Yet another reason to love Tyler Cowen’s blogging

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I don’t know anything about economics, but I’m fascinated by the field for its often counterintuitive insights into things everybody thinks we already know.  That’s why I love reading Marginal Revolution, the wonderful and entertaining blog by Tyler Cowen, author of the just-released Discover Your Inner Economist.  In this morning’s post, Cowen reports on an interesting experiment in the economics of information: whether you can, in fact, judge a book by its cover:

I saw this and thought I should buy the book — Kate Christensen’s novel The Great Man — just because I liked the cover.  As an experiment, I deliberately did not scan the contents or read the blurbs on the back.  The title isn’t very descriptive either.  I then bought the book.

My thought was this: presumably the publisher designs the cover to appeal to people who will spread favorable word of mouth about the book.  As a sometimes good (but non-reductionist) Bayesian, if I like the cover I should infer I will praise the book.  Furthermore I should be especially keen to buy on this basis for a “word of mouth book,” and indeed this author does not have a celebrity name.

If I like the cover *a lot*, can I receive a worse evaluation by checking out the blurbs and thus skewing or minimizing my gut reaction to the image?  Surely if someone is able to manipulate me, my optimal strategy is let just some of the manipulative information through.  The case for viewing the cover — and only the cover — is simply that many more people see the cover than evaluate any other part or aspect of the book.  Might we then not expect the cover to be the strongest and best thought out signal?

Preliminary results seem to confirm Cowen’s hypothesis.

I can now report that the topic of the book interests me greatly, and I am enjoying the first half of the book.  I fully expect to finish it.

I will continue this experiment by buying another book just for its cover.

I do understand that this is usually considered the strategy of a relatively stupid person.

As always with Marginal Revolution, the comments are interesting as well.

You can do this in libraries by wandering the aisles until you see a spine that catches your eye, although it works best for genre fiction, as RobbL observed. I’ve had the best results using this method for historical fiction, which usually manages to convey genre, period, and tone quite effectively through choice of cover art and fonts.

Perhaps academic libraries should reconsider our almost universal practice of discarding dust jackets?

Why stop at books?

I do a healthy dose of shopping this way. Shampoo, beverages, and even my current vehicle was chosen based on looks. (While looks wasn’t the most important factor in choosing my car, it was the tie breaking factor).

The logic is that a well designed product reflects well designed contents. If they show attention to detail for the cover, they must have equal if not more attention to detail for the books contents. However this strategy will probably yield worse results for products where presentation is the point, such as luxury products.

I myself often follow this rule of thumb:

My girlfriend and I buy wine by looking at the lable.

Our favorite is “Toasted Head” it has a picture of a bear breathing fire.

I wonder if the picture of my cat at the top of this blog successfully signals the quality of its content?


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