A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior

I passed another Coursera course last month.

Last year I wrote about my experience doing a Coursera course. Most of that still applies so I wont repeat it all here, but I thought I’d share some of the differences.

I did a couple of Coursera courses last year. They were both fairly technical topics: Natural Language Processing and Machine Learning.

This time I wanted to try something a little different: A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior. No coding this time – it was described in the course overview as:

…learn about some of the many ways in which people behave in less than rational ways, and how we might overcome these problems

What the course covered

The course covered some fascinating topics.

It started with an introduction to irrationality, and the sorts of reasons why people can make reasons against their own best interests. It covered the effects of defaults, the psychological impact of opt-ins versus opt-outs, and other reasons that can influence our preferences.

It covered economic irrationality, with a variety of aspects of the psychology of money, such as opportunity cost and loss aversion. What is the impact of making something free, what effects do micro-payments have, what makes us more or less comfortable with paying for things, and much more.

There was a week on dishonesty – understanding some of the ways that people rationalise lying, cheating or stealing, how to use this to reduce such dishonesty, and the impacts on people’s actions in ways such as conflicts of interest.

Perhaps my favourite week was the week on motivation – understanding the different aspects that influence people’s motivation to work. The impact of pay and bonuses were covered, but also a wide range of factors that are more significant. (The lectures and reading for this week should be required training for managers. 😉 )

Other topics included self-control, and understanding why people struggle with things such as procrastination. There was also a week on the impact of emotions, the different mental states and the impact they have on our decisions and actions.


The course was eight weeks long. The course overview said that the workload would be 7 – 10 hours a week which sounds about right. As before, completing the course was a significant time commitment.

Most of how the course was delivered was the same as the courses I’ve written about before: video lectures with required reading and weekly tests. This course also had a final exam, which you could only attempt once, unlike the normal weekly tests which let you try again several times, albeit with a new different set of questions each time.

There were also assignments. In other coursera courses that I’ve taken, these were marked by an automated grader. For less technical courses written assignments need to be assessed by a human. As a free course being taken by tens of thousands of people, this obviously can’t be done by the lecturer, so they use peer marking. As well as submitting your own written assignment, you need to mark some from other people on the course.

(You are also asked to mark your own assignments, after marking other people’s. Interestingly, the lowest mark that I got was the one that I gave myself. 🙂 )


I enjoyed the course. It introduced me to a lot of new and interesting ideas. It was time-consuming, and difficult to fit in at times, but was absolutely worth it.


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