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Predictably Irrational – A Book Review

Predictably Irrational

My niece, who attends Clemson University in South Carolina, shared a required reading from her economics course with several of my family members. Knowing how much I adore human behavior and psychology, she thought this book would be “right up my alley.” And my father-in-law knew I’d enjoy “Predictably Irrational” by Dr. Dan Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics, and so he bought a copy for me.

“Predictably Irrational” delves into the forces that more authentically drive decision making. These forces are much less rational than we think and have been taught; specifically in the areas of economics and psychology, this book challenges many long-standing laws, rules and principles. The purpose? To live more fulfilled and happier lives through higher awareness of self and others.

I have chosen to review this book for the obvious, predictable reason: understanding human behavior is at the heart of leadership. We must understand both our own motives and behavioral preferences as well as those whom we aspire to lead and influence. However, there is also a less predictable reason – the idea that reading books outside of our “normal” genres is a way to expand our learning and understanding in an overall way. I know that I get “stuck in a reading rut” by never picking up fiction and rarely leaving the leadership and business section unless I’m buying books for someone else!

Also predictable from an academic author, the book is rich with vignettes of experimentation involving college students as the test population. I usually find this tact somewhat tiresome, but not in this book. Every experiment has – you guessed it – unpredictable outcomes and discoveries. I’ve picked my favorite few to share here with you and by reading (required spoiler alert!) you will learn about the unpredictable nature of our decision making.

Framed in his introduction, Ariely shares the unexpected problem with “Tearing off the bandages”:

  • We’ve all done it to someone else or ourselves: on the count of 1-2-3-Rip! Tearing off the Band-aid for the sake of the patient is more deeply understood through Ariely’s own experience in adolescence in which he suffered major burns over much of his body. Part of his treatment was to be bandaged, as it is for most burn victims. His injuries were so significant that he required bandages for very long periods of time, which meant that the bandages were frequently in need of changing.
  • While experiencing the excruciating pain that accompanied these procedures, he noticed that some of the nurses used the “1-2-3-Rip!” method while others took more time, slowly removing the bandages and meticulously tending to the wounds. As Ariely engaged with the nurses to learn more about their preferred methods, he was able correlate that the nurses who took their time registered as having greater capacity for empathy and an ability to sit with another human being while in pain. While most of us believe that we are conducting the quick “1-2-3-Rip!” method for the patient, it turns out we’re doing it for ourselves.

Bringing this back to leadership, I wonder how often we provide a quick answer to avoid a possibly more difficult path to a better answer? How often, I wonder, do we brush off the pain that could propel us to a deeper, more intimate connection with others?

Framed in “The Cost of Social Norms,” we discover why we are happy to do things more when we are not paid to do them.

  • Imagine walking your date home at the end of a lovely evening. You had gone all out for this evening and held nothing back, including a very expensive and enjoyable dinner with fine wine, tickets to a special show you have both been waiting to see, and a lovely night cap at a trendy spot you’ve been saving for a special night.
  • Now imagine two scenarios:
    1. Just before you go in for that good-night kiss at the door, you provide a line-by-line account of what the evening had cost you.
    2. You share some thoughtful sentiments about the evening and how much you enjoyed your date’s company.
  • Which one wins the kiss? Never mind the kiss, which one maintains the relationship?!

Ariely shares a few more examples of how, when we replace economic norms for social norms, we tend to get unwanted outcomes. While the vignette above seems like an obvious one, why is it we create financial incentives for our employees to apply their talents and gifts in “extra” projects?

This chapter has some obvious applications in our organizations. Pay and reward systems utilized as incentives to perform better are often seen as good practice; however; we learn that when social and market norms collide, the outcomes often backfire.

How might we invite our people to give freely of their talents and gifts, yet still have them feeling fulfilled? Can we connect that deeply to one another in our organizations, or do you think I’m simply dreaming?

There are far too many wonderful examples and vignettes in this book to possibly share here in a review. If you’re ready to have your perspective challenged around how we’re really wired toward decision making, pick up “Predictably Irrational,” give it a read and let me know what you think!

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