10 Books That Absolutely Prove That Humans Are Irrational Creatures
1. Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior
Why is it so difficult to sell a plummeting stock or end a doomed relationship? Why do we listen to advice just because it came from someone “important”? Why are we more likely to fall in love when there’s danger involved? In Sway, renowned organizational thinker Ori Brafman and his brother, psychologist Rom Brafman, answer all these questions and more.
Sway introduces us to the Harvard Business School professor who got his students to pay $204 for a $20 bill, the head of airline safety whose disregard for his years of training led to the transformation of an entire industry, and the football coach who turned conventional strategy on its head to lead his team to victory. We also learn the curse of the NBA draft, discover why interviews are a terrible way to gauge future job performance, and go inside a session with the Supreme Court to see how the world’s most powerful justices avoid the dangers of group dynamics.
What Ariely has done here is shift a lot of the thinking developed by such pioneers as Kahneman & Tversky who worked in behavioural economics, and moved it into the everyday sphere. And he’s done a great, insightful job. Where the behavioural economists are focused on financial decisions (why we buy high and sell low - and confound the assumptions of the classic economists who assume ‘the rational man,) Ariely eschews the technical language and walks us through everyday examples of our often fuzzy and quite irrational decision-making.
I think “Paradox of Choice” does bring insight into shopping, but its range is actually much wider than that. Schwartz discusses people making difficult decisions about jobs, families, where to live, whether to have children, how to spend recreational time, choosing colleges, etc. He talks about why making these decisions today is much harder than it was 30 years ago, and he offers many practical suggestions for how to address decision-making so that it creates less stress and more happiness. He even discusses how so much additional choice affects children, and how parents can help make childhood (particularly young childhood) less stressful.
“Buy on apples, sell on cheese” is an old proverb among wine merchants. Taking a bite of an apple before tasting wine makes it easier to detect flaws in the wine, and the buyer who does so will not as easily make the mistake of paying more than the wine is worth. Cheese, on the other hand, pairs well with wine and enhances its flavor, so a seller who offers cheese may command a higher price for the wine (and may even deserve it, if the wine is intended to be drunk with cheese). The proverb captures important psychological nuances of choice. The same product - a bottle of wine or a risky medical procedure - may be perceived differently depending on its context, and it is often possible to arrange the context to influence a choice while still maintaining the decision maker’s autonomy.
Richard Wiseman is an experimental psychologist and professor of “public understanding of psychology.” In this book, he discusses dozens of experiments performed by himself and other psychologists around the world over the course of the last hundred years. All these experiments have in common is unusual research methodology or amusing results.
Topics include studies of personal ads and pickup lines, determining which are most effective, how to detect liars, manifestations of prejudice and hypocrisy (are religious people or priests more honest or generous than others? it has been tested). Wiseman even ran tests to see which experiments in the book are the most interesting, to help the reader know what would be the best conversation starters at parties.
Clinical psychologist Van Hecke has compiled a list of 10 mental glitches that have infiltrated contemporary society, afflicting even the smartest among us, limiting thought, success and relationships. Van Hecke devotes a chapter to each blind spot, including “Not stopping to think,” “Not noticing,” “Jumping to conclusions” and “Missing the big picture.” Examining each in detail, Van Hecke details the root causes of these unconscious habits (”information overload,” “our tendency to habituate”) and tactics for overcoming them, using humorous anecdotes and other real-life examples to drive her points; the key is remaining open to new ideas and taking a step back from our busy lives in order to process information, situations and people. Filling in “the big picture” herself, Van Hecke demonstrates how embracing and understanding our weaknesses can not only improve personal and professional relationships, but also entire communities; this self-help is a welcome, highly readable first step.
In “Kluge,” psychologist Gary Marcus looks to the many and varied foibles, inconsistencies, and inaccuracies of the human mind and concludes that our brains are not, in fact, models of brilliance and efficiency, but are rather cobbled-together systems, designed for one purpose and pressed into action for another - the classic definition of a kluge.
The most famous kluge is probably the case of the carbon scrubbers on the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission. Crunched for time, engineers managed to create a system out of duct tape and socks (seriously) that worked adequately enough to clean the air on the space module- even though none of the materials they used were designed for, or optimal for, the job at hand. The result was ugly and inefficient - but it kept the astronauts alive. Likewise, Marcus argues, evolution has endowed humans with a hodgepodge of genetic material - the DNA equivalent of duct tape - with which to build all the sophisticated systems that supposedly set us apart from other creatures, like language, memory, and reason. The result is, for example in the case of language, “a vocal apparatus more byzantine than a bagpipe made up entirely of pipe cleaners and cardboard dowels.”
The author writes to the layman, making the language of statistics, probability, randomness a fascinating read. It’s clear that he’s well aware of the fallacies and delusions (and consequent harm) to which most of us are easy prey. But he leaves it to the reader to draw any philosophical-theological inferences about the need for greater humility. His immediate goal is to help the reader understand the distinction between 1. the “common-sense” logic employed by self-serving finite beings coping with problems in the material world and 2. a “scientific method” that takes nothing for granted in a universe of perpetual flux. More miraculous than either the accomplishments of the romantic hero or the intercessions of a supreme being (everyday stuff for most of us) is the rare discovery that two things (or “events” in the spatial-temporal order) suspected of being connected (a hypothesis) in fact cannot be shown “not” to have such a relationship (the proof).
Somehow, guessing at numbers is unsettling, even though I’ve done it all my life. John Adam is a professor of applied mathematics, with a degree in physics. Larry Weinstein is a nuclear physicist. Their book is devoted to proving that intelligent guessing is useful and fun. The book lays out some general principles but its great strength lies in the interesting problems, a series of hints to help you solve each problem, and an interesting discussion of the pitfalls and triumphs involved.
Cialdini believes that influence is a science. This idea attracted me. As a rhetorician, I have always thought of persuasion as more of an art. Cialdini, however, makes a first-rate case for the science point of view. But maybe most importantly, he makes his case in a well-written, intelligent, and entertaining manner. Not only is this an important book to read, it is a fun book to read too.
He introduces you to six principles of ethical persuasion: reciprocity, scarcity, liking, authority, social proof, and commitment/consistency. A chapter is devoted to each and you quickly see why Cialdini looks at influence as a science. Each principle is backed by social scientific testing and restesting. Each chapter is also filled with interesting examples that help you see how each principle can be applied. By the end of the book, I had little doubt that these are six important dimensions of human interaction.