Dan Ariely's "The Upside of Irrationality" is subtitled "The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home." A more apt title would have been "Predictably Irrational--the Sequel," since this book comes across more as a follow-up to Ariely's first book ("Predictably Irrational--The Hidden forces that Shape Our Decisions") than a presentation of completely new material. The author, who is a behavioral economist, recounts a series of experiments that he and his colleagues conducted to explore such questions as: What makes work meaningful and, conversely, what can make it dull and unsatisfying? Why do people procrastinate? How does a person's self-image influence whom he chooses to date? Why is revenge so sweet even though it "has no more quenching effect on emotions than salt water has on thirst"? In what ways do our emotions impel us to make self-destructive decisions?
In Chapter Eleven, "Lessons from Our Irrationalities," Ariely sums up his thesis succinctly: "Our cognitive biases often lead us astray, particularly when we have to make, big, difficult, [and] painful choices." The author brings his point home in a poignant manner when he discusses what happened after he incurred third degree burns in an accident. In order to reduce his pain and the number of surgeries he would have to undergo, his doctor recommended the amputation of his hand and forearm. Dan says, "I decided to hold on to my poor, limited, eviscerated limb and make the best of things." Now he wonders if he made a mistake: "I was not so rational, and I kept my arm--resulting in more operations, reduced flexibility, and frequent pain."
Although this book breaks little new ground in a popular field crowded with similar works, Ariely's personal account of his ordeal, including the excruciating physical and occupational therapy that he endured, make for compelling reading. When Dan admits that he agonized over his ability to find a woman to love as well as a satisfying job, we cannot help but empathize. "The Upside of Irrationality" offers a much-needed reminder that we can never totally eliminate our subconscious biases. At best, we can remain cognizant of our irrationality, and make use of our self-knowledge to optimize our chances for success and happiness.