Cowen’s writing is conversational, as if he was making observations of life. (If my macroeconomics classes had been this way!) Dubner’s “Freakonomics” is more audacious (and recommended) while Landsburg’s “More Sex is Safer Sex” is interesting only as a thought experiment; see my review on it.
A recurring theme in the book is how we send signals. For example, when visiting a new restaurant, he suggests asking the waiter the simple question, “what is best?” If there is any hesitation, then maybe it’s not the restaurant for you.
In an ethnic restaurant, where there may be a cultural barrier to using this technique, he suggests some research may greatly improve your experience by _signal_ling you are an atypical, discriminating, serious customer. For example, in a Sichuan restaurant, he might request they “bring me the food of Chengdu.” Chicken kidneys with XO sauce will certainly be better prepared than the Kung Pao. As Michael Palin has said before, the local specialty is always the best choice.
More generally, when in a fancy (expen$ive) restaurant, order the ugly and unknown. The restaurant includes pedestrian foods (e.g. chicken fingers) for the diner unwilling to venture outside of their comfort zone. The menu is well thought out. If an unusual item is on the menu, it’s there for a reason, perhaps it’s a specialty.
Other sections are well worth reading. For example, he notes that long-term relationships always have a healthy dose of selective forgetfulness (“mental aggradation”); otherwise, people will dwell on the slightest slights.
A more economical example, pertinent for the holidays, is the overestimation of the utility of a “gym membership.” He cites a survey of 7,752 gym member spread among three health clubs and three years. Under one contract, a customer paying $70/month might attend once a week, or about $17 a visit. A ten-visit pass (at $10/visit) would be more economical, except because people are unwilling to confront their illusion about how much they will actually attend, they opt for the more expensive choice. Similarly, once they stop going, the average person will spend another 2 1/2 month before formally canceling membership.