Ariely's UPSIDE OF IRRATIONALITY: using irrational cognitive blindspots to your advantage

Behavioral economist Dan Ariely's The Upside of Irrationality is the followup to his wildly successful (and wonderful) Predictably Irrational, a book summarizing his many years of ground-breaking research on the ways in which people reliably behave in ways that run contrary to their best interests (something that flies in the face of neoclassical economic orthodoxy).

Upside of Irrationality is a mostly successful attempt to transform the scientific critique of the "rational consumer" principal into practical advice for living a better life. "Mostly successful" only because some of our habitual irrationality is fundamentally insurmountable -- there's almost nothing we can do to mitigate it.

But even when Ariely fails to deliver easy-to-follow advice for improving our lives, he still does deliver the same thought-provoking, fascinating experimental evidence for irrationality itself. For example, the sections on online dating (the return on your investment in an online dating service is so poor that you might as well not bother) and charitable giving (it's nearly impossible to feel the visceral sympathy for a million sufferers in some terrible genocide that you feel for a man choking to death at the next table) are both engrossing and well-written, but the advice that Ariely gives on both amounts to, "Be aware that you're apt to make a bad decision in these situations."

On the other hand, there are sections in which the science of irrationality is readily converted into practical techniques for living better, and these really shine. My favorite is the section on adaptation, that is, the way in which both terrible pain and incredible delights fade down to a kind of baseline normal over time. Ariely points out that adaptation can be slowed or even prevented through intermittent exposure to the underlying stimulus -- that is, if you take a break, the emotional sensation comes back with nearly full force.

Here's where our intuitive response is really wrong: we have a tendency to indulge our pleasures without respite, and to take frequent breaks from those things that make us miserable. This is exactly backwards. If you want to maximize your pleasure -- a great dessert, the delight of furnishing your first real apartment after graduation, a wonderful new relationship -- you should trickle it into your life, with frequent breaks for your adaptive response to diminish. If you want to minimize your pain -- an unpleasant chore, an awful trip -- you should continue straight through without a break, because every time you stop, your adaptive response resets and you experience the discomfort anew.

Also outstanding is the section on motivation in the workplace, and the way in which imbuing work-tasks with even a little meaning can make them much easier to complete and much more satisfying. There are several pieces of good, practical information here, all couched in Ariely's breezy, easy to read style. Even if Ariely's research doesn't always neatly translate into simple heuristics, he's such an interesting writer and thinker that I'll read anything he writes.

The Upside of Irrationality


  1. Well, you could also be autistic and just not have an adaptive response but I guess that won’t work for everyone. Sounds awful though; I’m glad I don’t have to deal with problems like that.

  2. I loved Predictably Irrational, so I’ll have to get this. Behavioral economics is a fascinating field that offers lots of insight into human behavior. I wish more economists would learn from this approach rather than clinging so tenaciously to the assumptions of “rational choice”. (Nothing against the rational choice approach per se, mind you: It has its value; and I’ve even used it it my own research. But it has its limits; and behavioral economics is a useful corrective.)

    As someone whose own world view has been most influenced by Greco-Roman Stoicism, Enlightenment Liberalism, American Pragmatism, and Vulcan Logic (yes, I’m a geek), I still remain committed to the ideal of human rationality. But even I have to admit that it’s only an ideal. For the most part, humans — even those of us who wish we were Vulcans — are irrational creatures whose behavior is largely driven by factors that are beyond our conscious awareness, much less our conscious control. Not to acknowledge that fact would be illogical.

  3. “the return on your investment in an online dating service is so poor that you might as well not bother”

    I know anecdote isn’t data, but I feel compelled to point out that I met my wife via online dating. The ROI has so far been quite satisfactory, the most measurable aspect being the production of an additional tiny human being.

    1. So you’ve received only one wife for all the time you’ve invested in it? Sounds like a poor ROI to me.

      1. Actually, spouses are a very unique case of return on investment. It turns out that when you have zero, gaining one more can be a massive net positive. But if you already have one, gaining another results in major losses to both the retained profit and the additional return.

    2. russ3llr, I haven’t read Ariely’s book, but I have read the paper on which the online dating chapter is based.

      In essence, he argues that the criteria that people use to determine who is a good match for them are primarily things you have to experience personally (sense of humour, loyalty, etc), but online dating sites can only offer searchable criteria (age, religion, income etc).

      The upshot is that while applying searchable criteria to, say, choosing a TV will probably narrow your options to a list of candidates which do fit your requirements, the same result is unlikely when it comes to dating sites.

      1. Well, if that is the argument then it’s a pretty bad one. It’s a complete misunderstanding of why online dating works.

        Online dating works because it provides a forum to meet people who are also looking to date someone, not because the search criteria you can use are especially useful. You can narrow things down a bit by searching for someone who is relatively close to your age and less than a foot shorter than you, but in the end you just go out on dates with people and it doesn’t work out with most of them.

        The thing about online dating is that whatever criteria you use, you are meeting other people who are also looking for someone to date/marry/do kinky things with and who are willing to meet you as a potential person to do that with. If you want to find a partner and you go and talk to a bunch of people who also want to find a partner there is a pretty good chance you’ll eventually find someone you click with.

        I feel like I have to read that chapter of the book now so that I can see what he says. I think online dating is fantastic (someone coloured by my own experience, of course), and probably the best bet and most rational choice for a thirty-ish person who wants to find a long term partner.

        1. i suspect he interprets the act of dating multiple people the same as renting or buying multiple tv’s before finding one that fits what one wants.

  4. The adaptive response is why I go to work for a few hours on Saturday and Sunday. If I have the whole weekend enjoying myself I can’t face going back!

    I’ll definitely pick this up.

  5. vulcan logic is not an influence, it is a way of life: that is what separates the geeks from the “geeks”. nonetheless, this is all about toxoplasmosis which is why all cats must die. now. it is only logical.

  6. This is great, nearly all my projects in the workshop are done in little bits over many many weeks. This must be why it’s so enjoyable.

  7. No offense to anyone, but most of the folks I’ve met who worshiped Vulcan ideals tended to be craziest and most irrational of the bunch. Not to mention unhappy.

    Then again, I was always a Kirk man. :)

  8. “the return on your investment in an online dating service is so poor that you might as well not bother”

    Apparently he thinks people are on dating sites to get married rather than laid.

  9. “the return on your investment in an online dating service is so poor that you might as well not bother”
    Not even bother? My arse.
    I met my current boyfriend via an online-dating site. He’s a total sweetheart.

  10. Yeah, I’m going to give him the benefit of a doubt and assume that he means many of the specific actions people take on dating sites (thinking they are helping their search by restricting certain areas) are irrational (and most of the time, they are), rather than the concept and use of dating sites themselves being irrational.

    I mean, at their core, dating sites are essentially a place where you can meet people who are looking for the same thing you are (whether it be a relationship or casual sex). Does he propose an alternative that offers a BETTER ROI? I certainly haven’t found one, but then… dating sites have been good to me. It probably depends on how you use them.

    Also, I want this book – it sounds like a good read, even if I do end up disagreeing with parts.

  11. I never understood why economists thought that every consumer always made rational choices. Haven’t any of them seen television commercials?

    Advertisers develop anxieties in consumers that can only be assuaged by the aquisition of their products. It’s like getting a fix for a drug that you don’t need in the first place. How is any of that rational? Maybe it’s rational in a social context instead of a monetary or pragmatic one. If emotions didn’t have anything to do with it, all ads would look like nutritional labels or charts, graphs and columns of statistics.

    1. Economists say people are rational because everything people do, they do for a reason. Nobody said anything about it being a good reason.

  12. The return on investment for dating is terrible, period. You know all that money you spend on dinners? It turns out you don’t get any of it back, and you’re allowed at most one spouse out of the deal. Nobody sensible would ever do it.

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