08-18-10-upside-of-irrationality-the-unexpected-benefits-of-defying-logic-at-work-and-at-home.gifThis November a lot of good elected public officials — along with, it must be said, some sorry ones, too — are going to lose their jobs.

When times are bad, or when voters are angry for any reason, there are few options for them to register their discontent other than voting against whoever happens to be in office.

Maybe you heard the story of the older blind woman who was assisted in the voting booth by a younger friend. “Do you want to vote for John Brown or Bob White?” the young friend could be heard asking. The older woman’s voice boomed through the hall, “Which one is ‘in’?”

“Mr. Brown.”

“Then vote for the other one.”

Down the ballot, the older woman directed “the other one,” after finding out which candidate was ”in.”

Does irrational behavior like the older woman’s voting choices pay off? Does it accomplish things that perfectly rational conduct just cannot achieve?

These are the kind of questions that Duke professor Dan Ariely deals with in his new book, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home.

Ariely’s new book follows up his best selling Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions. That book’s main point was that many important decisions we make every day are not based on a rational determination of what is best for us from an economic viewpoint.

The new book’s title indicates that there might be a considerable “upside” to all the irrational decisions that we make. Actually, Ariely mostly continues to point out the downsides of our irrational choices and make suggestions about how to make better choices. But he does give some interesting exceptions.

For instance, he shows how there may be some “upside” to the normally irrational response of revenge when we are done wrong. He describes why a donkey thief might pass by the opportunity to steal an animal from someone who “is not always rational and … in fact … the dark-souled, vengeful type who would chase you to the ends of the earth, take back not only my donkey but all of your goats, and leave you a bloody mess to boot.”

Would you steal this man’s donkey? Ariely: “My guess is that you would not.”

Even when there is no social utility to it, the compulsion for revenge is powerful.

Ariel measured the compulsion in a “trust games” experiment. Each of two people were given $10. One person is given the option to keep his $10 or give it to the second person. If he gives it to the second person, that person gets an additional $30 so that he has a total of $50. He then has the option to keep the $50 or to give $25 back to the first person.

In the game, some gave and some kept it all.

Ariely added a twist. For the people who got nothing back, he gave a chance to get revenge. They could put up their own money to punish the ones who had failed to share with them. For every $2 the first person put up, $4 would be taken away from the second person. So, if he put up $25, the second person would lose all his winnings.

Many players took the full revenge. Most interestingly, says Ariely, he measured the brain activity of the revengers. Their brain activity indicated they took great pleasure with their actions — those who punished the most taking the greatest pleasure.

The revenge that some voters take this fall may not be in their long-term best interests. But if we could measure the pleasure their acts of electoral revenge give them, we might understand better why democracy does not always deliver the most rational result.

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