The Book: The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Home and at Work by Dan Ariely, Harper, 330 Pages, $27.99 Hardcover, June 2010.
One of the hardest things to do is to follow up a great success with another one. The expectations are high; the pressure daunting. Dan Ariely had a smash success with his first book, Predictably Irrational, but he clearly overcame any sophomore slump because his new book, The Upside of Irrationality, is brilliant. As in his previous book, Ariely uses academic research and medical experiments to ask and answer some intriguing questions, like whether performance based incentives actually increase performance and why (and when) we get used to things.
You may question how the book is different from the previous. Ariely explains: "The Upside of Irrationality is … highly personal. Though my colleagues and I try to do our best to be as objective as possible in running and analyzing our experiments, much of this book (particularly the second part) draws on some of my difficult experiences as a burn patient. [...] My journey provided me with some unique perspectives on human behavior." That is not to say that this book skimps on the research, but the increase of personal reflections makes for a well-balanced and accessible read.
Ariely is clearly an extremely intelligent and educated person, and still, his writing reads like he is just a buddy you bowl with every Wednesday night. His many fascinating antidotes can change your way of thinking about many everyday things, like money, work, friendship and happiness. For example, regarding the aforementioned performance-based incentives: "using money to motivate people can be a double-edged sword. For tasks that require cognitive ability, low to moderate performance-based incentives can help. But when the incentive level is very high, it can command too much attention and thereby distract the person's mind with thoughts about the reward. This can create stress and ultimately reduce the level of performance." One of the experiments they conducted involves six simple games and measures the pressure the participant puts on himself trying for the big dollars.
It is not often that I would suggest that you pick up a business book as a "beach read." The Upside of Irrationality book is an exception. Take it to the cottage and enjoy and learn.
Reviewer Jack Covert is the founder of 800-CEO-READ, a leading bookseller to corporations and large organizations, based in Milwaukee.