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?