The Upside of Irrationality

Dan Ariely's The Upside of Irrationality  is easy to read and offers interesting insights that show human nature is not strictly rational in the economic sense of seeking the greatest gain at the lowest cost.  He goes through some experiments that show people will leave off a task sooner if they see it is futile (think the myth of Sisyphus). While some may think it is a dream job to be paid to do nothing, such a position can bring in income but no sense of personal fulfillment, which human beings crave. I agree with this and have experienced it myself. For example, I've been asked to write letters for nonprofit organizations that then never went out.  I found it did not make much difference to my feelings about it whether I had been paid for the work or not. It still is somewhat demoralizing to have done the work for no reason -- like taking the time to wash something that is then tossed into the garbage. Even if you get the promised $1, you would not likely want to repeat the task.

Another irrational finding is: "Greater labor leads to greater love" (p.105). That's the appeal of DIY projects and cooking at home -- even for those who are not motivated by saving the cost of hiring someone else to do the work for them. There are many ramifications for that, including relationships, parenting, and, I would say, even religious practices. Generally, people believe that Judaism light will be more appealing to more people, but if you lighten the labor, you do end up lightening the love, as well. And, certainly, engaging directly with a mitzvah, as in the accounts of the Tannaim who would prepare something for Shabbos with their own hands rather than leaving it to servants or others in the household, can simultaneously demonstrate one's love for Shabbos and increase it.

Another very important observation for relationships -- whether they are personal or business is the power of an apology that conveys sympathy for the problem one has encountered-- even if it does not solve it or really diminish the inconvenience. "Indeed, we found that the word 'sorry' completely counteracted the effect of annoyance. (For handy reference, here's the magic formula: 1 annoyance + 1 apology = 0 annoyance.)  (p/ 150) Also see and Ms. Maven's advice to use an apology to erase mistakes  at

The drawbacks he finds in online dating are very similar to those of the shidduch system. People spend far more time looking over profiles  than interacting with people in person.  He concludes that it shouldn't be called "online dating" at all:  "If you called the activity something more accurate, such as 'online searching and blurb writing,' it might be a better description of the experience" (p. 221). And that even without the time spent trying to dig out information about prospective dates from references. And proof that profiles (like shidduch resumes) or descriptions of what one is looking for are useless because the searchable terms have very little bearing on whether or not a couple will click when they meet."This is the essence of the problem with a market that attempts to turn people into a list of searchable attributes" (p. 230).

The only flaw I would point is the fact that the experiments that are described really do not constitute a broad and random enough sampling to truly prove the theories.

Related post:


Mostly Rationalist said…
Hi, I thought you might appreciate this somewhat apropos quote from GK Chesterton:

From GK Chesterton:

If you argue with a madman, it is extremely probable that you will get the worst of it; for in many ways his mind moves all the quicker for not being delayed by the things that go with good judgment. He is not hampered by a sense of humor or by charity, or by the dumb certainties of experience. He is the more logical for losing certain sane affections. Indeed, the common phrase for insanity is in this respect a misleading one. The madman is not the man who has lost his reason. The madman is the man who has lost everything except his reason.

(Chesterton concludes that only the ability to hold truths that appear to be contradictory keeps us sane):

Mysticism keeps men sane. As long as you have mystery you have health; when you destroy mystery you create morbidity. The ordinary man has always been sane because the ordinary man has always been a mystic. He has permitted the twilight. He has always had one foot in earth and the other in fairyland. He has always left himself free to doubt his gods; but (unlike the agnostic of to-day) free also to believe in them . . . Thus he has always believed that there was such a thing as fate, but such a thing as free will also . . . It is exactly this balance of apparent contradictions that has been the whole buoyancy of the healthy man. The whole secret of mysticism is this: that man can understand everything by the help of what he does not understand. The morbid logician seeks to make everything lucid, and succeeds in making everything mysterious. The mystic allows one thing to be mysterious, and everything else becomes lucid.
Ariella said…
Thanks for the comment and quote. Ariely doesn't really get into the mystical aspect, but he does look at how emotional motivations, including that for revenge, will interfere with rational -- in the economic sense -- responses. One of the examples that also come up in other books is the game in which you set up partners in 2 other rooms. They can get $20 together. One can decide on the division and the other can decide to reject it so that both get nothing. In cases where the division was very unequal, like $18 to $2, the second person usually rejected it. While it is rational to go for $2 rather than nothing, the desire to make the person who wanted to cheat you out of what you regarded as your fair share lose out was the stronger motivation for most people.

Popular Posts