Amazing Decisions is a book that aims to explain the advantages social norms have over market norms in encouraging people to be good employees, neighbors, and friends. A gender non-specific character named Dana is our guide through exploring these concepts, namely through improving the life of Adam, who seems to be named in clear reference to economist and philosopher Adam Smith. Adam’s problem is that he tries to apply the logic of market norms to social situations, blundering through first dates, family dinners, and his own birthday party. For example, in appreciation of a wonderful Thanksgiving meal, he offers to pay his mother-in-law $300, and doesn’t understand why she ends up in tears. His attempt at trying to turn a social situation into a market situation has offended his host. With the help of Dana and two fairies, one representing social norms and one representing market norms, Adam learns about many research studies regarding people’s motivations as they relate to monetary compensation and social rewards.
The book is broken down into nine chapters, each examining similar concepts in different situations. There’s a certain redundancy to the ways that some concepts are explained within the chapters that make me feel as if many of these chapters could have been streamlined or condensed for clarity. However, there is a certain amusement in seeing Adam repeatedly stumble through situations before correctly summarizing the relevant concepts, Dana squeezing him with joy and excitement at his comprehension. Amazing Decisions doesn’t aim to merely introduce the concepts to readers, but to teach them, so that they may comprehend and apply the concepts rather than just restate them. The tone of the book is a little bit corny, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing–just a bit of playful, over-exaggerated storytelling in service to the concepts being communicated.
Though some of the examples given, such as the Thanksgiving dinner situation, are kind of silly, I appreciated them alongside the actual examples from research studies. It becomes fairly easy to identify examples from one’s personal life. If someone does you a favor, a sincere thank you card or a favor in kind will build a much stronger social relationship than it would to offer to pay someone for their services. At its core, Amazing Decisions is about trust—the trust that someone will reciprocate the generosity you express, and that kindness and appreciation will be repaid with more kindness. In the case of work relationships, when employers give social rewards to their employees, such as daycare benefits or an expenses-paid vacation, employers build on social norms in order to make employees feel more connected to and dedicated to their work, so that they will work hard because they take pride in their work, not because they are being paid well.
The last example used was a compelling research case about voting, discussing research about Facebook. When Facebook shared that a user’s friends had voted, the user was more likely to report that they had voted, as compared to Facebook sharing that a large number of Facebook users voted. In this case, seeing that one’s friends voted presented voting as a social norm, which encourages others to vote. While there was a discrepancy between who reported that they voted and who actually voted, users receiving the positive social message from Facebook did have a slight increased voting rate. From Thanksgiving dinners to employee bonuses to shaping the future of our country, Ariely very effectively demonstrates how these issues scale up, highlighting the research that has been conducted to support using social norms to your advantage.
The art style reminds me a lot of webcomics like Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. The art is pretty straightforward and simple—its purpose is to clearly communicate the concepts, which it does effectively by avoiding things like distracting backgrounds. It’s easy to focus on what’s being communicated and the art supports the arguments being made and the research being presented. However, I’m a little puzzled by the decision to render all of the art in grayscale. Shading is used inconsistently for characters, making it appear as if their skin tones are constantly shifting. Color would have been helpful to make the art appear a little less flat.
Reading this comic book might take longer than reading a research paper or even a blog post, but I think the format effectively keeps the reader interested and engaged. Notes are provided at the end of the book with the cited research for folks who are interested in a bit heavier reading. Amazing Decisions is not one of those books that gives you a “eureka” moment of understanding, but the more situations you consider—climate change policies, healthcare, and even library fines—the more applicable and relevant it is to innumerable aspects of our lives.
Amazing Decisions: The Illustrated Guide to Improving Business Deals and Family Meals
By Dan Ariely
Art by Matt Trower
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019
NFNT Age Recommendation: Teen (13-16), Older Teen (16-18), Adult (18+)
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Creator Highlights: LGBTQIA+ Creator