are more well behaved under threat of eternal damnation.

This is a topic I suddenly find fascinating. I will certainly be reading more on this in the future. I will let Ariely close out with his own words:

Standard economics assumes that we are rational, that we know all the pertinent information about our decisions, that we can calculate the value of the different options we face, and that we are cognitively unhindered in weighing the ramifications of each choice. The result is that we are presumed to be making logical and sensible conclusions. And even if we make a wrong decision from time to time, the standard economics perspective suggests that we will quickly learn from our mistakes, either on our own or with the help of market forces. On the basis of these assumptions, economists draw far-reaching conclusions about everything from shopping trends to law to public policy. But as the results presented in this book and others show, we are all far less rational in our decision making than standard economic theory assumes. Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless. They are systematic and predictable.

Wouldn’t economics make a lot more sense if it were based on how people actually behave instead of how they should behave?

I think that tidily sums up the book.

The Heartland Institute

When the news first broke on this, I was reminded of something I had read about a year ago. I wrote a review of that great but disturbing book called Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Orekes and Erik M. Conway. I looked up the connection and found this on the the Wikipedia listing of the Heartland Institute:

In Merchants of Doubt, Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway wrote that the Heartland Institute was known “for its persistent questioning of climate science, for its promotion of ‘experts’ who have done little, if any, peer-reviewed climate research, and for its sponsorship of a conference in New York City in 2008 alleging that the scientific community’s work on global warming is fake.”

Yes, this is indeed one of those organizations. I thought it might be worth restating my point from that review:

If the people can be led to believe that science is not, in general, trustworthy, then they can be convinced of any absurdity that favors a wealthy industry.

This book will be extremely disturbing for all scientists and followers of science. It is disturbing to all scientists, that is, who aren’t willing to prostitute their credentials out for personal gain.

I wish a scientist could have his (to be expected perhaps, the vast majority of deniers are male) credentials revoked for malpractice in the same manner as a physician.

My Reading Lately

I have been really bad lately about reviewing books that I read. It’s not really a big deal, as I basically do it to help me retain whatever it was I was reading about. Of course, it is also to complain about crappy books when possible. Unfortunately, I have been so busy lately that I don’t even recall how many books I’ve read without writing anything on them. So I guess this is my attempt at addressing the heretofore unmentioned books I’ve read in the past few months:

  • Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam by James M. McPherson
  • The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey by Candice Millard
  • Sleights of Mind: What the Neuroscience of Magic Reveals About Our Everday Deceptions by Stephen L. Macknik and Susana Martinez-Conde with Sandra Blakeslee
  • Extreme Fear by Jeff Wise
  • Landscape Turned Red: The Battle of Antietam by Stephen W. Sears
  • Misquoting Jesus by Bart D. Ehrman
  • In a Sunburned Country by Bill Bryson
  • Frauds, Myths, and Mysteries: Science and Pseudoscience in Archaeology by Kenneth L. Feder
  • The Science of Fear: Why We Fear the Things we Should Not – and Put Ourselves in Great Danger by Daniel Gardner
  • Bounce: Mozart, Federer, Picasso, Beckham, and the Science of Success by Matthew Syed
  • The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
  • Update:I forgot I also just read Numbers Rule Your World by Kaiser Fung
  • What I’m currently reading:

  • How to Think about Weird Things: Critical Thinking for a New Age by Theodore Schick, Jr. and Lewis Vaughn
  • Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck
  • Memoirs of General William Tecumseh Sherman by William T. Sherman
  • Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
  • Someday maybe I’ll get around to reviewing some of these.

    Hmmm. On looking at this list, one might get the idea that my major interests are the American Civil War and behavioral economics. Odd, as I never really thought of that…

    Trashy Pseudojournalism of a Bygone Era

    I have the mind of a juvenile, so I occassion the virtual pages of Cracked magazine. One of my favorite writers there is a bemohawked (orange, no less) enthusiast of comic books, various fighting sports, and truly awful literature. He had an article out today on one of the terrible magazines that apparently used to exist. You can see it here. After stepping through the article, I began to get an image in my head. I know of something that so resembles this drivel from years past. Only now, instead of the production values associated with a niche publication, a modern global corporation runs this material with no expense spared to present it as actual journalism rather than what it is. The misogyny, racism, obsession with violence, fear-mongering, and sensationalist headlines are all hallmarks of the Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. Yes, Fox is the trashy dime-store “men’s magazine” of the 21st Century.

    Review: The Commentaries by Julius Caesar

    The Commentaries

    The Commentaries
    The Gallic Wars and The Civil War
    by Julius Caesar
    Read by Charlton Griffin
    13 hours, 54 minutes
    Audio Connoisseur, 2009

    As I often do, I took a multimedia approach to this book. When driving, I listened to the audiobook, but when able, I read the kindle version. This approach worked well in that the kindle version offered up maps that made clear some of the locations in the narrative. As well, the kindle version proffered some information I thought should have been made clear in the audiobook. I opted to review the audio version, as I did listen to it in its entirety (not skipping parts I had actually read), where I skipped parts in the kindle to which I had already listened. The original was written in the third person, where Griffin’s performance is in the first person. Also, I thought that the translator should have been named in the audio presentation as it was in the kindle version.

    Beginning with a brief biography by Henry Stuart Jones, the narrator’s baritone voice gives the gravitas and dignity merited an ancient classic. It is a little surprising that so much is known about Julius Caesar. This portion gives a fair rendering of the great leader, neither praising nor damning him. I hadn’t realized before this how little I knew of Caesar.

    Caesar begins with what seems a fairly small operation to subdue certain Gallic tribes that were causing trouble for other tribes designated as Friends of Rome. As he puts out one fire, he finds others around him. He describes the conditions and tactics with reasonably good detail up to the end of the first season. It seems warfare of the First Century B.C.E. was such that it only took place between Spring and Fall. In this manner of each chapter representing a year, he will break up the entire book. After the initial actions, Caesar thought it worthwhile to give some context. During pertinent parts of the book, he described the peoples of Gaul, Germany, or Britain. He went into detail of individual tribes when customs and other cultural knowledge were necessary for the reader’s understanding of motivations.

    What had begun as a small regional disturbance would rapidly (rapidly for the time, that is) spread into a general uprising of the Gauls. Over the course of the series of campaigns, war would spread as far as Germany and Britain. As Caesar describes the progress of each campaign, he takes pains to acknowledge individuals and units on both sides for their courage, perseverance, or other such laudable traits. Similarly, he accuses those he deems unworthy when appropriate. Throughout the first work (The Gallic Wars), he attempts to write as a disinterested party. This lends an air of credibility to all that he writes. While he does not dwell, he does make a point to accept his own mistakes or failures. Based on this work, I would say that Caesar could be considered a great historian in his own right. The last campaigns in Gaul were competently documented as Chapter 8 by legate Aulus Hirtius after the death of Caesar.

    The stunning success in Gaul gave many in Rome cause to fear Caesar’s power. At the beginning of The Civil War, Caesar describes the political situation. In this work, he does not go as far as to appear disinterested. The reader will notice hints of apologia in this portion. Here we also see that Caesar often details his own fairness and the treachery of others. As with the previous work, Caesar goes into detail about the logistics that betrays a keen understanding of long-term strategy beyond his adversaries. He does not mention the occasional genocide in the provinces during this war the way he did in Gaul. I wonder if there actually was a restraint or simply reflected how he wanted to be seen on returning to Italy. The Civil War is still a good narrative, but not as generally informative as The Gallic Wars.

    The Gallic Wars and The Civil War are a surprisingly interesting read, but I think a map is very nearly necessary for complete understanding. This should be required reading in Western civilization or European history class. Only now do I appreciate the context of my favorite Shakespearean play, Julius Caesar. After I get a detailed map of First Century Europe (probably at my local ancient maps store), I will definitely read this book again.

    Aside: Is it odd that the English speaking world seems to prefer the classics be presented in an English accent?