In “Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” (Harper; $25.95), Dan Ariely, a professor at M.I.T., offers a taxonomy of financial folly. His approach is empirical rather than historical or theoretical. In pursuit of his research, Ariely has served beer laced with vinegar, left plates full of dollar bills in dorm refrigerators, and asked undergraduates to fill out surveys while masturbating. He claims that his experiments, and others like them, reveal the underlying logic to our illogic. “Our irrational behaviors are neither random nor senseless—they are systematic,” he writes. “We all make the same types of mistakes over and over.” So attached are we to certain kinds of errors, he contends, that we are incapable even of recognizing them as errors. Offered FREE shipping, we take it, even when it costs us.
As an academic discipline, Ariely’s field—behavioral economics—is roughly twenty-five years old. It emerged largely in response to work done in the nineteen-seventies by the Israeli-American psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. (Ariely, too, grew up in Israel.) When they examined how people deal with uncertainty, Tversky and Kahneman found that there were consistent biases to the responses, and that these biases could be traced to mental shortcuts, or what they called “heuristics.” Some of these heuristics were pretty obvious—people tend to make inferences from their own experiences, so if they’ve recently seen a traffic accident they will overestimate the danger of dying in a car crash—but others were more surprising, even downright wacky. For instance, Tversky and Kahneman asked subjects to estimate what proportion of African nations were members of the United Nations. They discovered that they could influence the subjects’ responses by spinning a wheel of fortune in front of them to generate a random number: when a big number turned up, the estimates suddenly swelled.(read more...)
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