Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Review: The Upside of Irrationality, by Dan Ariely

Reviewed by Christina
[I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.]

Complete Title: The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic

: 2010

It's about: Ariely, a behavioral economist, explains some of the irrational things people do:
Why don't big bonuses make people work harder?
Why is it so hard to get people to support the most desperate causes?
Why does food taste better when we cook it ourselves?

He argues that some of our irrational behaviors are actually good for us individually and for humanity in general; hence the "upside" in the title.

I thought: I enjoyed hearing Dan Ariely on an episode of Radiolab a while back (unfortunately I can't find that episode now) so I jumped at the opportunity to review his second book. And I'm so glad I did, because I really enjoyed it.

This book is different from any other social science nonfiction I've read in that the information is presented in a very casual and personal way. Most research-based writing describes the research and then describes the results. That's fine; it's what I'm used to and it gets the point across. Mr. Ariely is a researcher himself, and in describing some of the studies he and his colleagues have performed, he adds a personal touch by explaining the experiment from the participants' perspective. I loved this! It made the experimental process into a story, and personalized the research and the results.

Ariely also illustrates his points with quite a lot of examples from his own life, which also contribute to the personal tone of the book. When he was a teenager, a terribly unfortunate accident left 70 percent of Mr. Ariely's body covered in burns. He speaks candidly about the unspeakable frustration, depression, and humiliation he suffered during his extended hospital stay following the accident, and the continuing pain that he will carry all his life. The sections about his awful experience read a little like a memoir, but one that is firmly grounded in research and ideas.

This is just a little thing that probably no one cares about but me, but I like it so much that I have to mention it: organization. Upside is perfectly organized. The chapters build upon one another and ideas flow smoothly. It's lovely. And impressive.

I can't think of much nonfiction that I believe to be universally interesting. We all have different interests and passions, and who am I to guess what you will or won't want to know more about? But The Upside of Irrationality is about the most basic human behavior, and I can't really imagine a person who wouldn't want to know more about the way our emotions effect our lives and especially our decision making. Plus it's such a readable, enjoyable book- it makes perfect sense that it is a bestseller.

Verdict: Stick it right up there on the shelf!

Reading Recommendations: Anybody who likes Malcolm Gladwell will like Dan Ariely.
There seem to be quite a few amazon reviewers who think Ariely's first book, Predictably Irrational, is even better than this one! I just added it to my wishlist.

Warnings: There is one quoted editorial (written by some public official) that has a couple of swears. Dan Ariely's own swears are few and cutely hidden behind asterisks.

Favorite excerpts: "... If we place human beings on a spectrum between the hyperrational Mr. Spock and the fallible Homer Simpson, we are closer to Homer than we realize. [But] I hope you also realize the upside of irrationality- that some of the ways in which we are irrational are also what makes us wonderfully human."

What I'm reading next: Of Mice and Men for the upcoming Steinbeck Classics Circuit tour and then The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, by Katherine Howe. Also still reading Quarantine: Stories, by Rahul Mehta