(by Dan Ariely)

Upside of Irrationality

If anything, Professor Ariely’s second book is even better than the first. Starting with ordinary incidents from real life he proceeds to describe his research and gradually the principle in each chapter crystallises. Then he considers the applications of this in various domains. Here are a few of his discoveries:

‘We overvalue our work’ (p. 83). People who were taught origami and shown how to construct paper cranes or frogs, judged their creations as a lot more valuable than other people did. The implications for teachers are huge: project work of all kinds is a lot better than getting students to do endless exercises – the latter are not something they can take pride in, as they feel their contribution is so small *.

‘Having created something, we want people to see it’ (p. 53). In a fantastic experiment, people told to construct Lego robots lost interest a lot faster when the robots were dismantled as soon as they had completed them than when they were told they would be disassembled later. The moral: although students may get all the linguistic benefits from having their essay/story marked and returned, in terms of motivation it makes a huge difference for us to display it in class.

‘We prefer our own ideas to those of others’ (p. 107). In an amazing study, subjects favoured the ideas they had generated themselves, even when it was in fact the researchers who had given them these ideas in sentences a little while earlier! The moral for us is clear: rather than assigning H/W for instance, why not ask the students themselves what they would think it would be best for the class to do?

‘Short-term emotions can have long-term effects’ (p. 257). Here is how it works: we may be angry with our partner one day; we go to class; we snap at the students and we are unusually strict with them; the lesson is a failure. Later we reflect on the experience. Are we honest with ourselves? Of course not! Instead we try to justify our behaviour telling ourselves that we displayed the necessary firmness. But this ‘narrative’ actually impacts on our future behaviour; next time we are far more likely to be strict again! (A clear warning to all of us there…)

OK – here is my favourite, discovery: ‘habituation: we get used to things’ (p. 157). And now for the amazing, counter-intuitive implication for maximising satisfaction: ‘Pleasant activities – break them up; unpleasant ones – just get them over with’! So tell your partner, it makes sense to stop that massage every 2 min or so and then start again! 🙂

(* in fact by slightly tweaking some activities, we can change this – by following ‘The Egg Theory’! – just watch the following video… )