Time preferences, character, and The Novel (in my novel)

A friend was reading a novel I wrote called The Hook and asked: “I’m curious. . . Do you believe this?” of this passage, in which the speaker is a teenage girl describing her teacher:*

But Scott sometimes said that if we do something, it shows that we wanted to at that time, even if we regret it later. So other people can’t really “make” us do anything. He said that people want different things over different courses of time—so in the short term, you might want one thing, in the long term, something else, and when you’re in the heat of the moment, the short term is pretty sweet.

The answer to my friend’s question is: mostly but not entirely. Zimbardo and Boyd wrote The Time Paradox, which describes how some people default to “past,” “present,” or “future” orientations or dispositions; hedonic people tend to be present-oriented, high achievers (probably a lot of engineers) tend to be future-oriented, and nostalgic, content, family-centered people tend to be past-oriented. These categories obviously aren’t hard and fast, and everyone has some of all of them, but I think the overall idea stands. And people who have one central orientation probably don’t understand others well, just like extroverts tend not to understand introverts; I think reading helps people better understand others not like themselves.

People are also pretty strongly biased by random emotions, feelings, and environments; for example, in Dan Ariely’s book Predictably Irrational, he describes how people in a sexually aroused state make very different or predictions decisions from those in a “cold” state—one might say they become much more present-oriented, which is probably obvious to those of us who have been in that state and are willing to think consciously and rationally about it afterwards. Most of us have probably been in that state, but relatively few of us want to admit what it’s like when we’re not in it. On a separate note, Ariely speculates that this may apply to hunger and other states too.

Daniel Kahneman’s book Thinking, Fast and Slow describes the numerous biases that we’re prone to, including a bias towards present consumption in lieu of future consumption. So if we’re in the moment being offered the pleasures of alcohol, drugs, sex, gambling, spending, or whatever, the “future” might seem very far away and uncertain (that’s what Karl Smith gets when he writes “If I Were A Poor Black Kid” that so many other commenters miss). So people are inclined to do things they say they “regret” or say “wasn’t them,” even when it probably was: it’s just that the person who gave into their craving was thinking in a different frame of mind, and the person in a “cold” frame of mind probably wants to present themselves differently than a person in a “hot” frame of mind acts. You may notice that a lot of people say, “I was drunk,” as if that means they had no control over what they were doing, but their rational self decided to take the first drink. It seems that many people go through a two-step process to get what they really want: they drink, which gives them an excuse to decry their actions while drunk at a future date while achieving their hedonic ends—which are often sexual.

This is how you get people suffused with regret for acts they very much enjoyed previously. Sex is the most obvious example here, but there are others. What a lot of people call “attraction” or “chemistry” looks to me more like people being attracted to specific behavioral or physical traits they then cloak in other words. This, basically, is what Neil Strauss explains in The Game and other self-proclaimed pickup people discuss in different venues. But it only works if women are attracted to the kind of show that such guys put on; many women in clubs / bars appear to be, at least to some extent, because if they weren’t then “game” wouldn’t work. I find this stuff more intellectually interesting than immediately applicable to my day-to-day life, but it nonetheless shows that a lot of social life happens below the level of consciousness and in ways that I didn’t appreciate when I was younger.

As I said earlier, people who tend to be highly logical and future oriented (I’m somewhat like this; you seem like you are too, although I obviously can’t speak for you and am not totally sure) often don’t “get” or understand people who aren’t. And vice-versa. People who are hedonically oriented in one moment and disavow their hedonism the next seem like hypocrites—and they are. But most people seem to be hypocrites and don’t take the time to deeply analyze what their “feelings” are telling them. Kahneman develops the idea of two “systems” that people use: the first is a fast, heuristic system that guides us to make instant, snap decisions; the second slows us down to analyze situations, but it’s much more laborious and harder to engage. Most people live in system one most of the time, including us. It takes a lot of effort to motivate system two. So we get a lot of biases from system one that sometimes make our system two self unhappy later.

I think one problem intellectuals like me have is an unwillingness to be sufficiently present-oriented, to slip out of our eggheads and into the now. A lot of cultures and societies have festivals or rituals that encourage this sort of thing; you can see a contemporary example in Brazil’s Carnival and numerous examples in older cultures (Donna Tartt’s excellent novel The Secret History exploits this interest for its plot). But ours doesn’t, which might in part be a function of our wacky religious heritage. We don’t have a lot of space for ritual; the closest we get is something like Halloween and extreme drinking parties, where people get to release or transcend the self in ways that may produce great pleasure. But, again, what is pleasure? Merely neurochemical? Or something else? I don’t have good answers, though I’m very curious.

So: do I believe what Stacy says Scott asserts? Somewhat. I think Scott’s mistake is assuming there’s a single, unified person in there somewhere. Either that, or Stacy, who’s speaking in the section you marked, misunderstands Scott, or can’t apply what he says because she doesn’t have the background to do so.

As you can probably tell from the above, I don’t really know what I believe; I’m guided in my thinking by some of the things I’ve read and observed, but the issue is complex enough that I don’t think they tell the whole story. When I was younger, I believed in a unified self; if someone did one particular thing at one particular time, that was a revealed preference, that’s who they were, and that’s the end of the story. Now, a lot of the work of behavioral and evolutionary psychologists and economists has forced me to rethink those ideas, and consciousness is much stranger than I really appreciated!

If you want to judge for yourself, the books I cited above are a good and lucid place to start. But I don’t think they’re the end of the story; maybe the story has no end. That’s not a real satisfying statement, but it’s what I’ve got and where I’ve gotten with my own imperfect thinking. Deep, much-debated issues often are that way because there isn’t a “right” answer per se—only a range of possibilities that are continually deepened over time through research, observation, and writing.

Note: The next paragraph has some material germane to the novel but that won’t make a lot of sense outside the context of the novel.

I mostly wish someone had explained a lot of this to me when I was younger. But they didn’t, which might be why Stacy repeats what Scott says to her (there’s so much I try to convey to people who’re younger than me, but I suspect most of them don’t really have the framework necessary to situate what I’m telling them, and thus they can’t really deploy it in behavioral changes). In the context of The Hook, I think Stacy and Arianna make their video at Sheldon’s coaxing because they’re caught up in the moment, and they’re obviously unhappy when the video gets shown to the whole school. So is Stacy the girl who is willing to bare her stuff for the camera when she’s sexually excited and not really thinking about what comes next, or the girl who can stand up in front of the whole assembly and walk nobly down and out, transcending the moment and trying to show herself beyond high school bullshit?

Both and neither. Which is, I hope, what makes her interesting as a character, and why I suspect narrative fiction will continue to enchant us even when research has surpassed many of the nonfiction writers on whom I’m drawing when I’m drawing characters.

This post started life as an e-mail to my friend, and I’ve edited it some before publishing it here.

Thinking and doing: Procrastination and the life of the mind

I finally got around to reading James Surowiecki’s “What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?” (answer: maybe nothing; maybe a lot), which has been going around the Internet like herpes for a very good reason: almost all of us procrastinate, almost all of us hate ourselves for procrastinating, and almost all of us go back to procrastinating without really asking ourselves what it means to procrastinate.

According to Surowiecki, time preferences help explain procrastination. For a good introduction on the topic, see Philip Zimbardo and John Boyd’s The Time Paradox. The short, non-technical version: Some people tend to value present consumption more than future consumption, while others are the inverse. And it’s not just time preferences that change who we are; as Dan Ariely documents in Predictably Irrational, we also change our stated behaviors based on whether, for example, we’re aroused. We also sometimes prefer to bind ourselves through commitments to deadlines or to external structures that will “force” us to behave a certain way. How many dissertations would be completed without the social stigma that comes from working on a project for years and failing to complete it, coupled with the threat of funding removal?

The basic issue is that we have more than one “self,” and the self closest to the specious present (which lasts about three seconds) might be the “truest.” This comes out in the form of procrastination. To quote at length from Surowiecki, who is nominally reviewing The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination:

Most of the contributors to the new book agree that this peculiar irrationality stems from our relationship to time—in particular, from a tendency that economists call “hyperbolic discounting.” A two-stage experiment provides a classic illustration: In the first stage, people are offered the choice between a hundred dollars today or a hundred and ten dollars tomorrow; in the second stage, they choose between a hundred dollars a month from now or a hundred and ten dollars a month and a day from now. In substance, the two choices are identical: wait an extra day, get an extra ten bucks. Yet, in the first stage many people choose to take the smaller sum immediately, whereas in the second they prefer to wait one more day and get the extra ten bucks.

In other words, hyperbolic discounters are able to make the rational choice when they’re thinking about the future, but, as the present gets closer, short-term considerations overwhelm their long-term goals. A similar phenomenon is at work in an experiment run by a group including the economist George Loewenstein, in which people were asked to pick one movie to watch that night and one to watch at a later date. Not surprisingly, for the movie they wanted to watch immediately, people tended to pick lowbrow comedies and blockbusters, but when asked what movie they wanted to watch later they were more likely to pick serious, important films. The problem, of course, is that when the time comes to watch the serious movie, another frothy one will often seem more appealing. This is why Netflix queues are filled with movies that never get watched: our responsible selves put “Hotel Rwanda” and “The Seventh Seal” in our queue, but when the time comes we end up in front of a rerun of “The Hangover.”

The lesson of these experiments is not that people are shortsighted or shallow but that their preferences aren’t consistent over time. We want to watch the Bergman masterpiece, to give ourselves enough time to write the report properly, to set aside money for retirement. But our desires shift as the long run becomes the short run.

This probably explains why you have to like the daily process of whatever you’re becoming skilled at (writing, researching, law, programming) in order to get good at it: if you have a very long term goal (“Write a great novel” or “Write an entire operating system”), you’ll probably never get there because it’s very easy to defer that until tomorrow. But if you break the task down (I’m going to write 500 words today; I’m going to work on memory management) and fundamentally like the task, you might actually do it. If your short-term desires roughly align with your long-term desires, you’re doing something right. If they don’t, and if you can’t find a way to harmonize them, you’re going to be the kind of person who looks back in 20 years and says, “Where did the time go?”

The answer is obvious: minute by minute and second by second, into activities that don’t pass what Paul Graham calls “The obituary test” in “Good and Bad Procrastination” (like many topics others pass over, he’s already thought about the issue). Are you doing something that will be mentioned in your obituary? If so, then you’re doing something right. Most of us aren’t: we’re watching TV, hanging out on Facebook, thinking that we really should clean the house, waiting for 5:00 to roll around when we get off work, thinking we should go shopping for that essential household item. As Graham says, “The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn’t always bad?” It isn’t, as long as we’re deferring something unimportant for something important, and as long as we have appropriate values for “important.”

So how do we work against bad procrastination and towards doing something useful? The question has been on my mind lately, because a friend who’s an undergrad recently wrote:

A lot of my motivation comes from a fantasy of myself-as-_____, where the role that fills the blank tends to change erratically. Past examples include: writer, poet, monk, philosopher, womanizer. How long will the physicist/professor fantasy last?

I replied:

This is true of a lot of people. One question worth asking: Do you enjoy the day-to-day activities involved with whatever the fantasy is? For me, the “myself-as-novelist” fantasy continues to be closer to fantasy than reality, although “myself-as-writer” is definitely here. But I basically like the work of being a novelist: I like writing, I like inventing stories, I like coming up with characters, plot, etc. Do I like it every single day? No. Are there some days when it’s a chore to drag myself to the keyboard? Absolutely. And I hate query letters, dealing with agents, close calls, etc. But I like most of the stuff and think that’s what you need if you’re going to sustain something over the long term. Most people who are famous or successful for something aren’t good at the something because they want to be famous or successful; they like the something, which eventually leads to fame or success or whatever.

If you essentially like the day-to-day time in the lab, in running experiments, in fixing the equipment, etc., then being a prof might be for you.

One other note: writer, poet, and philosopher have some aspect of money involved in it. So does physicist / professor. Unless you’re Neil Strauss or Tucker Max, “womanizer” is probably a hobby more than a profession. And think of Richard Feynman as an example: he sounds like he got a lot of play, but that wasn’t his main focus; it’s just something he did on the side, so to speak. (“You mean, you just ask them?!”). The more you have some other skill (being a writer, a rock star, whatever), the easier it seems to be to find members of your preferred sex to be interested in you. In Assholes Finish First, Max notes that women started coming to him after his website became successful (note that I have not had the same experience writing about books and lit).

As for the physicist/prof fantasy, I have no idea how long it will last. You sound like you’re staying upwind, per Paul Graham’s essay “What You’ll Wish You’d Known“, which is important because that will let you re-deploy as time goes on. To my mind, read/writing and math are upwind of almost everything else; if you work on those two – three subjects, you’ll probably be okay.

One nice thing about grad school in physics is that you can apparently leverage that to do a lot of other things: programming; becoming a Wall Street quant; doing various kinds of business analysis; etc. It’s probably a better fantasy than monk, poet, or philosopher for that reason. The “philosopher” thing is also (relatively) easy to do on the side, and I would guess it’s probably more fun writing a philosophy blog than writing peer-reviewed philosophy papers, which sounds eminently tedious, at least to me.

Oh: and I have a pile of unposted, half-written blog posts in my Textmate project drawer:

You can see a pile of them on the left. Most will eventually get written. Some will eventually be deleted. All were started with good intentions. Some have been sitting there for a depressingly long period of time. In fact, this post might have found its way among them, if not for the fact that I decided to write it in a single blaze of activity, and if not for the fact that I’m writing about procrastination, this post might have gone the way of many others: half-finished and eventually abandoned.

One reason I’ve had staying power with this blog, while so many of my friends have written a blog for a few months and then quit, is because I basically like blogging for its own sake. Blogging hasn’t brought me fame, power, money, groupies, or other markers of conventional success (so far, anyway!), and it appears unlikely to do so in the short- to medium-term (the long term is anyone’s guess). Sometimes I worry that blogging keeps me from more important work, like writing fiction, but I keep doing it because I like it and because blogging teaches me a lot about the subject I’m writing about and is an excellent forum for small ideas that might one day grow into much larger ones. This is basically the issue that “Signaling, status, blogging, academia, and ideas” discusses.

If the small projects lead to the big projects, you’re doing something right. If the small projects supplant, instead of supplementing, the big projects, you’re doing something wrong. But if you don’t like the small increments of whatever you’re working on, you’re not likely to get to the big project. You’re likely to procrastinate. You’re likely to skip from fantasy to fantasy instead of finding your place. You’re not likely to do the right kind of procrastinating. I wish I’d realized all this when I was younger. Of course, I wish I’d learned a lot of things when I was younger, but I didn’t have Surowiecki, Graham, Zimbardo, Max, and Feynman. Now I do, which enables me to say, “this blog post itself is a form of procrastination, but a productive one, and it’s therefore one I’m going to finish because I like writing it.” That sure beats improbable resolutions.

Dan Ariely in Seattle

In addition to being an excellent economist and writer, Dan Ariely has among the best syllable-to-letter ratios for any last name I’ve heard. I only learned how to pronounce AR-EE-el-EE on Feb. 27, when he visited Seattle to discuss Predictably Irrational. He warmed the crowd with a visual illusion I fell for; this YouTube clip is a variation. Carefully count the number of one- versus two-handed passes in the video.

If you haven’t watched the clip, don’t read on. If you have, the question isn’t about passes: did you notice the guy with the cell phone walk up to the door behind the girls with the ball? Ariely’s video was more obvious: men in black and white shirts passed two basketballs and a guy in a gorilla suit walked through. Like most of the rest of the crowd, I didn’t notice the gorilla because I was busy counting passes (18 in all, though it depends on whether one counts a pass at the very end). To judge from the self-conscious laughter when Ariely pointed this out to us and the few hands that went up when he asked how many of us saw the gorilla, many others were in my situation. And with that, we were primed with a metaphor for the brain’s ability to create mental illusions.

Ariely gave many examples of such illusions and preferences. For example, opt-in versus opt-out retirement systems have widely varying degrees of participation, as do countries with organ donations, depending on whether people are enrolled by default or must opt-in. It turns out that we seem to have difficulty with multiple, complex choices and a tendency to fall back on defaults in the face of these choices. I’m reminded of Philip Zimbardo’s The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil, which shows how otherwise normal people who receive arbitrary authority and limited oversight can do evil acts. That tendency might be an aspect of a default option: obeying perceived authority.

Both Zimbardo and, implicitly, Ariely, argue that by becoming aware of such tendencies we can better correct or fight them. The tendency towards defaults, initial choices, and authority might also explain why change in societal attitudes often happens slowly: it takes generations for tides to shift and first decisions to be made anew. Paul Graham says, “I suspect there is some speed limit to the evolution of an economy. Economies are made out of people, and attitudes can only change a certain amount per generation.” Ariely’s research supports that conclusion, but I can also see how and why change might be accelerating: as people become more accustomed to change as the norm and as the first choice, it becomes more natural for the individuals who make up societies to reorient themselves faster to new choices. This could also help explain some of the findings in Gregory Clark’s A Farewell to Alms, which argues that the Industrial Revolution took off more because of attitudes and culture in England than other conditions. England’s culture during the Industrial Revolution had finally reached a place where change and innovation became the norm, and where society could support that change rather than relying on defaults like superstition or religion to explain worldly phenomena. It’s an intriguing hypothesis, though off the top of my head I can’t immediately think of a clever way to test whether change becoming a default norm might help change in the future, perhaps explaining why I’m not a behavioral economics professor.

Ariely also showed how we’re constantly using imperfect and imprecise knowledge to make decisions, allowing first decisions their power to frame how we think about something. In an experiment, Ariely read poetry to students and then asked how much groups of students would either pay or agreed to be paid to hear him recite poetry again shortly. The group asked how much they would pay offered to pay to hear Ariely read, and the group that he offered to pay demanded money. It would appear that the way he framed the question caused them to offer or demand money—and offer more or demand more the longer the reading went on. I would also note that, although Ariely gave an excellent econ talk, I’m not sure I would go for his rendition of “Leaves of Grass.” But students who asked how much they would pay did offer money for it because of the way Ariely framed the question.

Now that I know, I wouldn’t pay to hear him read poetry regardless of whether he asked. But if he’s in town for economics, I’d see him, and so should you. You’ll laugh and learn, and the former might be the optimal way to induce the latter.

Predictably Irrational — Dan Ariely

One of the central tenets of economics is that we behave rationally, and yet much of what we see on a day-to-day basis defies rationality like some Modernists defy the conventions of plot. We become irrationally attached to concepts like “free,” even if something else is a better value, and our price preferences are relative: experiments in Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational show that we’re willing to forgo what seems to be a better deal just so we don’t have to risk even tiny amounts of money. These tendencies can be manipulated to some extent; Ariely says that the main lesson that could be distilled is that “we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend.” I disagree with the chess metaphor, as it seems to deny us the will and ability we have to learn about the game and not move forward just one square at a time, but the thought it expresses is accurate, and throughout the book I could think of parallel examples to the ones Ariely gives. We don’t see the blindness in others as well as ourselves, and we become attached to prices, things or ideas.

I remember turning 21 and being able to drink legally for the first time and being shocked at the price of going to bars; parties in college and high school usually charged three to five dollars for a cup and as much beer as you could drink. Girls got in free. If the door guy raised the price from three to five, I would try negotiating and sometimes leave. If I came with a group of attractive girls, which wasn’t often, I’d sometimes get in free. In contrast, at bars five dollars only gets you the first beer; to be fair, however, that beer is usually of higher quality than keg beer. Nonetheless, the price increase of an evening out caused much consternation at first, but now I’ve acclimated to the idea that, although Ariely says “[…] first decisions resonate over a long sequence of decisions,” I also use anchoring points in my price expectation continuum. Now paying $15 to $20 at a bar seems normal and $5 at a party would seem cheap. These “anchors” can change over time and with context. If I went to New York or L.A., where trendy bars allegedly now charge $15 a drink, I’d be astonished. When I was a freshman in college and a New York club accidentally gave me a band that allowed me to drink even though I was 18, I was shocked at having to pay $10 per drink and consequently didn’t drink much, even when a 23-year-old girl wanted to get me to buy shots. Buying her shots isn’t a good idea for reasons Richard Feynman goes into in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Nonetheless, I’m wandering far afield from the central point, which is that original decisions about price can resonate powerfully over time and can be hard to change.

Ariely uses Starbucks versus Dunkin’ Donuts as an example: Dunkin’ Donuts coffee was and probably still is much less expensive than Starbucks and, I would argue, not much worse if it is at all, but Starbucks still manages to charge millions of people three or more dollars for various drinks. They can do so in part because they’ve changed expectation through decor, drink names, and the like. “Starbucks did everything in its power […] to make the experience feel different—so different that we would not use the prices at Dunkin’ Donuts as an anchor, but instead would be open to the new anchor that Starbucks was preparing for us.” In other words, Starbucks created a new anchor. This raises fundamental questions about the nature of things like supply and demand—or, as Ariely says, “As our experiments demonstrate, what consumers are willing to pay can easily be manipulated, and this means that consumers don’t in fact have a good handle of their own preferences and the prices they are willing to pay for different goods and experiences.” I agree to some extent, as I didn’t like paying extra money to go to bars and avoided it to the extent I could when I first turned 21, but now all my friends go and they’ve become the new norm. In the land of companies, Apple might be the best example of a company manipulating consumer expectations: only its operating system and industrial design separates it from other manufacturers, and yet it can get away with offering unusual machines and limited, premium product lineup.

I wonder if Ariely has read Trading Up: The New American Luxury, which describes how some companies are trying to harness these price point anchors—and redefine them. One point of Trading Up, however, is that the new or luxury products must have at least some technical advantage of what they replace. Starbucks does: it offered espresso drinks when, to my knowledge, they were not readily available at most places. Not surprisingly, the book also covers Apple and BMW. Apple offers a real technical advantage to me in the form of OS X, but you can’t buy a regular desktop tower and separate monitor. Where Apple does compete it offers hardware at prices similar to competitors, but you can’t get low-cost towers stripped of the computer equivalent of bells and whistles. In addition, this morning Apple released new versions of its MacBook and MacBook Pro laptops. The base-level MacBook is $1,100—or, thanks to Apple’s marketing, $1,099—but comes without a DVD burner, an extra gigabyte (GB) of RAM, and the extra 40 GB hard drive. Its processor is also slower. Given these drawbacks, it makes sense to buy the $1,300 version—but Apple’s website touts that the MacBook starts at $1,099. Yet buying the middle version is better, for resale value if no other reason. In doing so, the company might have differentiated itself enough to set new anchors for many consumers. And we either fall for it or make a rational choice, depending on one’s perspective.

Ariely doesn’t specifically cover Apple because he’s more interested in experiments where you have two things that are absolute equivalents, rather than OS X versus Windows. But I begin to see examples of some of his thinking in the world I see. There are limits to manipulation—I won’t pay $10 for coffee or $2,000 for any computer with the capabilities of a present-day MacBook. But I might pay marginally more for some products, like beer, depending on the setting and my age. In addition, product preferences change; in Ariely’s next chapter, “The cost of zero cost,” he describes how people will often take free even when it appears to be a better value to take money. He offered a $10 Amazon gift certificate for free or a $20 gift certificate for seven dollars. Buying the larger certificate nets more profit, but most people take the free one. To conventional economics, this would seem irrational, but for some people an Amazon gift certificate might not be of as much use as cash; they might not read much, or want to buy DVDs, and the like. In essence, I believe their demand is lower on the demand curve for Amazon products. I would take the $20 certificate because I buy too much from them already. In addition, he describes how Amazon’s free shipping policies can cause people to buy more than they would otherwise to reach the $25 free shipping threshold, but I often will add an extra book to reach it because I always have a backlog waiting. Not all those who act in response to Amazon’s offer act irrationally.

Still, the issues of Amazon gift certificates and free shipping are mostly nitpicks. My bigger question concerns some of his methods for generating data—many of the stories and anecdotes come from experimenting on convenient undergraduates at good Universities, who might not be representatives of the general population. Though he follows up many with experiments elsewhere, I’m still leery of drawing overly broad conclusions based on limited samples. In addition, how reliably can we extrapolate data from a limited number of people in artificial settings and then apply it to the bigger world? Posing the question is much easier than answering it, and to Ariely’s credit he has given us a framework for exploring the issue, while I throw popcorn from the sidelines and offer stories about drinking. But the issues are real, and there’s a perpetual danger of finding a correlation that works only to discover that some other variable drives the correlations or causes experiments to turn out as they do. Will our tendency to cheat and steal more when dealing with abstractions for cash rather than cash itself, as Ariely describes in “The context of our character, Part II,” really scale up to the level of Enron-style fraud? He makes a convincing case, but not one beyond all reasonable doubt, even if I can certainly agree that he meets the lower legal standard of a preponderance of the evidence.

And even if some of his conclusions make you go, “Really?”, his book is still fun to read. The chapters I discussed in-depth were just a small part of Predictably Irrational, and to give every chapter the same treatment would lead to a document almost as long as his book. But maybe I’m inclined to like his book more because Tim Harford recommend it (in addition, Ariely sent me an e-mail about my Harford post, and, as often happens with famous authors, I have a slight tendency towards being star-struck. But I can also admit that, perhaps alleviating some of its effects). In “The effect of expectations,” he describes experiments that show “When we believe beforehand that something will be good, therefore, it generally will be good—and when we think it will be bad, it will be bad.” He finds the influences go deep, and that signaling that an experience will be good can often make it good. Compare this, however, to Chris Matthews’ advice that one was better served by setting expectations low and exceeding them than setting them high and missing, even if the ultimate result was the same. He discussed politics, however, and Ariely is describing, well, something more domestic and more grand at the same time. I feel like there is a way to reconcile the views even if I have not found it yet, and it might speak to the depth of both writers that I have not been able to (incidentally, you should read Mattews’ Hardball).

Harford’s signal that this book will be good has an impact on the pleasure I derive from reading it, and I can’t help comparing The Logic of Life and Predictably Irrational, given their similar subject matter and proximity in both publishing date and my reading. Arguably, Harford is the better writer, with more journalistic zing, but this tendency also gets him into trouble: he jumps without transitions from idea to idea too often, and his chapters seem more loosely linked than Ariely’s. To be sure, both books are similar in that their chapters are more or less independent, but Ariely’s passes what I now call “the blog test” in that its content doesn’t seem to have been replicated on blogs and its form is not necessarily better suited to that medium. The buffet approach in Predictably Irrational by its nature lacks total coherence, but also allows one to skip chapters at will and not lose much. It also makes generalizing about an entire book more difficult, which is why I focused on particular chapters. The largest difference between The Logic of Life and Predictably Irrational is that the former makes the case for logic and rationality in a larger, social, macro sense, while the latter makes the case for irrationality in a smaller, individual, micro sense. And yet I can’t help but wonder if the latter approach supports the former approach, much the same way that the self-interest of capitalism might end up altruistically benefitting society on a large scale, or the way we might not be able to predict how an individual will act but can sometimes guess how large bodies of individuals turn out. Take two people with different SAT scores and you can’t know that one will do better than the other, but take 100,000 people with very different scores and you’ll know that most of the top group will outperform most of the bottom. So too, maybe, with Ariely’s Predictably Irrational on the small scale and Harford’s The Logic of Life on the larger. Both books also have a self-help aspect to them in that if you can understand your own weakness and how others will behave, you’ll be more likely to correct those weaknesses and exploit them in others. Of course, if enough people read both books, then their behavior could change en masse, leading to the books changing what they seek to measure, but this seems unlikely. Ariely knows about the issues with weakness, too: “[…] these results suggest that although almost everyone has problems with procrastination, those who recognize and admit their weakness are in a better position to utilize available tools for precommittment and by doing so, help themselves overcome it.”

Perhaps that is also true of readers of what I call, tongue-in-cheek, econ-for-dummies books.

Many of Ariely’s chapters are structured like this post: they tell a story, conduct an experiment, and then draw more general conclusions. The story could be a personal one from Ariely or drawn from another source. In my case, I tell a story, link it to Ariely’s experiments, and then draw a more general conclusion about his book and methods. Mostly, I suspect his book shows that we don’t really know what we want, which probably shouldn’t be a surprise given all the lonely hearts columns, uncertainty, regret, and the like we collectively experience. As such, it helps us better evaluate what we want and why we act the way we do, and that the book is fun to read helps as well. And it has enough substance to fuel more than 2,000 words of commentary and analysis.

NOTE: Ariely will be in Seattle tomorrow night, and I’ll be at Town Hall to hear him.For more about Ariely and behavioral economics, read What Was I Thinking? The latest reasoning about our irrational ways, an excellent New Yorker article, or this much shorter post on Marginal Revolution. Finally, the Economist’s Free Exchange has a very negative review that I think is wrong, as my comments above should illustrate. Its biggest complaint seems to be that Ariely doesn’t define what he means by rational, but if the writer missed that, I’m not sure he understood the book.For a descriptive but positive view, see The New York Times’ story, which is in the science rather than books section.EDIT: Dan Ariely’s visit was excellent, and I wrote about it here.

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