Over the last few days I’ve finished reading Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely a professor at Duke University in behavioural economics. What follows is a bit of a summary. In short, I enjoyed it and it’s reinforced an interest in questioning some of the assumptions that seem to underpin the current practice of L&T at Universities.

If you want more the Amazon page has reviews and more details. There is also a Wikipedia page. Lastly, the author has set up a site. There’s also a couple of online talks by the author including a TED talk and another on YouTube

What’s it about?

The title of the book summarises the book’s argument that human beings are not rational decision makers. In fact, we are irrational decision makers and we are even predictably irrational. i.e. the irrationality is systemic. The book draws on a range of experiments by the author and others to illustrate a number of aspects (or in the author’s words “forces”) of this predictable irrationality.

An important point to make is that we are all predictably irrational. It’s not just novice decision makers that are irrational, experts are as well.

The other major argument in the book is that traditional economics (and most of us in normal life) assume we are rational. This less than firm foundation is then used to derive guidelines, theories and rules of thumb by which to live our lives and make decisions. Guidelines that don’t work. Instead there is value in understanding and basing these guidelines and what is known about the predictable irrationality of human beings.

To a large extent, this is what the author’s field – behavioural economics – is about.

So what?

My current interest is in how to improve/innovation learning and teaching within a university (yea, somewhat sad as an interest, but that’s what they pay me for). For some time, I have believed that there has been a mismatch between the methods and approaches being used to improve L&T at a university and the nature of the individuals involved. This, admittedly populist, work gives me an overview of one field of research that is providing an empirical and theoretical foundation for this belief. It’s opening up further research and reading.

More importantly it provides a basis for an alternate approach for developing ideas about how to improve L&T that are different and hopefully more effective. An approach that believes

that people are susceptible to irrelevant influences from their immediate environment (which we call context effects), irrelevant emotions, shortsightedness, and other forms of irrationality

The book, like any book, isn’t without it’s flaws. For example, one of the reviews on Amazon complains about the experiments all mostly being done on students at top-flight American universities, rather than on a diversity of people. But none of the flaws are fatal.

Some examples from the book

The following are a few summaries of forces that effect rationality that are described within the book and that I feel may have some connection with the question of improving L&T at universities (actually, I’m only really currently interested in my current university).

Expectations of success

One of the chapters talks about the power of price and describes a range of experiments in which groups of students are given a special drink before performing some quizzes. Students who are given the impression that the drink is expensive do better than those who believe it is cut price.

Of interest to education, at least for me, is the last experiment in this sequence. In this experiment both groups were shown a range of bogus quotes/references suggesting that the drink can improve mental functioning and result in improved performance on puzzles. The bogus quotes also suggested that there were over 50 scientific studies supporting these claims.

Reading these quotes improved the performance of both groups (full and cut price). The implication being that an expectation of success can breed success.

When I read this section I thought back to those academics I’ve seen begin their courses with the following

Everyone, take a look at the person you are sitting next to you. By the end of term, only one of you will pass the course.

The assumption is that this will motivate the students to do better. I’ve always though, and most have agreed, that it would more likely de-motivate them.

In the last few times I taught a course I turned this around and told the students that each and everyone of them could obtain the top mark, if that’s what they wanted to. I would tell them that I’m here to help you get that top mark, but you have to help.

This was driven by the “communicate high expectations” principle from Chickering and Gamson’s (1987) seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. But this seems to give another bit of support.

In my current context, I see a lot of difficulty with the act of successfully designing and delivering a course. A difficulty which I believe is probably decreasing any expectations of success. Looking at how this can be addressed, would seem important.


Associated with expectations, are stereotypes

Research on stereotypes shows not only that we react differently when we have a stereotype of a certain group of people, but also that stereotyped people themselves react differently when they are aware of the label that they are forced to wear (in psychological parlance, they are “primed” with this label).(Ariely, 2008 p169)

I’ve seen staff develop and be guided by stereotypes of their students, I’ve even suffered from this. However, recently I’ve been observing a different group of people with stereotypes, or at least on their way to building stereotypes. The managers of academics and the professional support staff (e.g. information technology folk, quality assurance folk) telling war stories and jokes about useless academics getting things wrong or being willful.

Based on the research in this book, I fear how these stereotypes are influencing the decisions being made by these folk around L&T. I also know that most academics are aware of these stereotypes and I fear how this is impacting upon them and their practice of L&T.

Social and economic norms

One of the chapters talks about norms. It suggests that there are two sets of norms: social and economic. The case of love is used as an illustration. Within social norms you don’t pay for it and you expect it to be based on love. Within economic norms, payment is required and the question of love doesn’t arise. (a simple summary).

The argument is that

When social and market norms collide, trouble sets in. (Ariely, 2008, p69)

. The book describes a series of experiments in which it is found that participants will work harder when operating under non-monetary social norms than for money under economic norms.

The book also references some experiments around a day care centre in Israel to demonstrate that the introduction of economic norms has long-term effects. A quick summary of the case:

  • Day care centre had a problem with parent picking their kids up late.
  • A fine was introduced, if you were late you had to pay the fine.
  • The introduction of the fine increased the prevalence of late pickups.
  • Parent’s started to see the fine as a fee and consequently felt less guilty about late pickups. They were paying for a service. They no longer felt guilty about transgressing a social norm.
  • After removing the fine, late pickups increased a little more. The social norms had been left behind for the economic.

A lot has been written about how the university world is being invaded by economic norms. The old social norms are being replaced. It doesn’t take much to see a potential connection with the above, both for students and staff.

Arbritrary coherence and anchors

A chapter titled “The Fallacy of Supply and Demand” argues that most of our decisions are governed by arbitrary coherence and can be influenced by anchors.

The basic idea is that rather than making independent decisions, each time we make a decision there will be a coherence with previous decisions. In n example from economics, if we paid $X for a house in city Y, if we move to city Z, we’ll still want/expect to pay around $X for a house.

Our decisions are “anchored” by previous decisions and this can be achieved even by unrelated figures. This paper in the Journal of Surgical Education describes an experiment conducted with medical students.

For improving L&T this connects, at least for me, with the observation that most applications of technology to teaching are examples of either horseless carriages or old wine in new skins. Ariely suggests reflection on previous decisions as an important step to escape this

Socrates said that the unexamined life is not worth living. Perhaps it’s time to inventory the imprints and anchors in our own life. Even if they once were completely reasonable, are they still reasonable? Once the old choices are reconsidered, we can open ourselves to new decisions – and the new opportunities of a new day. That seems to make sense. (Ariely, 2008, pp44-45)


One of the humorous suggestions from the book that most people will comment upon is this

What if you are single, and hope to appeal to as many attractive potential dating partners as possible at an upcoming singles event? My advice would be to bring a friend who has your basic physical characteristics (similar coloring, body type, facial eatures), but is slightly less attractive (-you). (Ariely, 2008, p15)

This is brought back to the observation that we compare things when trying to make decisions. We don’t judge things solely on their own merit, we compare them with other example. A new job in a new university with the current job in our current university.

Apart from this inability to avoid comparison, there’s another important point

we not only tend to compare things within one another but also tend to focus on comparing things that are easily comparable – and avoid comparing things that cannot be compared easily (Ariely, 2008 p 8)

i.e. if you go to a singles event with a slightly uglier version of yourself, you are much more likely to be selected by the other singles as it is easier for them to compare the two similar objects, than the others.


Ariely, D. (2008). Predictably irrational: The hidden forces that shape our decisions. New York, Harper Collins.

Chickering, A. W. and Z. F. Gamson (1987). “Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education.” AAHE Bulletin 39(7): 3-7.