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Dan Ariely Takes on 'Irrational' Economic Impulses

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely was an 18-year-old soldier in the Israeli Army when a magnesium flare he was standing near exploded, leaving him with third-degree burns on seventy percent of his body. Ariely's painful, three-year rehabilitation in a hospital burn unit left him feeing like an outsider.

"I started looking at everything as strange," he told the National Post earlier this month. "Why do we hold glasses like this? Why do we give people compliments? Everything was all of a sudden strange. I felt as if I was like a little alien coming and looking at things in a new perspective, and not understanding."

Eventually, that puzzle became a pursuit that would guide Ariely's academic life at MIT and other American universities.

Ariely's new book, Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, examines the dramatic difference between real-life decision making and decision making as economists conceive of it.

According to Dan Ariely, classic economic models assume that people act rationally, in their own best interests. Ariely begs to differ. He says we're creatures of impulse, who waste money, underestimate risks and procrastinate.

Ariely hopes his studies — which cover everything from all-you-can-eat buffets to unprotected sex — will teach us how to overcome, or at least avoid, misguided impulses.

This reading of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions was recorded in February 2008 at the Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington DC.

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Neda Ulaby
Neda Ulaby reports on arts, entertainment, and cultural trends for NPR's Arts Desk.