The Upside of Irrationality is Dan Ariely’s second tour of the irrational side of human behavior. In this book, as he did in the best-selling Predictably Irrational, Ariely, a professor of behavioral economics at Duke, reveals how we are not the rational, selfish beings some economists would have us believe we are. Instead, we are inherently biased creatures who are unaware of our irrational blind spots. On a spectrum between the hyperrational Mr. Spock and the foolish Homer Simpson, Ariely notes, we are closer to Homer than we realize. But what Ariely adds to the story this time around is that these irrational foibles are beneficial, perhaps even essential, to building strong human relationships and a decent society.

Drawing on research he and his colleagues have conducted, Ariely shows us some of the more peculiar ways our minds work. At our jobs, for instance, higher bonuses don’t always lead to the highest performance, as rational economics would predict. Rather, anticipating large rewards that depend on performance causes many of us to choke under pressure.

Harper, 2010, 352 pages

Also, we tend to take frequent breaks during unpleasant tasks and think it best to savor pleasures without interruption. But because we adapt to experiences rather quickly, this means that the benefits of those positive experiences diminish rapidly. So, Ariely tells us, we should stick with unsavory tasks until we are done, and slow down and even interrupt pleasures. Indeed, research shows that when a TV show is interrupted by commercial breaks, people actually enjoy it more! 

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Once Ariely calls our attention to such biases and irrationalities, it becomes easier to notice them on our own. What’s harder to recognize is their “upside.” Yet Ariely devotes much of his book to explaining what advantages they provide. These irrationalities, argues Ariely, make us “wonderfully human.” They allow us, among other things, to trust other people, enjoy expending effort, and love our kids. It is difficult to imagine how a world where everyone is ultimately self-interested and calculating could be a happy, thriving, desirable place in which to live.

Still, irrationality has its undeniable pitfalls, and Ariely’s goal is to reveal how and when our irrationality can lead us astray so we can learn to overcome our blind spots. A good example of this is when he reviews our tendency to be moved much more by the suffering of one individual (think of baby Jessica)—and invest time, money, and effort in its cause—while we often fail to act in the face of horrendous tragedies that affect more people (think of the genocide in Rwanda). Given this bias, Ariely identifies the factors that increase the likelihood that we will take action for those in need: When we feel physically and/or psychologically close to them, when we can vividly imagine their suffering, and when we are not deterred by the notion that our help will be just a tiny drop in the bucket. Whether you are working for a charity or are just someone considering a charitable donation, being aware of these factors will doubtlessly help you make more informed decisions.

Ariely shows us the beauty of social science in his conversational, witty, and also deeply personal writing style. As readers might remember from his first book, when he was 18, he suffered burns over 70 percent of his body from an accidental explosion and had to spend three years of his life in a hospital. In this book, he probes deeper into his memories of these painful experiences, and the passages in which he discusses how they inspired his research are both powerful and touching. The Upside of Irrationality is an enjoyable, thought-provoking, at times fascinating book, which you will be hard-pressed not to like if you are curious about human nature.

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