Dealing With Our Own Irrational Selves


upside of irrationalityQuite the hook
As a teenager, an accident left author Dan Ariely with third degrees burns over 70% of his body. He used the still-painful aftermath to propel his studies of topics such as who people choose to date (inspired by his own scarred face and body), and how people differ in their response to pain (that he continues to suffer.) Ariely may publish in scholarly journals, but in this book he follows his own advice to engage readers on an emotional level. Using a conversational tone, this drew me in and I read every word.

This is a strong recommendation from me, because I often skim sections of books.

We are irrational and that’s human nature
Human beings are irrational and make poor decisions, like texting while driving. “Given the mismatch between… technological development and human evolution, the same instincts and abilities that once helped us now often stand in our way.”

Stock markets, insurance, education designed without regard to human nature lead individuals astray and “sometimes fail magnificently.” His field of behavioral economics figures out the “hidden forces that shape our decisions.”

He hopes readers will consider what they might do differently once they understand their own nature better, but this isn’t easy. Ariely uses the example of his own badly damaged hand as an example. Doctors advised him to have it amputated, but he refused. Twenty years later it is less useful than a prosthetic and still causes him considerable pain.

He says, keeping the hand was probably a mistake, and analyzes the biases behind his decision – loss aversion, status quo, irreversibility, and others. He also discusses what psychological factors stop him from amputating the hand today – fear of hospitals, hedonic adaptation, and rationalizing the choice. “Despite the fact that I understand… some of my decision biases, I still experience them.”

Humans are difficult to study in the wild, or even in a lab
Ariely presents his research is a very accessible form, not heavy with jargon, and there is a bibliography if you want to learn more. He acknowledges that many of his experiments are flawed and he discusses how to overcome the problems – subjects are not selected randomly but volunteer, and many are college students who don’t represent the whole population. Experimental designs are sometimes changed to accommodate the subjects.

Some studies are familiar, for example, when a person who feels their partner – assigned to split a $10 incentive between them – keeps too much, refuses the insultingly low offer, and neither gets to keep any of the $10. (Human nature will punish a cheater, and other studies show that when we seek revenge, we don’t care who we punish.) But others are new to me.

I chuckled at one test run in India (where it’s cheaper to offer financially impressive rewards) that evaluated the effects of stress on performing mental tasks. Stress was created by handing the volunteer money equivalent to many days salary and asking for its return if they failed the tasks. But subjects sometimes ran away with the money, so the protocol was changed.

How American businessmen reacted when he applied the lessons from India (offering large financial incentives actually decreases performance after a certain point) to their own salary plans is also amusing. “If we keep following our gut and common wisdom… we will continue to make mistakes.”

Rational thought blocks empathy
Test subjects can be “primed” by viewing videos or performing tasks that trigger emotions or require analytical effort, and their subsequent generosity tested. When primed to be emotional, subjects donate more to charity.

Successful charities advertise based on human nature: we respond to identifiable victims, emotional imagery, compelling words, events that are vivid and close to us, and when we believe we can make a difference. Millions of people face starvation, war, and disease “and despite the fact that we could achieve a lot at a relatively small cost… most of us don’t do much to help.” We’d spend $48,000 of taxpayer money to save a dog stranded on a derelict boat (a real-life example) but reject funding for vaccination campaigns. Ariely shows that the larger the number of suffers of a disaster, the less money is donated, and prevention efforts fare worst of all.

Ariely uses global warming as an example:

“If we tried to manufacture an exemplary problem that would inspire general indifference, it would probably be this.” Effects today are far from the Western world, the problem is not vivid or easily observed, changes are slow and undramatic, any single action will be a drop-in-the-bucket, and the worse effects are in the future. This is why Al Gore “relied so heavily on images of drowning polar bears” to tap into emotions.

You might expect rational thinking would make the world a better place, but not necessarily.

Poster-child appeals raise more funds and political will than statistics, but surprisingly, adding an emotional appeal to statistics does not. If a person thinking rationally sees no close or immediate benefit, then “rational thought blocks empathy… suppresses compassion.”

How to solve our big problems
Personally, as (I hope) a kind and analytical person, I hate the rationality vs compassion problem.

So how do we get “ourselves (or our politicians) to solve large scale humanitarian problems?”

Ariely thinks recognizing human nature is a first step. Try to counteract the biases in your own way of thinking. Don’t trust your initial gut reaction without thought and perhaps set up rules to guide action – NGOs often do this and step in where emotions don’t lead governments to act. Understanding is the key.

What others are saying
From 223 reviews Amazon, Ariely earns 76% 4 or 5 stars. Some reviewers note that, as my summary above indicates, there doesn’t seem to be a big upside to irrationality other than emotions leading to compassion, or perhaps that irrationality is what makes us human. I agree, but oddly enough, the off-target title doesn’t bother me as much as some misleading titles. It seems intended to play off his previous book Predictably Irrational – the two covers are similar, too.

I liked the book, so let me present some complaints:

  • Too little explanation of the experiments
  • Too much about Ariely’s own horrible burn injuries (which he apparently includes in all his popular books.)
  • Repeated information from Ariely’s previous books and from all books on behavioral economics (the term for this field of study.)

How much you enjoy the book may depend on your previous readings.

2 thoughts on “Dealing With Our Own Irrational Selves

    • No, I haven’t. I’ve read a few of the Freakonomics books (a few are reviewed on this site) and I think that’s the same field. It’s fascinating and humbling – I’m not as much in charge of my own decision making as I think I am. But knowing that can help me.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *