Dan Ariely’s book helps explain why people usually do the right thing… and why they sometimes don’t
If the educational animated series Schoolhouse Rock mated with the academic field of Behavioural Economics, the two would have a baby named Amazing Decisions.
The author of this inventive book, Dan Ariely, is a professor of cognitive psychology at Duke University, where he founded the Center for Advanced Hindsight. The research he conducts there puts human beings in situations that test their decision-making, and he’s written several books to explain the results of his studies.
This is the most accessible of Ariely’s books, which is what attracted my attention. Academics who consider it part of their job to disseminate their knowledge to the general public are my kind of academics.
A VISUAL approach
To put his ideas in the form of a comic book, Ariely worked with illustrator Matt R. Trower, who happens to be the resident illustrator at the Center for Advanced Hindsight. By looking at one average fictional guy – his name is Adam – this book shows how we are constantly negotiating two overlapping sets of unwritten rules in our lives – the social norms and the market norms.
It can lead to problems, and this book elucidates why.
Ariely’s findings about motivation can help us understand how to encourage the public to make prosocial decisions — such as deciding whether to abide by social distancing rules strictly, loosely, or not at all.
An evolving genre
This book is great for beginners to the field of behavioural economics, though it would probably not interest an expert. That’s why I like it so much. Illustrated nonfiction books is publishing trend that has yet to really take off, but I predict it will slowly build to become more than a neglected stepchild.
In a visual world, human intelligence is changing. It is no longer simply textual. By combining information with story and image, the information’s value increases exponentially. It’s easier to digest and more likely to be remembered and shared with others.
Art gets at the essence of an idea, and while a lot of panels in this illustrated comic are really just people talking, it still gets the point across in a more engaging way than page after page of dense text. Visual thinking is a form of cognition.
The essence of Ariely’s idea is really that people are social animals, and to reward their labour only through economic means is to demean their humanity and to deny them opportunities to take real pride in their work, support their coworkers and work toward a higher goal beyond earning a paycheque.
Becoming a better society
In the end, Adam comes to realize that monetary incentives will not solve our problems. And I came to realize that fining people for not respecting social distancing norms is a bad idea. It would create a situation where people will calculate the economic costs of their actions, rather than the social costs.
Why you should read this book
You should read this book if you’re a leader and want to create a prosocial environment during economically challenging times. It reveals how we can influence the decisions people make to create a healthier, happier and more sustainable organization or group.
But don’t think it will help you build a better bottom line. The irony is that it might, but thinking about the world that way doesn’t help!
I truly believe that in a post-pandemic world, organizations who want to attract qualified workers must create a prosocial environment and a place where people feel motivated to do the right thing rather than the profitable thing. It’s always been true, but the labour shortage and depressed market now will inevitably force new ways of thinking about work. Why not lead the way?