I generally find that non-fiction works are difficult to follow in the audiobook format. Perhaps it’s because non-fiction books remind the reader of college lectures, so there’s an impulse to take notes. Perhaps it’s because they tend to be dryer than fiction, so it’s harder to pay attention; a good reader who can portray different characters with his or her voice can make oral fiction come alive. Or perhaps it’s because of the long tradition of reading stories aloud, going back to one’s childhood, which automatically associates reading aloud with stories. In any case, I usually limit my audiobook listening to works of fiction.
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely, was an exception. I gave it a try, and it turned out that this popularization of behavioral economics survived the oral/aural approach pretty well. It’s consistently interesting, it is easy to listen to, and it contains plenty of stories — mostly anecdotes of various experiments in which Ariely shows that humans don’t really behave in ways that other economists say we do. More importantly, we don’t behave the way we think we do. Ariely is an engaging writer, being both clear and amusing — not the two words that usually spring to mind when describing an economist’s writing. Many of his conclusions are so clear that the reader or listener is likely to say, “Oh, of course; I knew that.” But the evidence shows that we didn’t know it ahead of time; it’s just after the fact that it seems we knew it all along.
The inevitable comparisons are with Freakonomics and with Malcolm Gladwell’s books. Predictably Irrational is more tightly focused than Freakonomics, though it thereby runs the risk of seeming narrower; it has more depth than either of the Gladwell books that I’ve read, neither of which I can remember at this point. I’m not going to be forgetting Predictably Irrational.