Newly published books turn up in the mail once or twice a week, sometimes in clumps, as when a half-dozen romance novels just released in paperback arrived in one brown paper sack. Of course, there are books published by Islanders, fiction, non-fiction, and mysteries. There are also memoirs, lots of memoirs, and not necessarily by neighbors. Everyone, on and off Island, has a personal story to tell, apparently one we need to read.
There are books published about beaches, about walking tours, about sea glass, about Vineyard bicycle tours, about yacht racers, about birds, about architecture and stylish decorating, about cruising destinations or fishing tackle - all topics the publishers think will appeal to Vineyarders. Add to these the self-help books: how to tame your teenager, educate your parent, demystify your spouse, test your lover, get along with your boss, make friends with your colleagues at work, stop your overeating, end your under-exercising, lighten your depression, depress your mania, trim your tendency to procrastinate, end your obsession with cleanliness, pare your carbon footprint, cure your irreligion, restrain your evangelism, and on and on. Who says Americans aren't trying to be better?
Times reviewers pick and choose. Here a potboiler, there a bodice ripper. Now, a sandcastle construction manual, then a cookbook about the virtues of everyday roadside weeds in recipes that will certainly wow your green-minded guests. All in all, I suppose we give the nod to maybe ten percent of the contestants.
A week ago, the mail brought "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions," by Dan Ariely (Harper Collins, New York, 2008, $25.95). On the face of it, I suspected it was two parts psycho-babble, three parts conspiracy theories. I was wrong, but the title was printed vertically on the dust cover, a graphic affectation obviously designed in an irrational moment by an art school escapee who, if she had a soul, would be embarrassed to see a potential reader twisting the book round and round to figure out what was intended. Nevertheless, the two words were familiar to me. Predictable - as in, God, you are so predictable - and irrational - as in, You're completely irrational - are words I've heard before. And, though I am wary of people who talk to me about hidden forces, I am thoroughly committed to the existence of hidden forces, so, first impressions be damned, I had a look.
Mr. Ariely is the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of behavioral economics at MIT. He works in the university's media laboratory and for MIT's Sloan School of Management. As if that where insufficient, he is also a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston and a visiting professor at Duke. He wrote Predictably Irrational while he was a fellow at the Institute for Advance Study at Princeton. Mr. Ariely's book is about you and me, about human decision making at the individual level, about how we generally believe that we are capable of making rational decisions and that such decisions are the best ones that men and woman can make. But, it is also about how so many of the decisions that we actually make defy what is rational and are instead governed by judgments or patterns of belief or understanding that are irrational, and predictably so.
"Understanding irrationality is important for our everyday actions and decisions, and for understanding how we design our environment and the choices it presents to us," Mr. Ariely explains. Indeed, we're less rational than we're capable of being, less rational than we think we are, and after our behavior is tested scientifically, a basis forms for predicting not the rational behavior one might expect when confronted with a choice, but the irrational behavior to which we repeatedly resort. We are repeatedly and predictably irrational.
If you have in your attic a moldy copy of the 1970s-vintage Vineyard secession flag - the one with the seagull on it - you might embroider that last, brief sentence on it. Think of it: six towns, the smallest with fewer than 200 residents; six town governments, six planning boards, six police forces, six zoning boards, six fire departments, six municipal budgets, five elementary/middle schools; six school committees, all more or less at odds with one another; and a county layer of government larded over all this, and ever hopeful, I suppose, that it will be given something meaningful to do, but not audaciously hopeful any longer. We are repeatedly and predictably irrational: that's the Vineyard motto.
Mr. Ariely describes how we behave when confronting choices. He tests such familiar though often ignored puzzles as: "Why we overvalue what we have." "Why we can't make ourselves do what we want to do." "Why we often pay too much when we pay nothing." What is often revealed by the simple, but clever experiments he and his colleagues and students devise is how often we are moved, as individuals and collectively, to behave in ways that reason would certainly insist are antithetical to our interests.