Thursday, May 08, 2014

Book Review (#45 of 2014) The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Ariely

The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic
Standard economic theory assumes that people are rational, utility-maximizing creatures, and behavioral economics repeatedly disproves this notion through various, often humorous, experiments. Ariely is a behavioral economist who has conducted many such experiments over the years. His thinking about research is greatly influenced by a horrific accident he experienced as a youth that left him badly burned. This book aims to put a positive spin on irrationality, arguing that it's what makes us human and gives us the capacity to love others. Ariely also hopes to point out some practical applications of his experiments' conclusions.

A few points: 
Don't pay your workers bonuses that are too high. This creates too much pressure that distracts; the effect is worse if it's a loss-aversion experiment.

Clutch players don't perform/shoot any better at "crunch time," they just take more shots.


People prefer to work for a reward rather than have it handed to them. Studies show that people do not by-and-large just put in the minimum effort in order to get the maximum reward. I wrote a personal observation of this on an assembly line years ago. They put in effort and desire to achieve goals, they value their work. But people want to know their work serves a higher purpose. If your boss gives you an assignment and you work very hard on it, and even get recognition for it, if the work gets shelved or the project is canceled, it crushes motivation. This isn't rational-- you know you did a good job, you got paid for it, you got praised by your boss. But those rewards aren't enough. The next time you're given such a task, it will affect your motivation and the quality of your work. 

Connecting even the lowliest worker's tasks to the overall goals of the company will increase productivity. I remember this being best exemplified by SRC Holdings in Springfield, MO which includes all its employees in its monthly financial meetings-- all employees (from the janitor to the CEO) see how their work affects the bottom line, the success of the company, and therefore their paychecks. This is considered "best practice" in management and is encouraged by current ISO standards.

Playing "hard to get" in love really does work, when we have to struggle to accomplish or build something we take greater satisfaction than if it was easy. When the task is a big struggle and we fail to complete it, we feel worse than if the task had been easy and we failed.

The IKEA effect. IKEA may sell cheap furniture, but the assembly process it requires causes us to value it more-- we created something. We become attached to and take greater pride in our own creations, which  leads to overvaluation of them. My wife and I recently decided to purchase a used house rather than build a new one, even though the new one would have been nicer and was within our price range and had more positive upside. We made this choice, in part, because I remembered how attached my family was to a house we built in my childhood, where my parents designed it and included input from all of us; it was tailor-made. Among the hardest things we ever did was leave that home, part of me still misses it. We don't intend to live in our current location for very long, so we felt that investing in the creation of a new home would have rooted our hearts more than we wanted. It also would have been harder for us to put our clunky, used furniture into a shiny new house.

People who have experienced a great deal of pain develop higher pain tolerance. Our bodies, minds, and attitudes adjust to our surroundings. Studies have found that people who moved from the cold Midwest to sunny California may have been happier temporarily, but over time reverted to the previous baseline of happiness-- and vice-versa for those who moved to the Midwest from California.

Much of the book deals with Ariely's fascination with assortive mating and the "inefficient market" that is the U.S. dating market. He hypothesizes that those who have obvious shortcomings-- like horrible burns-- may compensate by seeking a less-attractive mate who is, say, funnier or smarter than average. Studies find that men tend to be more "optimistic" and "aim higher" in dating activity than women. They seem to be less aware, or less influenced by, their shortcomings.

Emotions affect our decisions long after the emotions fade. If you decide on a particular course of action because you were influenced by an emotion you felt at the time--positive or negative--you will likely continue on that course of action (even if irrational or inefficient) even though you got over the emotion you were feeling. People have a strong "status quo bias," which makes them loathe to change and we often fall for the "sunk cost fallacy" of becoming attached to things just because they're there.

In the end, Ariely praises the biblical Gideon for testing everything. That is sort of Ariely's motto. 

The book was pretty good. I still would recommend Kahneman's seminal Thinking Fast and Slow (my review here) before reading this book, but I would add Ariely's book to the "behavioral economics" reading list. 3 stars out of 5.

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