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When the opportunity to review Dan Ariely's second book arose, I jumped at it as I had thoroughly enjoyed Predictably Irrational (2008) his debut work. And besides how could I resist a title like: The Upside of Irrationality: The unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home.
In his first book we learned that we are inexorably and irrefutably irrational and in the sequel he promises he'll explain the benefits of being this way. Plus the editor of this journal made it incredibly easy for me by offering the option of an audiobook version. I drive 45 minutes each way to my university so this suited me fine. Does it work as an audiobook? I think it does. The reader is Simon Jones (a veteran narrator) who reads with an authoritative yet affable voice. The only problem with this medium is that every now and then the listener is invited to inspect some graphs depicted somewhere. This is not a big problem though; the narrative keeps its fluency even if one doesn't stop the car in a freeway and pulls from the boot the brief case with the printed material. To be honest I never checked where these graphs could be found.
Ariely's book does and doesn't deliver. It delivers because in his already branded engaging style, he populates the book with attractive anecdotes and scientific research. Recall that he is a behavioral economist and his prolific academic career has allowed him to engage in fascinating and bold experimentation. It also delivers because he takes us behind the scenes of this experimentation rendering a more comprehensive and attractive description of the scientific endeavor.
He re-states that from a "rationality" point of view we should estimate the pros and cons in every situation and decide for what is best for us; thus we should comply with doctor's orders, stop smoking if we know is detrimental for our health, never text message whilst we are driving, and so on. However we all know we don't do that, and here the author promotes behavioral economy as the science that studies exactly that, our irrationality ( It would have been nice for Ariely to have given more explicit credit to thinkers who have been studying this domain well before his time; e.g., Herbert Simon, Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, etc.). The expectation after this, given the title of the book and the promise in the introduction, is that we are going to learn that this irrationality brings unexpected benefits. For me, here is where the book doesn't deliver. In each chapter, Ariely describes experiments and anecdotes purported to support the hypothesis that irrationality has an interesting profitable twist. For example, in Chapter 11 Ariely recounts that after a horrific accident that rendered his body almost entirely burnt, his right arm was so swollen that it was preventing blood reaching his right hand. Doctors made a cost benefit analysis from a medical point of view and arrived at the "rational" decision, that it was better for him to have his right arm amputated below the elbow and suggested it'd be replaced with a hook and thus cut down the number of operations and reduce the enormous potential daily pain if he were to keep his arm. Ariely didn't want to have his arm amputated and in spite of the "rational" conclusion doctors were presenting to him, in the end he decided to hold on to his arm and reject the operation. He reflects that in spite of the "rational" option suggested by the doctors, he took an "irrational" decision which was influenced by biases in his thinking (endowment effect, the irreversible nature of the decision, status quo bias, and so on.). The author concludes that if he was rational, he would have agreed to the operation and had his arm amputated but he acted irrationally and today he likes the idea, in spite of limited mobility and ongoing pain, of having his arm. The book is full of comparable examples but I don't think they demonstrate that irrationality has unexpected benefits. Ariely engages in illegitimate logical steps in his description of this sort s of examples. In the potential arm amputation there are two sets of reasons for deciding whether or not to operate and these sets of reasons are not directly comparable or mutually exclusive. One is the calculative reasoning which was the parameters the doctors used, that is, the consequences are very clear and convenient, e.g., reduced amount of pain, increased agility, efficacy, etc. Then there are the psychological reasons, e.g., it is quite understandable that someone might not want to lose an arm however limited its functionality might be. Ariely is aware of these two dimensions but mixes them badly in his argument. If one were to think that the desired outcome was absence of pain and functionality, then going for the operation as suggested by the doctors, appears to be the "rational" decision. Even more, one could be fully aware that one is going to miss the arm, feel a little uncertain about the decision, feel odd picturing the self with one arm, but still go for the "rational" option. However, if one were to favor the psychological framework and think that not having an arm will affect his body image too much, that some mobility is better than nothing and that one can stand the physical pain involved, then deciding to keep the arm and reject the operation is the "rational" option. In other words the "rationality" does not depend on an absolute parameter, but on the premises the person is utilizing for the decision. I have highlighted the "arm" example" because it is a good illustration of several similar logical offences Ariely made (e.g., in the "ultimatum experiment", subjects are described as irrational for giving away one dollar in favor of the pleasure of retaliatory responses).
Overall however, this is a good book and although it does not deliver on its promise, I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it. Some may see this recommendation as irrational, and that would be true if I had only the one criterion that books deliver their stated aim. However I also favor interesting ideas, good description of experiments, fascinating anecdotes, and soul, and Ariely's book has those in abundance.
© 2012 Rodrigo Becerra
Dr Rodrigo Becerra, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, School of Psychology and Social Science, Faculty of Computing, Health and Science Edith Cowan University, Perth, Australia