Upside of Irrationality

Dan Ariely's second book, The Upside of Irrationality, is perhaps inevitably less exciting than his first, Predictably Irrational. The personal anecdotes are excellent but the generalizations, especially in the first half ("The Unexpected Ways We Defy Logic at Work"), are less surprising and less rigorously argued. But Ariely is still a masterful storyteller and summarizes complex experiments well. He begins by explaining their importance in the Introduction:

Why, you may ask, do my colleagues and I put so much time, money, and energy into experiments? For social scientists, experiments are like microscopes or strobe lights, magnifying and illuminating the complex, multiple forces that simultaneously exert their influences on us. They help us slow human behavior to a frame-by-frame narration of events, isolate individual forces, and examine them carefully and in more detail. They let us test directly and unambiguously what makes human beings tick and provide a deeper understanding of the features and nuances of our own biases.

Well, experiments do that when they're well designed and properly analyzed. One can, however, question the extrapolations from toy problems to real-world issues. It's important to apply other techniques, such as statistical correlation, to larger samples and different situations. Sometimes Ariely addresses that, sometimes not.

The Upside of Irrationality does best in its second half when it analyzes human behavior away from the office environment. Chapter 6, "On Adaptation", addresses happiness and pain. The observations that Ariely makes on people who have suffered greatly from injuries (including his own case as a burn victim) are insightful and relevant to ultrarunning and extreme sports exertion. Ariely also offers insights into speed dating, online matchmaking services, charitable fund-raising, and the ever-popular "Hot or Not?" issue of perceived physical attractiveness. His conclusion is quite appropriate:

I hope that you have enjoyed this book. I also fervently hope that you will doubt your intuition and run your own experiments in an effort to make better decisions. Ask questions. Explore. Turn over rocks. Question your behavior, that of your company, employees, and other businesses, and that of agencies, politicians, and governments. By doing so, we may all discover ways to overcome some of our limitations, ant that's the great hope of social science.


P.S. Not really. These are only the first steps of exploring our irrational side, and the journey ahead is long and exciting.

Irrationally yours,

^z - 2011-04-13