The Upside of Irrationality

Summary Written by Lindsay Recknell
"Sure, it would be nice if we were more rational and clear-headed about our “should”s. Unfortunately, we’re not."

- The Upside of Irrationality, page 6

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."- The Upside of Irrationality, page 288

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.

Insight #1

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."- The Upside of Irrationality, page 287

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.

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Insight #2

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."- The Upside of Irrationality, page 294

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.

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Dan Ariely

Using simple experiments Dan Ariely studies how people actually act in the marketplace, as opposed to how they should or would perform if they were completely rational. His interests span a wide range of daily behaviours and his experiments are consistently interesting, amusing, and informative, demonstrating profound ideas that fly in the face of common wisdom.

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