I am particularly fascinated by the illogical and non-scientific components of human decision making — even among logicians and scientists. Three of my favorite books have to do with this, and I recommend them to anyone who has not read them – particularly if they are involved in engineering, science, or business and concerned with product quality. They are not fresh off the press, but I recently looked through them, and was again pleased with their style and message.
The first two, Predictable Uncertainty, by Dan Ariely, and Nudge, by Richard Thaler, and Cass Sunstein, are often associated with behavioral economics (see the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman discussed in my post of Dec 15, 2011). Ariely’s book, which reposed in the New York Times top seller list for a considerable time, contains a wondrous collections of examples of “illogical” decision_making drawn from research in the field and thought-provoking facts (a tape measure once owned by John F. Kennedy went for $48,875 dollars at an auction, and the 70th home run ball hit by Mark McGwire for three million at another one). Arieli’s background was originally in psychology, although he at one point also earned a Ph,D in business. He now holds forth as a Professor at Duke and in many other locations.
Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge, is a professor in the Chicago School of Economics, with a background in economics and is a behavior economist. He obviously a stong person, because one does not think of this school as a wondrously supportive environment for behavioral economists. Cass Sunstein is a Law Professor at Harvard, although he is now on leave as part of President Obama’s staff (Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) where he is attempting to better apply the messages in the book . Among other things the book proposes (and backs up) the amazing power of small interventions to change people’s behavior. An example is the difference between requiring effort to volunteer organs on death (complete a form that you are willing to donate), vs requiring effort to not volunteer (complete a form that you are not willing to donate) . The resulting difference is huge, and for many reasons. But at least in California, we are using the wrong approach and complaining about the scarcity of transplant organs. Nudge is in a sense a bit more applied than Predictable Uncertainty, but built on the same principles.
The third book, How Pleasure Works, was written by Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology at Yale, It is also extremely pertinent to Product Quality. The first two books bear more on how and why people make decisions, this one is more about the mechanics of and reasons for emotional response. Bloom talks about origins of emotion, and how strongly and why people respond to non-functional aspects of objects – authenticity, rarity, history, uniqueness, and essences of objects that are based on our experiences and our species.
All three of these books are beautifully written, and amusing to read. The reader cannot help by identify with the examples. We often come across “silly” behavior in experiments and situations, only to realize that we either also act in that way, or might if put in the situation. These books guarantee a great deal of such experiences. An example might be the increased value placed on something one owns, such as a used and faithful automobile) versus what one might pay for an identical object one does not own (an identical car on a used car lot) – this often appears in the discrepancy between asking price from an owner and offer from a prospective buyer.
Buttons representing each book are on the right side of the blog under recommended books, and clicking on them will take you rapidly to the appropriate Amazon page, should you want more information.