"Sure, it would be nice if we were more rational and clear-headed about our “should”s. Unfortunately, we’re not."
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I despise stopping to put gas in my car. Seriously, even after the low fuel light comes on my dash, I will drive around for another 30kms before finally pulling into a gas station, practically running on fumes, and fill up the car. The inconvenience of stopping, paying my hard earned money just to keep the car moving seems like such an interruption in my day that I won’t do it until I absolutely need to. Yes, I realize that’s totally irrational behaviour, that my car obviously won’t move unless it has gas it in and the convenience of having my car to get from A to B is the preferred option but still, I wait until the last possible second. It’s this type of irrational thought process – the obvious ridiculousness in my logic – that Dan Ariely talks about in his newest book, The Upside of Irrationality. Ariely is a researcher of Behavioural Economics, the study of how people behave, and in this book, his research focuses on the decisions we make and why we make them, even if they’re not always in our best interest.
It’s important for us to understand why we make the decisions we do so that we can correct the ways in which we fail and find more effective ways to overcome our mistakes. This is the science behind Behavioural Economics, helping us “gain control over our money, relationships, safety, and health, both as individuals and as a society.”
The Big Idea
Perfectly Irrationally Rational
"We are often unaware of how these irrationalities influence us, which means that we don’t fully understand what drives our behaviour."
Seeing as it’s just a few weeks after the beginning of the year, let’s talk about New Year’s Resolutions. Did you make any? I know I did. And they’re logical ones too – go to the gym at least three times a week, rotate the genre of books I’m reading and incorporate more literature into my selections – things like that. I also made resolutions around work and balance in my life, deciding to focus less on working around the clock and more on time and stress management. All important and worthwhile goals, I’d say. But here’s the thing – I know all these resolutions will make me more well-rounded and make my life healthier and happier in the long run but in my short-term thinking, I have a hard time seeing that long term benefit.
Like putting gas in the car, our short-term actions have potential devastating effects on our long-term selves. If we skip one workout at the gym this week, that’s just a small glitch in the fitness plan and won’t make a huge difference in overall health. But if we’re able to rationalize missing one workout this week, we’re likely able to find an excuse to miss maybe two workouts a week in a month, and possibly, a few months from now, we’ll have found something entirely different to do with the time we should be at the gym. And 15 years from now, we’ll all be thicker, jigglier version of our former selves! But today, I can rationalize the missed workout, without much consideration of that girl 15 years from now. It isn’t until we recognize that irrational thinking, understand our motivations behind it and then invent or create new ways to behave, that these changes will be sustainable.
The Audacity of Assumption
"It is very difficult to make really big, important, life-changing decisions because we are all susceptible to a formidable array of decision biases."
As a researcher, Dan Ariely doesn’t trust his gut or “how things have always been done” – he goes out and proves whether those assumptions are correct using studies and experiments. Ariely believes that doubting our intuition and assumptions is the only way to correct mistakes and stem the flow of wasted time, energy and resources and, that by questioning why and how we do things, we might actually “discover when and how we are wrong and improve the ways we love, live, work, innovate, manage and govern.”
Think about the last big decision you made – how’d that turn out? Were you successful in achieving the goal the decision was intended to accomplish? Did the people involved respond how you expected them to respond? After it was all said and done and any subsequent activities were completed as result of your decision, were you still satisfied it was the right choice? What would you do differently next time in this situation and how would that change the outcome? This is the process Ariely is talking about; questioning our decisions and testing the assumptions to see if we’re making those choices for the right reasons and in the right ways or just “doing things they way they’ve always been done” for the sake of tradition or expectation.
The Wisdom to Know the Difference
"...rather than strive for perfect rationality, we need to appreciate those imperfections that benefit us, recognize the ones we would like to overcome, and design the world around us in a way that takes advantage of our incredible abilities while overcoming some of our limitations."
When Dan Ariely was 18 years old, he suffered a horrible accident that left third-degree burns over 70% of his body. Not only did his skin suffer but almost every other part of his body was also affected, not the least of which was his right arm, swollen so much “that the pressure was preventing blood flow to (my) hand.” After months of treatment, the arm hadn’t improved and the doctors came to their best, logical conclusion – the arm should be amputated below the elbow. Ariely, however, chose the “irrational” option of keeping his arm and make the best of his limited limb. Doing the cost/benefit analysis now, many, many years in the future, Ariely says he’s not sure he made the right long-term decision as he still suffers greatly from pain and ongoing treatments for his arm, but he doesn’t regret the decision he made as the alternative wasn’t an option in his mind. He’s adapted, found ways to overcome his limitations using a support network of people as well as various electronic devices for transcribing and typing. This is the important part of making outwardly irrational decisions – accepting that they’ve been made, appreciating the reasons and emotional places they came from and learning to distinguish the right decisions from the wrong ones so we can change the outcome next time.
So far, I haven’t run out of gas in my car. It’s almost like a little game for me now, trying to see how far I can push the limits of my vehicle before getting myself stranded on the side of the road. A little irrationality I’m prepared to accept for the secret thrill it gives me when I make it to the gas station. But this is the thing – it’s the balance between the irrational decisions and the rational ones that make the real difference in our lives. Recognizing that there are decisions we’re going to make because it feels right at the time, and may not seem like the logical choice, but we’re going to make them anyways. It is the intention of The Upside of Irrationality and the experiences Dan Ariely talks about in this book, to ask us only to think, experiment, and change our behaviours as a result of these activities, to positively affect future decisions.
But now please excuse me – my low fuel light is on.