Review of Dan Ariely, “Irrationally Yours”

We just finished reading Dan Ariely’s latest book Irrationally Yours (Harper, 2015), a book dedicated “to the oddities, complexities, and beauty of human nature” (p. v). Since the book consists of a compilation of entries from the “Ask Ariely” advice column (originally published in the pages of The Wall Street Journal), instead of writing a traditional book review we will instead share with you our three favorite entries from the book: 

#1 “On the quality and not the quantity of irrationality”

One person (Julianne) asks Dan to guess the fraction or proportion of our decisions that are irrational? At first, we thought this was a dumb question, since most people are irrational or biased most of the time. But Ariely replied to this query by directing our attention to the level of harm even a small fraction of irrational decisions might produce: “Think about something like texting and driving. Perhaps we do it only 3 percent of the time, but each of these instances could kill us and other people. So what we really need to ask ourselves isn’t about the proportion of our irrational behaviors but about the extent to which such irrational behaviors can harm us …” (p. 137, emphasis in original). In other words, acting irrationally or in a biased manner is not inherently bad or wrong in itself, so long as there are no major costs of doing so.

#2 “On forcing decisions with coins”

Another person (John) asks Dan for advice in making a difficult decision– choosing which car to buy after narrowing the car decision to two models. Dan’s reply is ingenious: “Luckily the technology you need to solve this problem is already at your disposal. All you need is a coin. Assign each [choice] to a side of the coin, and flip it high in the air * * * my guess is that when the coin is in the air, you will realize which car is the one you really want” (p. 128). By the way, what’s stopping us from resolving costly legal disputes this way? Would a purely random method of dispute resolution be any more random or worse than the existing legal system?

#3 “On luck as a multiple-stage number game”

Yet another person (Amy) asks Dan if some people are luckier than others. Dan offers a two-part reply to this question. First, he notes that life is to a great extent a “numbers game” (p. 97), so luck is just a function of one’s ability “to try different things more frequently” (p. 96). Next, he notes that “luckier people don’t just try more things …; they are also quicker at cutting off the paths that don’t seem to work out …” (In other words, we should try different things in life not just for the sake of trying new things, but rather to figure out which things we might like the most and which things are not worth pursuing any further. This strategy has two benefits: not only can it help increase one’s luck in life; it can also help minimize one’s level of regret at the end of one’s life.

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