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Predictably Irrational

This is a book review and commentary on “Predictably Irrational – The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” Dan Ariely. 
Great book.  Recommended reading.

In his fascinating book, “Predictably Irrational – The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions” Dan Ariely scientifically documents our flawed human decision-making process.  His focus is primarily a new field of research called behavioral economics.  He empirically examines individuals’ decision-making processes related to a wide range of issues with implications far beyond mere economics; some of the more provocative topics are listed below:

  • The Cost of Zero Cost
    • Why we often pay too much when we pay nothing
  • The Cost of Social Norms
    • Why we are happy to do things, but not when we are paid to do them
  • The Influence of [sexual] arousal and passion
    • Why sound decision-making is abandoned by the emotions of the moment
  • The effect of expectations
    • Why a person gets what he expects
  • The nature of our character
    • Why we are dishonest

His ­conclusion is startlingly clear:

…we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend.  We usually think of ourselves … but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires … than with reality.
… Just as we can’t help being fooled by visual illusions, we fall for the “decision illusions” our minds show us.  … we comprehend … not necessarily a true reflection of reality.

A second main lesson is that … irrationality is commonplace.

Irrationality, a lack of accord with reason or sound judgment,[1] is a form of insanity, and it’s inherent in all of us.  Dr. Ariely scientifically demonstrates that we are all insane!  This conclusion is exactly what Paul teaches in Romans 7:18-20:

… I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.  For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. …

According to Paul, we do not do good – we do not act with reason and sound judgment – even when we want to, because of our inherently sinful nature.  Thus we act irrationally, that is insanely, because of our sinful nature.  Our insanity is a manifestation of our original sin and still controls our behavior.  Just as radio astronomers can detect faint echoes of the creation in the cosmic background, we can detect echoes of Adam’s fall in our personal background.

The False Cure

The problem arises with Dr. Ariely’s proposed solution to the personal conundrum he demonstrates so effectively.  He proposes a palliative social solution, one of deception and manipulation:

Once we understand when and where we may make erroneous decisions, we can try to be more vigilant, force ourselves to think differently about these decisions, or use technology to overcome our inherent shortcomings.  This is also where businesses and policy makers could revise their thinking and consider how to design their policies and products…

  • We can force ourselves to think differently?
    • His experiments demonstrate otherwise.
  • We can use technology to overcome our inherent shortcomings?
    • We’ll twist technology to justify our warped decision-making instead of the other way around.
  • Businesses can redesign policies and products to achieve desired goals?
    • Deception and manipulation on a social and cultural scale is ultimately destined for slavery and ultimate failure.

Not surprisingly, Dr. Ariely’s “solution” falls victim to the very problem he himself identified:  We think of ourselves with ultimate control but our perception has more to do with wishful thinking than with reality!  Unlike the little engine that could, we’re the little engine that can’t.
“I think I can, I think I can, I think I can,” we keep repeating to ourselves.
But we invariably fail whenever we meet even the slightest resistance – a truth so aptly measured and documented by Dr. Ariely himself in his experiments!

The Real Cure

The Christian solution, in contrast, attacks the root cause of the problem, sin, directly:

Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Act2:38)

The Holy Spirit provides supernatural assistance so we really can overcome.

Jesus warned in Mat 18:7-9 

“Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!  And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire.  And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 

Clearly we are participants in something we fail to comprehend.  This is serious business.  Better to live crippled than to continue sinning?  Better to tear out your eye than to continue sinning?  Woe to us all!

Jesus continues in Mat 11:28-29: 

“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

What rational overworked laborer can possibly refuse an offer of rest?  But we are irrational and sinful as described in the Bible and as demonstrated by Dan Ariely; therefore we don’t do what is good for us, but what is bad.  We find it so easy to reject the only help that can save us and choose to continue in our agony.  Now that is insanity!

Christ has dealt with sin on the Cross.  He promises to do the same for us in us, to deal with our personal sins, with our irrational behavior.  He is waiting at the door of our soul and knocking, but we must first let Him in.

Sound ridiculous and impossible?  It isn’t.  Just ask

  • The addict who escaped addiction through Christ Jesus.
  • The criminal who repented and was redeemed by Jesus.
  • The “incurably” sick miraculously healed,
  • The revived dead living hale and hearty.

Just ask anyone who has had a personal saving experience with Christ Jesus, and he will testify to His truth.[2]

Furthermore, Jesus throws in a free bonus to boot!  All one has to do is believe and receive a bonus of eternal life of joy.  That’s right, nothing more is required except to believe in The Truth.  Now that is good news indeed.  …unfortunately for many people it’s easier to believe in ineffective rituals because doing so does not require abandoning one’s illusion of control.

The Proof

One of the fascinating experiments conducted by Dr. Ariely actually confirms the power of the Christian solution.  Specifically, Dr. Ariely measured our inherent tendency to cheat on a test with and without a brief reminder of The Ten Commandments beforehand.  Those individuals who had been reminded of The Ten Commandments didn’t cheat at all, whereas the others cheated to the extent they felt they could do so undetected.  The results surprised and puzzled Dan Ariely, who appears to approach these matters from a secular humanist perspective.  Nevertheless, he finally concluded:

But what a miracle the Ten Commandments had wrought!  We didn’t even remind our participants what the commandments were – we just asked each participant to recall them (and almost none of the participants could recall all 10).  … It took us a few weeks to come to some conclusions.

For one, perhaps we could bring the Bible back into public life.  If we only want to reduce dishonesty, it might not be a bad idea.  (Ch. 13, P. 284)  

How much more ethical could our society be if we taught our children God’s commandments in school!  Imagine the reduction in crime rate, teen pregnancy, abortion, and a myriad of other social illnesses we are battling as a society.  Imagine.


The more ethical the members of a society, the fewer laws needed to govern them, and the freer the people.[3]  However, if we individually cannot control our sinful nature and we continue to push personal ethical boundaries, a superior authority (the state) will step in and try maintain order by enacting progressively more onerous controls.  Without a personal change of course, without repentance by each of our citizens as taught by Christ Jesus), ultimately all of us will become slaves oppressed by the state in the name of law and order!

How ironic that in the name of freedom we enslave ourselves, but reject the true freedom which results from ethical living because we simply refuse to exercise self-control and submit ourselves to God’s authority through Christ Jesus.  How ironic that we as a nation are becoming more intolerant of the Truth and tolerant of falsehood in the name open-mindedness, ultimately dooming our children to a life of intolerant slavery and tyranny!

Nevertheless we as a nation continue to rush headlong to strip God’s laws from our public lives, like a stampeding herd of buffalo.  Would our society not be better served to do the opposite?  Are we not acting against our own best interests?  Are we socially insane?

All is not as it looks!


[1] Definition of irrationality:

  1. Not endowed with reason.
  2. Affected by loss of usual or normal mental clarity; incoherent, as from shock.
  3. Marked by a lack of accord with reason or sound judgment: an irrational dislike.

[3] For example, when all conflicts are resolved without murders because of everyone’s ingrained personal ethics against violence, there is no need for any laws against murder.

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