Friday, March 04, 2011

We only think we know what we are doing

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, economics

I have gradually come to realize that economics is about cost/benefit calculations of all kinds, not just about money. Thus, at this late date, I now classify The Universal Elixir and Other Computer Projects Which Failed by Robert L. Glass as an economic text. Published in 1977, it exposes the real reason for many project failures, including "not invented here syndrome" and "I couldn't disappoint my golf buddy" and the "mythical man-month" (or why nine women can't produce a baby in one month). I wonder if Dan Ariely has read it.

In Predictably Irrational, Dr. Ariely (with dual PhD's) displayed the odd things we do and how they hold us back, and how even knowing how we are, we usually do it anyway. Now he has written an even more useful companion volume, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home.

I learned long ago that, if I must negotiate with someone, I have to determine just how crazy he or she is, and be even crazier. Put another way, there's no sense deciding you need to go to the moon, then getting nickel-and-dimed down until you can only get halfway there. Instead, start by demanding funding to go to Mars, then "reluctantly" agreeing to about twice what you think you'll need to get to good old Luna, and calling it an "exploratory study." This is a metaphor for selling your house, by the way…

Parrots get bored if you don't "let" them "work" for their food. Who knew? In an early section, the author shows how rats can learn to push a lever to get food. Then you put a container with "free food" in it next to the box with the lever. The rat will still use the lever more than half the time. In fact, of birds and mammals with which similar experiments were done, the only one for which the principle fails is the domestic house cat. I grew up with cats. If you feed a cat, it'll ignore intruding mice, except perhaps as playthings. But if you put away the cat's food for a day or two, it will bring you the dead mice, perhaps partly eaten. Then you feed it.

I'll bet about half the middle-class homes in the US have at least one piece of furniture (most likely a computer desk or bookshelf unit) that was built from a kit. And in most cases, no matter how ugly the result, the builder thereof really likes that desk or shelf. Research experiments have shown that people who fold their own origami crane value it more highly than a professionally folded crane. Lest you be tempted to bestow a Golden Fleece award on such research, understand that such experiments are actually quite cheap (compared to medical trials of a new antibiotic), and help us learn a lot about how we think, or don't think.

One aspect of his own history that affects everything in the author's life is a terrible burning accident he had while in high school, and the long, painful recuperation and sometimes even more painful surgeries (one at least performed without anesthesia) he underwent. Yeah, he really is scarred for life, in all senses of the word. He considers it a wonder that he is happily married with two children. He has two chapters that deal with adaptation, and with "assortive mating" as a form of adaptation.

Beauty and the Beast and the new film Beastly explore this notion. If you were suddenly rendered quite ugly, would you settle for access to a more restricted pool of potential wife or husband material? Perhaps you think you'd have to find someone who values "good sense of humor" on a matchmaking questionnaire, knowing full well that "sense of humor" is a euphemism for "can break a mirror with a glance." At least half of us are going to go through this: most long-term marriages end with the death of one spouse. Many more end in divorce, often in late middle age. Now that you ain't young and pretty, how will you attract a partner who is sexy enough to attract you? Hmmm?

Adaptation is a wonderful thing. Dr. Ariely married a lovely woman in spite of his burns. This is one kind of case. Then there is my father. He was 82 when my mother died. He began dating almost immediately (at the time my son was 14; it was like suddenly having two 14-year-olds!). He married at age 86, and I recently visited them for his 89th birthday. It's been decades since anyone would spontaneously call him handsome, but his wife is quite crazy about him.

In plain fact, we get over both the good and the bad remarkably quickly and well, in most cases. An interesting case shows how to take advantage of adaptation to rebalance our happiness quotient. Experiments show that interrupting a pleasant or unpleasant experience takes us almost back to square one, so we have to re-adapt. Take advantage this way: When faced with the need to "slay a dragon", such as cleaning out the garage, do it all at once, without a break. The break will just reinforce the contrast between the onerous work and the break itself, making you more miserable. On the other hand, in the middle of doing something you like, distract yourself for a moment, then return, and the pleasure will increase.

In his last chapter, we find substantiation for the folklore to "sleep on it" when we are tempted to make a decision while in the grip of strong emotion. This goes for both positive and negative emotions. It is found that making an emotional decision will predispose us to make a similar (and often similarly misguided) decision again, even if the next time there is little emotion. Don't want your past to rule your future? "Don't do something you can't undo," "Count to ten (backwards is better)," or "Sleep on it." A corollary: I've learned that I often wake up with something on my mind, and before I'm out of bed, I can get myself into quite a lather to "do something about it." I've learned not to act on morning thoughts. They can get me into quite a bit of trouble! Eating a nice breakfast calms me down. I suspect Dr. A. would agree.

This is quite an optimistic book, even though some of the chapters reveal rather unfortunate side effects of our inherent biases and emotional traps. We can learn to avoid some of them, and the author's last message is a good one: "Test Everything." Don't assume you know what you are doing without trying an alternative (assuming it can be done safely). Develop a habit like the carpenter's rule to "Measure twice, cut once," so you don't have to say, "No matter how much I cut off this board, it doesn't get any longer."

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