The Upside of Irrationality by Dan Arielly

How is it possible to account for irrationality in a scientific way? What kind of a science, what kind of a scientist studies the the irrational side of human behavior? How, moreover, can irrational decisions be measured, explained and controlled? Arielly describes experiments which do just this.

A parrot is put in a cage with two sources of food, one takes time and effort, the other is instantaneous. The parrot prefers the food on which it has spent a bit of time. “Contra-freeloading” describes this very phenomenon: many animals prefer to work (or play) for food, rather than eating freely accessible food. Read this against standard economic theory, which holds that rational economic agents always prefer to minimize their effort to produce maximal rewards. Yet we humans, (like parrots) are not always and already rational; we play, we interact with our environment, although our interactions ‘cost’ us more in effort and may not produce higher returns..

Arielly describes experiments which demonstrate how and how much human beings are motivated by meaning, over and above immediate rewards. Some of these experiments point to “the Ikea effect” and explain why we feel better when we own things that we assemble ourselves. Some point to “the egg theory” which explains why Mrs. Baker will buy a cake mix to which she must add some ingredients, rather than a mix which requires no effort at all. Some experiments point to the “Not Invented Here” bias, which is the bias against solutions or goods which we ourselves did not invent. (Also called The Toothbrush Theory because we only want to use our own.) The notion that a personal investment of labour results in an increase in value is not new; what is new is a science that can quantify this revaluation, or ‘over-valuation’. Behavioural economics concerns itself with how systems and institutions and designs make room for the irrational, and what happens when they don’t.

Information has an emotional weight, it is not free of its distribution method or its owner, or the order in which it is presented. Some information can be “primed” — preceded by a particular emotional charge — so as to control its impact. Arielly’s life story, for example. Arielly introduces his work by telling us about his traumatic, disfiguring, painful accident and his prolonged convalescence and rehabilitation. Is this information intended to influence our apprehension of his work? Does it?

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer read by Dick Hill

A short sharp meditation on how we know what we know and how we decide what we decide by the director of the Center of Adaptive Behavior and Cognition at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin.

When I became director of the Max Planck institute of Human Development, I wanted to create an interdisciplinary research group whose members actually talked worked and published together–a rare thing. Unless one actively creates an environment that supports this goal, collaboration tends to fall apart within a few years or may never get off the ground in the first place. The major obstacle is a mental one.

Researchers like most ordinary people tend to identify with their in group and ignore or even look down on neighboring disciplines. Yet most relevant topics we study today do not respect the historically grown disciplinary borders and to make progress, one must look beyond one’s own narrow point of view so I came up with a set of rules, not verbalized but acted upon that would create the kind of culture I desired.
Those rules included: EVERYONE ON THE SAME PLANE.

In my experience, employees who work on different floors interact 50% less than those who work on the same floor. And the loss is greater for those working in different buildings. People often behave as if they still lived in the savannah, where they look for others horizontally but not above or below ground. So when my growing group needed an additional 2000 square feet in which to operate, I vetoed the architect’s proposal that we construct a new building, and extended our existing offices horizontally so that everyone remained on the same plane…..

This pancake theory of organizational vitality is just one demonstration of the non-logical rules that govern human environments.

Intelligence is at work in what we call gut feelings, hunches and intuitions — despite the fact that we cannot account for them. Intelligence is also at work in the non-logical rules of thumb we use to navigate and predict the behavior of others.

Consider a woman waiting for a black suitcase at Kennedy Airport, and a cop who is looking only for a woman who is looking out for him. How does he zero in on the woman?

Consider a baseball player who wants to catch a ball: how does he calculate where the ball will be so he can catch it?

How does Harry decide on which of his two girlfriends he should marry?

Different heuristics and rules of thumb underlie intuitions, enabling fast action, utilizing ‘recognition memory’ and the ability to track moving objects… But these rules are not logical. Gerd Gigerenzer navigates the place that gut feelings hold within human knowing, inviting us to re-evaluate both knowing and feeling.