Our Predictable Irrationality, and how it relates to the publishing industry

Ordinarily, I’m not the kind of person who truly enjoys non-fiction books. I tell myself to read the popular Blink by Malcolm Gladwell, and that Freakonomics will be both interesting and informative (not to mention that Steven Levitt is a fellow UChicagoan); but nine times out of ten, the lure of a good novel proves too strong. Fortunately for me, I was recently able to overcome this prejudice in order to read Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions. After the first few pages, it became clear that this would be no chore to endure for education’s sake, but a delight to read. Dan Ariely writes in an engaging, enthusiastic tone, addressing everything from expansive social questions to his own life and day-to-day irrational decisions.

The pleasant, often humorous, manner of writing that Ariely employs might at first lead readers to view the book as a fun and rather trifling look at the silly choices that people make. In reality, however, Predictably Irrational imparts a message whose gravity is enormous. Both standard economic theory and the average American (living in a country dominated by free-market mentality) tend to agree that people are consistent selves, capable of making rational decisions. Dan Ariely has come to tell us that this simply isn’t so.

In reality, people are inconstant and their decisions are usually based more upon unconscious predispositions and emotional states than upon logic; in short, people are irrational, and predictably so. With a plethora of ingenious experiments, Ariely demonstrates the failure of traditional economic thinking to account for the repeatedly irrational decisions that people make, from overvaluing the things that they own to feeling healthier after taking an expensive medicine than after taking an identical, cheaper pill. The traditional rules of supply and demand that Adam Smith taught us to hold so dear are simply unable to account for the irrationality of consumers; and in order to make informed decisions on everything from buying a house to choosing a spouse, people must first recognize and understand the factors driving their decisions.

These revelations apply to practically every industry, and the publishing and marketing of books is no exception. A savvy marketer must attempt to take into account the various, at times conflicting, tendencies of the predictably irrational consumer. This means that when selling a book, he must consider both the “zero price effect” – the emotional charge associated with free goods that leads people to massively overvalue them – and also the predispositions associated with price – if something is expensive, people automatically assume that it must be good quality.

The marketer must recognize the power of relativity, and the advantage that an option A has over an option B if the two are presented alongside a less desirable version of A. In other words, if a person is undecided between two books (or houses, cars, or men), the introduction of a third book that is similar to but slightly worse than one of the originals will make this better version seem the clear choice – not just over its unfortunate partner, but over its legitimate competition as well. With these demonstrations and many more, Ariely makes his point convincingly. We are not rational, and whether we want to successfully publish and sell a book or simply choose which one to read next, we must recognize that fact. And if I have convinced you at all to think twice before grabbing the next novel with a flashy cover, then I suggest that you consider instead choosing your next book based on my recommendation, and read Predictably Irrational.

–     Anna Tripodi, summer intern

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