Duke Professor: Don't Fight Human Irrationality, Work With It
If you are a boss you might want to consider the possibility that paying your employees big bonuses isn't likely to improve their performance. Also, if your spouse or partner dumps you it may hurt for a little while, but eventually you will get over it.
Those are among the nuggets in The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home, a scholarly, yet breezily written analysis of the research on the rationality of a wide range of behavior.
Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, isn't at all opposed to using logic and reason when making decisions. Instead, he wants people to pay a little less attention to their inner Mr. Spock and let their inner Homer Simpson have more influence on their actions.
Ariely contended that "irrational forces help us achieve great things and live well in a social structure."
The author punctures the conventional wisdom about the correlation between bonuses and job performance. He presents research that if you pay people too much in a lump sum it will actually distract them from doing their jobs because they will spend too much time thinking about how to spend their newfound wealth. These bonuses can cause an interruption in what one psychologist describes as a "state of flow," when one is fully concentrating on the task at hand.
As an alternative, Ariely suggested offering employees smaller, yet more frequent bonuses or giving performance-based payments averaged over an extended period, not just over the last year.
He explained that research on this and other issues has led him to believe that we behave less rationally when we try harder.
Ariely doesn't spend a great deal of time discussing politics but the rational-irrational divide crops up often during campaigns and policy debates.
Americans seem to have a love-hate relationship with rationality and unflappability. During the 2008 campaign Barack Obama garnered praise for his grace under pressure and earned the moniker "no drama Obama." However, those same assets angered Americans during the Gulf Coast oil spill when Obama was sharply rebuked-even by his political allies-for his perceived calm.
Although Obama's political views have remained constant, Ariely said he has shown his ability to adapt to changing circumstances throughout his life.
According to the research Ariely presents, that is fairly typical behavior.
He described adaptation as a "novelty filter that helps us focus our limited attention on things that are changing and might therefore pose either opportunities or danger."
Ariely spent considerable time discussing the psychological theory of "hedonic adaptation," which contends that an individual's overall state of happiness doesn't shift widely for long periods of time, despite changes in his or her condition.
In other words, the good feelings people get from a new car or new kitchen don't last.
However, the flip side is that bad times don't last either. You may always remember a particularly difficult or traumatic event, Ariely writes, but "its influence will not be as vivid or as incessant as you originally thought it would."
The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home is part academic tome and part self-help book. Ariely wants to help you help yourself but does so without feeling your pain.