Book Review: The Upside of Irrationality

Posted: August 6th, 2011 under book review, education, philosophy, psychology.
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Dan Ariely previously wrote Predictably Irrational which I read and enjoyed. In this follow-up, Ariely reveals the beneficial outcomes and pleasant surprises that often arise from irrational behavior; he examines some of the positive effects irrationality has on our lives and offers a new look on the irrational decisions that influence our personal lives and our workplace experiences.The Upside Of Irrationality

What Ariely suggests about our tendency toward hedonic adaptation is compelling:

Hedonic adaptation is the process of getting used to the places we live, our homes, our romantic partners, and almost everything else. It is an emotional leveling out–when initial positive and negative perceptions fade. When we move into a new house, we may be delighted with the gleaming hardwood floors or upset about the garish lime green kitchen cabinets. After a few weeks, those factors fade into the background. A few months later we aren’t as annoyed by the color of the cabinets, but at the same time, we don’t derive as much pleasure from the handsome floors. (p. 168)

One key to changing the adaptation process is to interrupt it. In a set of experiments Leif Nelson and Tom Meyvis measured how small interruptions–which they called hedonic disruptions–influence the overall enjoyment and irritation we get from pleasurable and painful experiences. They found that in general, when asked about their preferences for breaking up experiences, people want to disrupt annoying experiences but prefer to enjoy pleasurable experiences without any breaks. But Leif and Tom suspected that people’s intuitions are completely wrong. People will suffer less when they do not disrupt annoying experiences, and enjoy pleasurable experiences more when they break them up. Any interruption, they guessed, would keep people from adapting to the experience, which means that it would be bad to break up annoying experiences but useful to interrupt pleasurable ones. Results of their experiments confirmed their predictions. They found that a break actually decreases your ability to adapt to a boring or irritable experience, making the experience seem worse when you have to return to it. Here is the trick: instead of thinking about taking a break as a relief from a chore, think about how much harder it will be to resume an activity you dislike. Similarly, if you don’t want to take the plunge and terminate or interrupt a pleasurable experience, consider the joy of returning to or resuming that activity. (p. 176-180)

We can harness adaptation to maximize our overall satisfaction in life by shifting our investments away from products and services that give us a constant stream of experiences and toward ones that are more temporary and fleeting. For example, stereo equipment and furniture generally provide a constant experience, so it’s very easy to adapt to them. On the other hand, transient experiences (a four-day getaway, a scuba diving adventure, or a concert) are fleeting, so you can’t adapt to them as readily. (p. 187)

Ariely explores several important concepts in his book, such as our innate desire for revenge, our tendency to make rash decisions under the influence of emotions, and intrinsic motivation. He uses a nice narrative style with several personal accounts. Although I was familiar with several of the studies from my previous readings, there were some new concepts and perspectives I found fascinating.

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