An Unvarnished Look At Ourselves
4 March, 2014
The Upside of Irrationality is a very easy book to read. You just keep turning the pages, and before you even know it, its over. But by easy, I don’t mean that it is a light read. The author has an amazing style of writing that simplifies and makes complex concepts interesting, which if you find in your textbook, would probably drive you crazy by the time you understand it. His writing style is very conversational and in this book, he has included a lot of personal experiences, which for me, made it all that much more interesting.
The book is based mainly on behavioural economics and psychology. Standard economics assumes that people are perfectly sensible, calculating machines, and hence says that people always make the best decisions, and mistakes are not likely. In the book, behavioural economics is basically used to trash standard economics. jk :) The book is divided into two parts: The ways we defy logic at work, and the ways we defy logic at home. The book covers many of the idiosyncrasies of human life, from revenge, to empathy.
The first part deals with procrastination, high stakes and stress, labour, this little thing called the IKEA effect, ownership, and revenge. Okay, now, I’m going to try to give you an idea of how the book is without spilling the beans on it. Generally, irrationality is associated with negativity. I actually looked up its synonyms on Word, and I got ‘groundless’, ‘foolish’, ‘ridiculous’, ‘absurd’ and similar words. Dan Ariely disagrees. He says that it s these irrationalities that actually make us human and allow us to enjoy life. Sample this. Experiments conducted on both humans and animals showed that when given the choice between earning something and simply getting it free, most chose to earn it. But some other factors also played into it, like how much you enjoy the labour, and how much meaning is attached to it. When the meaning of labour is reduced, even by a small degree, the motivation to continue comes does significantly. And if you don’t like what you’re doing, it has worse effects.
There are these interesting nuggets of information interspersed though the book containing interesting bits of information relating to the topics. For instance, there’s the story of the mythical king, Sisyphus, and how he was punished for deceit. He was forced to push a large rock up a steep hill, in itself a miserable task. Every time he neared the top of the hill, the rock would roll backward, and he’d have to start again. This is what happens when the meaning is taken out of our labour. We end up doing ‘Sisyphean’ labour. What solutions Ariely gives to this, I’ll leave to you to discover if and when you read the book. I felt that some chapters are actually linked and have a similar basis. The IKEA effect talks about how we tend to overvalue things that we make ourselves. And the Not-Invented-Here Bias (No, I didn't make that up. There really is something like that!) talks about how we tend to prefer our own ideas to others. I felt that these two are sort of linked, the underlying idea being that we favour things/thoughts that we have a hand in creating. The book contains many personal experiences of the author, which somehow made it a more like a conversation, and each time after I’d just finished reading one of these anecdotes, I would sit and think about anytime that something similar had happened in my or someone else’s life. And I found loads! One of my favourite chapters in the book is the one about revenge. Revenge, apparently, might be irrational, but not senseless and is in fact useful! It maintains and builds cooperation between the people in the society. How? When we were both kids, my sister did something to annoy me. I don’t remember what it was, but since I don’t, it must’ve been something trivial. But I do remember what I did to get even. I had a glass of rose milk in my hand, and I poured it all over her hair! A perfect example of irrational behaviour. So if you knew that I can be irrational, and not always reasonable, you wouldn’t try anything shoddy with me. I’m wondering why this hasn’t occurred to my sister yet. But then again, I never said she was rational! Interestingly, studies of brain waves with a PET, positron emission tomography show that revenge activates the part of the brain associated with rewards. Come on, when provided bad service, and then faced with an automated machine or a nonchalant attitude to your woes in customer service, how many of us wouldn’t pay dearly to extract revenge? I know I would! But the important point to remember here is to get back at the right person who is responsible for it. I'm sure you people would've watched Shrek (LOVED that movie, btw). Shrek was created by Dreamworks SKG, cofounded by Jeffrey Katzenberg, who was fired from Walt Disney Company. Revenge can lead to success, but like everything else in his world, it can also bring you down. A perfect example of this is the story of the Dassler brothers, the owners of Adidas and Puma. Sometime during the WWII, Rudolf Dassler misunderstood something that Adolf Dassler said, resulting in him starting his own venture, Puma. Few years back, Puma was taken over, so in the long run, his revenge was not successful. The second part of the book deals with subjects like adaptation, empathy and emotion, negative feelings, and their effects. Adaptation. It’s irrational at its core, but it’s one amazing thing with so many facets that can be explored endlessly. Adaptation to pain and drastic, seemingly ‘unfortunate’ incidents is focused upon in this chapter. There was this one bit in it that I really loved, and I actually burst out laughing. When Ariely was in university, his psychology professor, Ina Weiner, told them that women have a higher pain threshold and tolerance than men because they have to deal with childbirth. Dan went and conducted an experiment where he asked people to immerse their hand in hot water and remove it when they could no longer tolerate the pain. The men kept their hand in for much longer. When he announced his results in class, unfazed, without losing a beat, she told him that all he’d proven was that men were idiots. ‘Why would anybody,’ she said, ‘keep their hand in hot water for your study? If there was a real goal to pain, you would see what women are truly capable of.’ The chapter on Emotion and Empathy is probably the most serious topic in the book. Probably because it shows us, in plain black and white data, how human beings are less likely to help out someone they are not directly involved with, or know at least something about. But there are also ways mentioned in which we can manipulate our emotions for the better. I just had one teeny tiny problem with the book. The subtitle says, ‘The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic’. I picked it up mainly for that reason, and I didn’t find anything of the kind mentioned except in a few cases. I just feel that the title does not properly explain what the subject matter is.
What I loved in this book was the wider range of topics it managed to cover, despite it being short, and yet do justice to each. I’m a story person, so all those real life incidences and personal experiences kept me glued to the book. Oh! And for a person who previously hated economics, I found it truly entertaining, and thank God! It’s not one of those books filled with jargon, so that laymen cannot read it. Each chapter has at least one experiment that was conducted on that topic, and I found those interesting too. Plus, being a psychology student, I found many familiar concepts, and every time, it would be like a familiar friend waving out to me and I’d go, ‘Oh! Wow! I know that!’ The Upside of Irrationality is a book that delves into all our human quirks and makes us understand what lies behind them, so that ultimately, we get to know ourselves better and live a more contented life. And no, I’m not exaggerating when I say contented. Its a fun read, that makes you smile, laugh, frown, and gives a unvarnished view of how we really are.
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