The Upside of Irrationality

That humans behave irrationally at times might sound platitudinous to a lot of people but for a minuscule fringe of behavioral researchers – of which Dan Ariely is an integral part – it’s a compelling reason to investigate into the lunacies underlying our behavior. Dan Ariely like most researchers of his ilk believes in the cognitive limitations of human mind (For more on Cognitive handicaps, read Herbert Simon’s concept of ‘bounded rationality’) and his book ‘The Upside of Irrationality’ unravels several baffling intricacies of human behavior. One marked difference between this book and its predecessor is that ‘The Upside of Irrationality’ also focuses on the upsides of our biases in addition to exposing the behavioral downsides.

Contrary to popular perception, ‘irrational’ shouldn’t always conjure negative connotations. Our irrationalities could lead to positive consequences, too. For example, your texting your wife or girlfriend while cruising down the highway is negatively irrational since in the worst case scenario, your actions could lead to deaths, whereas donating to an old-age home when your own job is on thin ice is positively irrational, perhaps, a bit counterintuitive, too. It’s such logic-defying acts of irrationality that Ariely has synthesized in ‘The Upside of Irrationality’. Following are some of my key take-aways from the book:

High Incentives do not always equate with High Performance. Ariely reinforces the findings of Yerkes-Dodson law through his own field experiments. He concludes that there is no ideal way to link compensation with performance. On the contrary, ridiculously high incentives could be severely damaging and might derail the performance of those engaged in jobs involving cognitive skills. At the same time, for jobs requiring physical/mechanical skills, the relationship between incentives and output is more linear than inverse-U shaped. Ariely explains that high payment could motivate you to clock more man-hours than usual but in all likelihood, it won’t improve your creativity.

Ariely says that smaller and more frequent bonuses are a good way to counter the ill-effects of high compensation.

Labor begets Love, but...: Ever wondered why, despite your best conviction of your efforts, your captious boss fails to see any merit in your new product PPT ? Why, despite you being fully convinced of your business idea, no investor can see value in it? Ariely explains that this could be due to our tendency to feel obsessed with our own creations so much so that our affection for them blinds us to the reality. Oddly, when our self-overvalued creations don’t yield the expected results, our fondness toward them also wanes. Thus, labor begets love, but only when it bears fruit. The flip side of this theory is Not-Invented-Here (NIH) syndrome: a willful obliviousness towards the work of others.

Happiness Quotient has a mean: In a world consumed with hedonistic delights and Untitled designinstant gratifications, enduring pleasure is a fleeting proposition. The new iPhone that you bought last Christmas might have become an archaic item by now and while you are set to buy the new iPhone, the old one could already be attracting bids on eBay. Good news amid this churning is that we cannot be indefinitely sad either. Sooner or later, in whichever scenario, things always come back to normal. And, the force underlying this ‘reversion to the mean’ phenomenon is adaptation – our inherent ability to come to grips with the unanticipated ways of life.

Ariely suggests that we should possibly slow down the periods of pleasure and speed up the moments of agony since interruptions during both only amplify the experience.

Identifiable Victim Effect: Joseph Stalin’s alleged remark to then US Ambassador Averill Untitled designHarriman,”One death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic”, is at the center of the most intriguing chapter of this book. It’s a rather twisted fact that humans are more inclined to help individuals than masses of people. In 2006, a six-year-old kid accidentally fell into an unattended borewell in India and became part of huge media hype (Actually, Prince wasn’t the first borewell victim but his surely was the first LIVE civil rescue mission on Indian television). Such was the audience fixation that people skipped offices to not miss out on the latest developments and to become a witness to what was an agonizingly unfolding event. Prince was finally rescued and instantly became a mini celebrity. Only two months ago prior to this incident, 21 Indian boatmen had perished in an accident off the coast of Bahrain. Despite the large number of dead citizens and political ramifications of the incident, the news barely became a discussion item on TV, let alone reach the water-cooler.

Ariely cites three psychological factors behind this strangely lopsided human behavior: a) Proximity to the victim (No one knew who that kid was but Live coverage of his trauma made us relate to him on an emotional level. However, we never came to know who those 21 boatmen were), b) Vividness (Needless to say, Live images of a child stuck at the bottom of a 60 ft deep well, screaming for her mother could move anyone) and c) Our belief in our ability to help a victim (While most viewers believed they could help Prince financially and even by being there, no one thought of helping the families of boatmen because the incident happened faraway and involved many people).

Flipside of Emotions: That emotion often influences our decisions is an acknowledged fact but what might be news to you is that they also have the power to affect our long-term decisions. Ariely cautions that the outcomes of our emotion-led reactions often set the template for our future decisions. Your intemperate outburst at your driver because he failed to see the ‘no parking’ sign and was ticketed could go into your behavioral repertoire and set the precedent for future.

Restrain yourself from making decisions when you are either too happy, too angry or under duress. Your reaction in those moments could set a behavioral pattern for future.

According to Ariely, if human beings were to be placed on a spectrum between the hyper-rational Mr. Spock from Star Trek and the emotional Homer Simpson, we would be way closer to Homer than Mr. Spock. Author summarizes that rather than strive for perfect rationality, we need to leverage our personality quirks and use them to our advantage.

Rede: You can skip the couple of chapters on Online dating market. They are the weakest link in the book. For your convenience, here is the essence: Ariely reaches the conclusion through his field experiments and research that online dating models are highly inefficacious since human beings are more than the sum of their parts and can’t be narrowed down into a list of searchable attributes.

My Verdict: Required reading. A worthy successor to ‘Predictably Irrational’, ‘The Upside of Irrationality’ is engaging, insightful and entertaining. Dan Ariely at the helm is like an adroit enabler of otherwise hidden facts of human personality. He’s brilliantly persuasive, logically counter-intuitive and to top it all, he backs up his theories with field research. All in all, a splendid book with a host of upsides and virtually, zero downside.