Monday, November 7, 2011

The upside of irrationality: The unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home

By Dan Ariely

Book review by Richard L. Weaver II, Ph.D.

This is an absolutely fascinating book.  I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed it.  I loved the stories, I loved the experiments, I loved the practical nature of the entire book and how Ariely applies all of the information to our lives whether it be at work, in relationships, or simply everyday existence.

Here is an example of how Ariely relates stories or experiments to readers’ lives: “The moral of the story?” he writes.  “You may think that taking a break during an irritating or boring experience will be good for you, but a break actually decreases your ability to adapt, making the experience seem worse when you have to return to it.  When cleaning your house or doing your taxes, the trick is to stick with it until you are done” (p. 179).

His experience with “Public Speaking 101" (pp. 42-49), of course, caught my attention.  Ariely is so good at telling stories.  The details he provides allow readers to imagine the situations he describes accurately, but not only that, it puts readers into those situations with all of the attendant emotions and reactions.

What I found particularly interesting was the build-up Ariely offered for each of his experiments.  If you have ever wondered where the motivation or stimulation for behavioral science experiments come from, reading this book will be especially enlightening.

Also, delightful and evident on almost every page of the book, is Ariely’s engaging and surprising sense of humor.  If you ever think that university professors — especially ones like Ariely who not only have two Ph.D’s, but are obviously well-versed and well-practiced in research methodology and approaches — are sedate, staid, formal, stuffy, and conventional (devoid of any sense of humor!), then you will not only be pleasantly surprised by this book, you may even be astonished.  On page 61, Ariely puts you (the reader) in the “character” of an adult male albino rat in a cage.  He gives you all the rat language and rat feelings to help you identify with it: “You accidentally press the bar, and immediately a pellet of food is released.  Wonderful!  You press the bar again.  Oh joy!—another pellet comes out. . . .”  In the next paragraph he says, “You wander around the cage, cursing under your rat breath, and go over to the tin cup.  ‘Oh my!’ you say to yourself.  ‘It’s full of pellets!  Free food!’” (You get the point.).

The book is written for anyone and everyone.  It is highly readable!  There are few technical words, no erudite vocabulary, and it is incredibly engaging.  You just can’t put it down.  (That’s because the stories and illustrations are so captivating!)  “I truly enjoy the research I do,” Ariely writes, “I think it’s fun.  I’m excited to tell you, dear reader, about how I have spent the last twenty years of my life.  I’m almost sure my mother will read this boo, and I’m hoping that at least a few others will as well” (p. 64).

I loved his personal examples, like putting together the IKEA furniture designed for his toy room (pp. 83-84).  His example of what happened with his small Audi (pp. 131-135) was delightful, and it was truly an illustration with which all readers could identify.  Also, once again, it was a story that led to an experiment “to measure the extent of vengeful behavior” (p. 135).  

Just an aside regarding Ariely’s Audi experience, here he writes about it in retrospect on page 153: “Other than my near brush with death on the highway, I’d say that my experience with Audi was overall beneficial.  I got to reflect on the phenomenon of revenge, do a few experiments, share my perspective in print, and write this chapter.”  These sentences give you a good sample of his writing style, his directness in talking to readers, and his honesty.

Speaking of his use of personal examples, how he became an academic (because I am, too, an academic) is most interesting.  It was a choice, incidentally, that happened slowly over time as he “began engaging in more and more academic pursuits” (p. 184).  Ariely uses this experience as an example of how he adapted to a powerful, painful, and prolonged injury (which he fully explains toward the beginning of the book).

This really is an outstanding book that will capture your attention, tune your senses to a number of aspects of human behavior, and inform, enlighten, and entertain you along the way.  If it hasn’t been clear in this review, I truly loved the book and Ariely’s writing style.

This book is available at The upside of irrationality: The unexpected benefits of defying logic at work and at home

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