Sometimes “Irrational” is just “Emotional”

“Predictably Irrational,” a book by M.I.T. Economist and Federal Reserve researcher Dan Ariely, has been the talk of the geekerati in recent weeks. The book, in its seventh week on The New York Times best seller list, has been the subject of commentary in professional media from the Financial Times to NPR, and is now a hot topic among the online elite.

From the book’s Web site:

Do you know why we so often promise ourselves to diet and exercise, only to have the thought vanish when the dessert cart rolls by?

Do you know why we sometimes find ourselves excitedly buying things we don’t really need?

Do you know why we still have a headache after taking a five-cent aspirin, but why that same headache vanishes when the aspirin costs 50 cents?…

By the end of this book, you’ll know the answers to these and many other questions that have implications for your personal life, for your business life, and for the way you look at the world.”

The book is well written and insightful, but reading it I couldn’t help but think over and over again that it was really a book about branding written by a mathematician who – working deep below the earth in an undisclosed location insulated from brands of any kind – had somehow uncovered the existence of brands through an elaborate mathematical proof.

If you replaced every instance of the word “irrational” in this book with the word “emotional,” it would loses 80% of the revelatory irony that forms its spine, to the point of making observation after observation which would seem plainly obvious to your average small agency Account Coordinator.

“People love free, even when they’re not getting much!” Thanks, Bernbach. Duh.

The question worth pondering here, at least from a marketing perspective, is why even really smart people still don’t get the brand thing. Why is it so hard to grok the concept of assigning emotional value to something, beyond whatever rational utility one derives from it? And is doing so really “irrational,” or is it just a function of the fact that, for better or worse, we are all emotional beings?



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