Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Quick Thoughts:
  1. This is an older book, originally published in the 1980's.  You can tell because many of the author's examples come that period and earlier.  However, this really doesn't take away from the basic power of his arguments, just the points of reference he uses to support his positions.
  2. This book is touted as being for marketing professionals.  I can see why, it deals with how sales professionals get to yes, but it goes further than that by including examples of influence in politics and religious cults.
  3. What is brilliant about this book is the author's approach to the subject.  He is a Ph.D in marketing and psychology.  So he has much original research to bring to the table on persuasive influence, plus he is well read on other studies in the subject.  But, he takes things to the next level when he spends much of his time posing as a new sales hire and working for car dealers, door-to-door sales, and other high pressure sales jobs.  He goes through sales training and learns the techniques that they teach.  And he watches the best sales people he can find in the field.  When he sees a technique 'work', he designs a research experiment to see why it worked and if he can identify the principal that made it work.  This makes him especially well-suited to write this book.  And his technique works because the book is a really great read.
  4. An aspect of the book I particularly liked is that the author recommends specific methods that the reader can use to render the sales techniques useless.  They were a few that I think most of us already know, but a good defense to an shifty salesperson is a worthwhile thing to have.
  5. The writing is convincing, entertaining, and I dare-say useful.  Example examples/anecdotes are sprinkled throughout the book combined with really interesting experimental evidence.  And the author's insights just keep on coming.
  6. If you have an interest in marketing/sales, this book is block and tackle stuff and should be read.  However, this isn't why I picked up the book.  I'm really interested in market failures especially given the cliff diving we went through in 2008.  It seems to me that market failures are really about human failings.  The fact that we are subject to persuasion attempts and will act in ways that are against our interests is another aspect of our failings.  Are these irrationalities enough to discredit the market economy?  I don't think so, but I'd like to believe that we can figure out ways to protect people from the greater excesses of the market while enabling us to enjoy its benefits.  I can't say this book brought me any closer to 'fixing' our free market society.  But it does have some real insights into why we behave the way we do.  For that, it was worth the read.

Irrational Exuberance

Quick Thoughts:
  1. This is an older book, originally issued in 2000, updated and re-issued in 2005, and then re-issued with no substantial update in 2009.  The timing for the 2000 and 2005 releases is pretty incredible given that the book is basically about stock market/housing bubbles.  He warns that the markets are significantly over-valued.  And he was right.
  2. What's really interesting about this book is how the author blends work on behavioral economics with finance.  Students of finance are always introduced to the Efficient Market theory which is basically the idea that investors are rational and will make rational plays in the market.  Frankly, its a core assumption for much of the hard mathematical work of finance.  So this book takes finance and blends it with the core assumption of behavioral economics that people will behave irrationally.
  3. So you can guess where this going.  Financial markets can and will behave irrationally.  The author is pretty clear that we can't know the exact reasons for the creation of "bubbles", certainly not with mathematical precision.  But, he does make it clear that certain behaviors repeated over and over again, make it a certainty that markets will become over-valued.  He adds that once its realized by enough people, watch out below.
  4. The book does a good job of chronicling historical market run-ups and how they are treated by the greater investing public and the press.  He also takes studies in behavioral economics and uses them to illustrate specific irrational aspects of market history.  Then he has his own studies which he cites that very convincingly demolish the idea that financial market participants are fully rational in their trades.
  5. The book is definitely on the dry side.  I'm lucky to be reading it on a commute with no significant distractions.  I wouldn't make this beach reading.  That said, I think the book's points are well taken and I'd definitely recommend it to anybody who is playing the investment game.  His thoughts are excellent and should make you ask key questions about your investment strategy.  It will also help to make you more aware of the forces in the overall market that can really damage your portfolio.

The Paradox of Choice: Why More Is Less

Quick Thoughts:
  1. Excellently written, well argued, entertaining, and likely correct.
  2. I really enjoyed the way that the author blended in study after study to prove his case.
  3. Bottom-line.  This book is well worth reading by anyone and everyone.  He proves that the number of choices we have increases our discontent.  The strategies that the author recommends for dealing with choices are well-thought out given the scope of the problem.

Bursts: The Hidden Pattern Behind Everything We Do

Quick Thoughts:
  1. This is a quick and entertaining read.
  2. The author seems to believe that people are on the cusp of being extremely predictable.  In some ways, he continues the the same assault on bell curves that was in 'The Black Swan'.  He believes that we function by way of 'power rules' which basically mean that we do things in bursts (Hence the title of the book).
  3. I felt that the author was getting ahead of himself.  The best evidence in the book came from his research into cell phone records.  His team used them to see where people are when they make calls and found that they could predict (with an accuracy between 80% and 95%) where the person would be next.
  4. That sounds pretty impressive, and the author goes on to suggest all the positive/negative things people/companies/governments could do with this information.  
  5. This seems about as accurate as predicting the weather.  It really breaks down if you try to carry the prediction out over time.  If patterns were static this kind of information would be very powerful.  But patterns change all the time.  People move, have kids, change jobs, meet new people, etc...  Any of these life events can significantly change our movement patterns and completely screw up somebody's algorithm for predicting where people will be.  Also, is 80% predictable a good algorithm?  I think we're farther away from making good predictions than the author believes.
  6. I feel like the author confirmed, with data, what police detectives have known for awhile.  If you follow a person, chances are they will go to the same places, on the same days, at the same times.  If want to know where they will be, look at their history.
  7. The author blends the history of a failed crusade that resulted in lots of bloodshed.  I'm not convinced that it helped his overall points about our predictability.  I found the history lesson entertaining and a nice break from his research presentation.  I kept hoping he would find some brilliant way to connect the two themes of his book (The history lesson with the research presentation).  If he did, then I missed it.