Wonderfully human

Wonderfully human

With this simple sentence, Dan Ariely, best-selling author of Predictably Irrational, begins his new book, The Upside of Irrationality. It is a sentence calculated to charm and disarm and it does exactly that, for which, one of us has never fought that futile battle with pushing things, especially unpleasant ones, away to that dim, distant moment in the future, not acknowledging that one day that moment will arrive at our doorstep.

It is with easy wisdom like this that Ariely steers the reader on a fantastic journey across a terrain that is at once familiar, yet deeply unfamiliar — the mind of a human being with all its subterranean workings: the emotions, calculations, the love and pain that go into creating that flawed yet endearingly human entity. For, a human being is hardly a perfect creature; he is fatally flawed, but  Ariely tells us that being less than perfect is what makes us human after all. He tells us repeatedly, his reasoning buttressed by reams of statistical data (he does not intend to win us over by persuasion alone), that these very flaws have a meaning; they serve a purpose that is ultimately beneficial to humankind.

At work, the author comes up with startling revelations. The most shocking being that paying an unnaturally high bonus to a worker (these would naturally be workers high up on the ladder of the workforce, CEOs and suchlike) actually impedes him from performing well. In fact, such a bonus may overwhelm and completely paralyse the concerned person. He or she becomes “overmotivated”; the stakes are so high, the person worries constantly about what can be lost and, naturally, is completely distracted from the task at hand. The author suggests that bonuses could be made lower or linked to performance spread over five years to distribute evenly the stress of working towards them. Pay less for more productivity? Irrational, right? But true, nevertheless. Which one of us has not experienced overpowering anxiety when working towards something that is critically important? A less crucial goal always has us more relaxed.

In the same breath, the author suggests that, given a choice, man is a “contrafreeloader”, that he would instinctively choose to perform tasks that were poorly paid but meaningful, rather than highly paid work that was inherently meaningless. Goes against reason again? Absolutely! But the author again supports his statement with unassailable data and in any case, when one stops to think, it all makes perfect sense. How long would a person churn out meaningless work that no one else saw or appreciated, no matter that it was highly paid? For some time, maybe, but after that the meaninglessness of it all would take over. “Perhaps we hope that someone else... will ascribe value to what we’ve produced?... That it might be of some value in the big, broad world out there...”, the author concludes and one can only agree.

Other complex issues at the workplace are addressed by Ariely: overvaluing things and ideas that we create as versus those created by others and quite unexpectedly, the idea of revenge. Revenge is a strong, destructive emotion, but illogically again, the author declares that there may be such a thing as “Useful Revenge”. He goes on to illustrate this by suitably famous examples of useful revenge.

 So much for the office. Onto the home front. The author embarks on his exploration of this stage, by discussing adaptation. Adaptation is a curious phenomenon. All humans, why, all living beings, possess this capacity to greater and lesser degrees. The more easily one is able to adapt, one survives situations better.

In this context, Ariely, again comes up with confounding yet ultimately believable statements. He talks about hedonistic adaptation, a kind of adaptive behaviour that with time slowly dulls our pleasurable responses to stimuli once capable of arousing deep pleasure.

His advice here is to interrupt — what he calls “hedonistic interruption” — the partaking of such pleasures to prolong their impact. On the other hand, he advises us to complete unpleasant tasks in one sitting as, after a while, the unpleasantness of it all fades. Something we would all love our children to do — homework and tidying up clutter in one stretch.

Among other things, Ariely discusses how we choose our mates, empathy and emotion and the long-term effects of short-term behaviour. The last is something all of us are conversant with, but does that stop us from doing something today that is potentially damaging in the future? No, says Ariely, for we have a “self-herding behaviour” that propels us to act in certain ways under strain or pressure. Maybe the only solution here is that old wisdom — sleep on it, count to ten, and this cooling off actually works.

Dan Ariely tackles the complex issues in this book with great subtlety. He knows that even stacks of data may not be sufficient to convince irrational fellow humans of the validity of what he is saying; he supports his data with generous helpings of charm, intelligent reasoning and deeply moving accounts of the personal tragedy he suffered early in life. It is no surprise that he succeeds in achieving what he set out to do: prod us into exploring the unexpected joys of irrationality.

Dan Ariely
Harper Collins 2010, pp 333

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