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Two Books Worth Reading

Here Comes Everybody, by Clay Shirky. In retrospect, it’s surprising that it took this long for Clay to write a book. Given my past run-ins with his postulations, I approached the book with some skepticism. It won me over, though, because, unlike when he’s addressing issues of information science, when he talks about social software and social movements online, he knows what he’s talking about. In some ways, this is Smart Mobs 6 years later (which I blogged extensively at the time.)

Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely. However much I liked Here Comes Everybody, I actually believe this to be a more important, and fundamental, book. It’s a quick read — a few hours at most. It details a series of experiments that the author, with a variety of colleagues, conducted in order to probe the economic irrationality of humans. It turns out much of our economic behavior makes little rational sense. Thankfully, Ariely doesn’t propose any explanations for this irrationality (many others would be tempted to weave some evolutionary psychobabble)… But he does propose a set of implications, usually having to do with regulating our economy, because if people are simply not going to be rational, a “free market” ends up doing harm, because it inadvertently (or not) takes advantage of such irrationality. Ariely maintains an active blog on this subject.

I enjoyed the insights Ariely provides into understand human behavior. My only frustration with the book is that, because Ariely treats the population as a whole, and he’s interested in how populations behave, he doesn’t provide any insights into classes of people, and I think it would be interesting to know if there are, say, people who *do* behave rationally, and what characteristics do they possess?

  1. Now, seriously, Peter, just how long to you really have to think about it? If you don’t already know of a class or category of people who make only rational choices, then there is none. Life is not a mystery for some writer to solve.

    Human beings are hard wired with emotions, tastes, instincts and appetites. What little reason we possess is continuously rattled by fears and tempted by comforts. And who is to say it should be otherwise? It is what it is.

  2. I don’t doubt that we’re hardwired with any number of things. But humans, like *all* life forms, are variant and various. We’re not all the same. And understand those differences is as, if not more, interesting than understanding the samenesses.

    In Ariely’s studies, it’s clear that he’s presenting averages. An average is just that. Which means there are outliers, people one, two standard deviations from the mean. What are the characteristics of those people? Is there something to be learned there?

    Dr Philip Zimbardo, most famous for the Stanford Prison Experiment, is now studying what it means to be a hero. He recognized that there are people who do not respond the way most of us do, and that they respond the way many of us *wish* we’d respond when put in dire situations. It’s an intriguing line of inquiry.

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