Title: "The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home"
Author: Dan Ariely
Publisher: HarperCollins, 2010; 352 pages; $27.99
If Dan Ariely’s previous book, "Predictably Irrational," were written by a self-help guru or a pop culture pundit, the concept that humans are both predictable and irrational might not be the most groundbreaking ever. But coming from a Duke University economist, this was a profound insight.
The context for this being surprising is, well, the fundamental doctrine underlying the academic field, which is that humans behave predictably and rationally, to maximize their best interests. Yeah, I know.
But the trick is that Ariely is a behavioral economist, so he spends a little more time than a traditional economist would exploring the psychological underpinnings of actual human economic behavior.
The other trick to Ariely’s novel perspective, with which he introduces his latest book, "The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home," is that his ability to master and change his own behavior may have saved his life.
As a student, Ariely was extensively burned — third-degree burns over 70 percent of his body — by a magnesium flare. During his excruciating recovery, he contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion.
Struggling to recover, because his immune system was already so deeply compromised, Ariely was tasked with self-administering an experimental round of chemotherapy, which would leave the 18-year-old vomiting for about 16 hours after each injection. Three days a week. For 18 months.
Ariely was the only subject in the study to comply with doctors’ orders (and thankfully it was successful). How? He overcame the intense desire to procrastinate or simply avoid taking the interferon altogether by intentionally creating a strong association of the self-injection with the favorite films he’d rented to watch afterward, during the drug’s aftereffects.
And in the process, he realized the overwhelmingly human inclination to forgo profound, long-term benefits in favor of immediate gratification or avoidance of discomfort. Predictably and irrationally, in the final analysis.
"The Upside of Irrationality" builds on the previous book’s excavation of the fallacies, effects and problems of human irrationality in economic decision-making, pointing out the myriad ways these same irrationalities cause beneficial behavior, in the workplace and in our social and family relations.
And unlike your average econ text, "Upside" offers insights pulled equally from controlled experiments and from Ariely’s own experiences in controlling and observing his behavior during his burn recovery.
In the first half of "Upside," Ariely focuses on the workplace: looking at the counterintuitive impacts of large bonuses on employees; exploring contrafreeloading — a phenomenon in which lots of animals (maybe even the human sort) prefer to do meaningful work for their keep; explaining more about the value we place on our own work and ideas (and why this makes us love IKEA); and sharing his own experience with a lemon of an Audi in explication of how revenge can be productive in the marketplace.
The second part of "Upside" goes homeward, fleshing out our irrationally quick ability to adapt to the pain of broken hearts and childbirth, as well as providing some useful strategies for spacing out large purchases to maximize the happiness you experience (and speeding up cutbacks to avoid ripping the bandage off slowly).
Ariely also cites sources like Match.com and HotOrNot.com in his treatment of how we adapt to our physical limitations when it comes to finding and analyzing prospective mates.
He then sketches out a compelling explanation for why we so often, so irrationally, respond to an individual person in need for help, but not to the dire needs of millions, and provides some thoughts every serious dater should read before issuing — or accepting — a proposal in the chapter "the long-term effects of short-term emotions."
Ariely sums "Upside" up with a powerful, concise compendium of lessons from our irrationalities. In turn, I will sum this review of "Upside" up with a powerful, concise recommendation: If you are at all interested in how people think and act in real life, read it.