The Upside of Irrationality - by Dan Ariely


The Upside of Irrationality - by Dan Ariely

Read: 2022-06-13

Recommend: 8/10

This book helps me understand my limitations like “self-herding”: “we look at our past actions to inform ourselves of who we are, and then we act in compatible ways.”. It also provides a counterargument about the division of labor: Even though I can outsource programming tasks to more experienced programmers, I’m not fond of their programs as much as the programs I wrote. I appreciate Professor Dan Ariely’s openness about his injury and thought process regarding his position in the dating hierarchy.


Here are some text that I highlighted in the book:

  1. “Later” seems like a rosy time to do all the unpleasant things in life, even if putting them off means eventually having to grapple with a much bigger jungle in our yard, a tax penalty, the inability to retire comfortably, or an unsuccessful medical treatment. In the end, we don’t need to look far beyond our own noses to realize how frequently we fail to make short-term sacrifices for the sake of our long-term goals.

  2. Essentially, the mechanisms we developed during our early evolutionary years might have made perfect sense in our distant past. But given the mismatch between the speed of technological development and human evolution, the same instincts and abilities that once helped us now often stand in our way.

  3. This is the real goal of behavioral economics: to try to understand the way we really operate so that we can more readily observe our biases, be more aware of their influences on us, and hopefully make better decisions.

  4. incentives can be a double-edged sword. Up to a certain point, they motivate us to learn and perform well. But beyond that point, motivational pressure can be so high that it actually distracts an individual from concentrating on and carrying out a task—an undesirable outcome for anyone.

  5. To summarize, using money to motivate people can be a double-edged sword. For tasks that require cognitive ability, low to moderate performance-based incentives can help. But when the incentive level is very high, it can command too much attention and thereby distract the person’s mind with thoughts about the reward. This can create stress and ultimately reduce the level of performance.

  6. the clutch players did not improve their skill; they just tried many more times.

  7. But when it’s time to stand up in front of a crowd, things don’t always go according to plan. The hypermotivation to impress others can cause us to stumble. It’s no coincidence that glossophobia (the fear of public speaking) is right up there with arachnophobia (fear of spiders) on the scary scale.

  8. choking under social pressure is not limited to humans. A variety of our animal friends have been put to similar tests, including no one’s favorite—the cockroach

  9. high motivation to perform well can backfire

  10. If he doesn’t care whether he lives or dies, nothing rides on his performance. He doesn’t worry about living past the end of the fight, so nothing clouds his mind and affects his abilities—he is pure concentration and skill.

  11. “Contrafreeloading,” a term coined by the animal psychologist Glen Jensen, refers to the finding that many animals prefer to earn food rather than simply eating identical but freely accessible food.

  12. Much of what I do in life, including writing my blog posts, articles, and these pages, is driven by ego motivations that link my effort to the meaning that I hope the readers of these words will find in them. Without an audience, I would have very little motivation to work as hard as I do.

  13. Sisyphus was captured and carried back, and the angry gods gave him his punishment: for the rest of eternity, he was forced to push a large rock up a steep hill, in itself a miserable task. Every time he neared the top of the hill, the rock would roll backward and he would have to start over.

  14. THIS EXPERIMENT TAUGHT us that sucking the meaning out of work is surprisingly easy. If you’re a manager who really wants to demotivate your employees, destroy their work in front of their eyes. Or, if you want to be a little subtler about it, just ignore them and their efforts. On the other hand, if you want to motivate people working with you and for you, it would be useful to pay attention to them, their effort, and the fruits of their labor.

  15. Modern IT infrastructure allows us to break projects into very small, discrete parts and assign each person to do only one of the many parts. In so doing, companies run the risk of taking away employees’ sense of the big picture, purpose, and sense of completion.

  16. But I suspect that the few hours I struggled with the toy chest brought us closer together. I felt more attached to it than any other piece of furniture in our house. And I imagined that it, too, was fonder of me than my other furniture was.

  17. blinded by the appeal of her own creation.

  18. labor begets love

  19. once we build something, we do, in fact, view it with more loving eyes. As an old Arabic saying goes, “Even the monkey, in his mother’s eyes, is an antelope.”

  20. Ask people to expend too much effort, and you can drive them away; ask them for too little effort, and you are not providing the opportunities for customization, personalization, and attachment.

  21. We found that creators bid the same amount when they considered only their own evaluation for the product (second-price auction) as when they also considered what noncreators would bid for it (first-price auction). The lack of difference between the two bidding approaches suggested not only that we overvalue our own creations but also that we are largely unaware of this tendency; we mistakenly think that others love our work as much as we do.

  22. We found that those who successfully completed their origami in the difficult condition valued their work the most, much more than those in the easy condition. In contrast, those in the difficult condition who did not manage to finish their work valued their results the least, much less than those in the easy condition. These results imply that investing more effort does, indeed, increase our affection, but only when the effort leads to completion. When the effort is unfruitful, affection for one’s work plummets. (This is also why playing hard to get can be a successful strategy in the game of love. If you put an obstacle in the way of someone you like and they keep on working at it, you’re bound to make that person value you even more. On the other hand, if you drive that person to extremes and persist in rejecting them, don’t count on staying “just friends.”)

  23. 20-watt-per-hour computing device (the brain)

  24. “toothbrush theory.” The idea is that everyone wants a toothbrush, everyone needs one, everyone has one, but no one wants to use anyone else’s.

  25. Chances are that if your kids grow their own lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers and help prepare them for a dinner salad, they will actually eat (and love) their veggies.

  26. If I wanted to make a few of my doctoral students work on a particular research project for me, I’d have only to lead them to believe that they came up with the idea, get them to run a small study, analyze the results—and voilà, they’d be hooked.

  27. ME (voice rising): You mean to tell me that it is my fault that your record-keeping is faulty?

  28. More surprisingly, we found that the tendency to seek revenge did not depend on whether Daniel (the agent) or I (the principal) suffered. This reminded us of Tom Farmer and Shane Atchison. In their case too they were annoyed mostly with Mike, the night clerk (an agent), but their PowerPoint presentation was aimed mostly at the Doubletree Club hotel (the principal). It seems that at the moment we feel the desire for revenge, we don’t care whom we punish—we only want to see someone pay, regardless of whether they are the agent or the principal. Given the number of agent-principal dualities in the marketplace and the popularity of outsourcing (which further increases these dualities), we thought this was indeed a worrisome result.

  29. hedonic adaptation—the process of getting used to the places we live, our homes, our romantic partners, and almost everything else.

  30. Andrew Clark showed that job satisfaction among British workers was strongly correlated with changes in workers’ pay rather than the level of pay itself.

  31. “Time heals all wounds”

  32. 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.

  33. As it turned out, those who underwent the shorter massages with the break not only enjoyed their experiences more but they also said they would pay twice as much for the same interrupted massage in the future.

  34. The lesson here is to slow down pleasure. A new couch may please you for a couple of months, but don’t buy your new television until after the thrill of the couch has worn off. The opposite holds if you are struggling with economic cutbacks. When reducing consumption, you should move to a smaller apartment, give up cable television, and cut back on expensive coffee all at once—sure, the initial pain will be larger, but the total amount of agony over time will be lower.

  35. Thus, if you are considering whether to invest in a transient (scuba diving) or a constant (new sofa) experience and you predict that the two will have a similar impact on your overall happiness, select the transient one. The long-term effect of the sofa on your happiness is probably going to be much lower than you expect, while the long-term enjoyment of and memories from the scuba diving will probably last much longer than you predict.

  36. I was torn between the desire to stare at the thing in the mirror and the compulsion to turn away and ignore this new reality. Soon enough the pain in my legs made the decision for me, and I returned to my hospital bed.

  37. Finally, he gives up and walks away, mumbling “I’m sure they were sour anyway.” The sour grapes concept derived from this tale is the idea that we tend to scorn that which we cannot have.

  38. The fundamental problem is that online dating sites treat their users as searchable goods, as though they were digital cameras that can be fully described by a few attributes such as megapixels, lens aperture, and memory size. But in reality, if prospective romantic partners could possibly be considered as “products,” they would be closer to what economists call “experience goods.” Like dining experiences, perfumes, and art, people can’t be anatomized easily and effectively in the way that these dating Web sites imply.

  39. We can try to solve a problem by figuring out how a market is not providing the help we expect from it and take some steps to alleviate the problem (creating our own virtual dating experience, lending money to relatives, etc.). We can also try to solve the problem more generally and come up with products that are designed with an eye for meeting the needs of prospective customers. Sadly, but also happily, the opportunities for such improved products and services are everywhere.

  40. Another big factor, it seems, has to do with the sheer size of the tragedy—a concept expressed by none other than Joseph Stalin when he said, “One man’s death is a tragedy, but a million deaths is a statistic.” Stalin’s polar opposite, Mother Teresa, expressed the same sentiment when she said, “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.”

  41. This is the essence of what social scientists call “the identifiable victim effect”: once we have a face, a picture, and details about a person, we feel for them, and our actions—and money—follow. However, when the information is not individualized, we simply don’t feel as much empathy and, as a consequence, fail to act.

  42. IN MANY WAYS, it is very sad that the only effective way to get people to respond to suffering is through an emotional appeal, rather than through an objective reading of massive need.

  43. If we see ourselves having once made a certain decision, we immediately assume that it must have been reasonable (how could it have been otherwise?), so we repeat it. We call this type of process self-herding, because it is similar to the way we follow others but instead we follow our own past behavior.

  44. we look at our past actions to inform ourselves of who we are more generally, and then we act in compatible ways.

  45. It turns out that emotions easily affect decisions and that this can happen even when the emotions have nothing to do with the decisions themselves. We’ve also learned that the effects of emotions can outlast the feelings themselves and influence our long-term DECISIONS down the line.

  46. This means that before committing to any long-term relationship you should first explore your joint behavior in environments that don’t have well-defined social protocols (for example, I think that couples should plan their weddings before they decide to marry and go ahead with the marriage only if they still like each other). It also means that it is worthwhile to keep an eye open for deteriorating patterns of behavior. When we observe early-warning signs, we should take swift action to correct an undesirable course before the unfortunate patterns of dealing with each other fully develop.

  47. This was a very difficult decision. Despite the lack of functionality and pain I endured every day, I was loath to lose my arm. I just could not see how I would ever live without it, nor how I could possibly adapt to using a hook or a piece of flesh-colored plastic. In the end, I decided to hold on to my poor, limited, eviscerated limb and make the best of things.

  48. The point is this: it’s very unnatural for people—even people who are trained in a field like medicine—to take on the cost associated with running experiments, particularly when they have a strong gut feeling that what they are doing or proposing is beneficial. This is where the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) comes in. The FDA requires evidence that medications have been proven to be both safe and effective. As cumbersome, expensive, and complex as the process is, the FDA remains the only agency that requires the organizations dealing with it to perform experiments to prove the efficacy and safety of proposed treatements. Thanks to such experiments, we now know that some children’s cough medicines carry more risks than benefits, that surgeries for lower back pain are largely useless, that heart angioplasties and stents don’t really prolong the lives of patients, and that statins, while indeed reducing cholesterol, don’t effectively prevent heart diseases. And we are becoming aware of many more examples of treatments that don’t work as well as originally hoped.

  49. As Sherlock Holmes noted, “It is a capital mistake to theorize before one has data.”

  50. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said, “The country needs and, unless I mistake its temper, the country demands, bold, persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.”