Our rational irrationality

We’ve all seen it happen.  Whether it’s dirty dishes, bad table manners, or invasive, personal questions, there are triggers for each of us that touch off knee-jerk responses.  These triggers may vary from day to day, but the response probably follows a similar pattern each time.  We each recognize our own patterns in these reactions too.  When I’m nervous, I talk a lot and make bad jokes.  When I’m angry, my voice gets higher and louder and I say mean things I usually don’t mean, or at least don’t mean to say.  When I’m hurt or upset, I purse my mouth and curl up and freeze.  These are the patterns I know about myself, whether I like them or can change them or not.

Professor Dan Ariely, in his new book, Predictably Irrational: A New Book on How We Make Decisions, takes this concept a little further, applying it to economics, motivation and morals, and education.  If we know are irrational behaviors are predictable in some way, how can we build that into the structure of how we teach?  Why not build it into the things we sell or the advertising we use?  Are they not also applicable to the way a company is run, the way we encourage good investment decisions, or even the way we build or design space?  It’s an interesting idea, though I’m not sure how to carry it out.  More study into irrational behaviors?  Public policy shaped according tot eh results of these studies?  The follow-through is a little iffy, but I remain intrigued by the possibilities.

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4 packets of biscuits and a pair of flip flops

Flood.  Famine.  Earthquake.  Disaster.  It seems that in recent news, the world is tearing itself apart.  In some cases, such as the earthquake and related destruction in China, relief has been quick and a source of a revival of nationalism.  In others, such as Burma, the crisis is complicated by other political motivations.

What does it mean when a family of 14, is apportioned “4 packets of biscuits and a pair of flip flops’ as one of the lucky families winning aid from the government from the drawing instituted by the local headman?  What does it mean when villagers outside Rangoon survive on the charity of those within the city, rather than the direct aid being sent in by humanitarian organizations? We can talk about relative power, we can talk about foreign aid not getting where it’s supposed to be going, we can talk about various international perspectives on Burma’s military junta and what to do about it.  We could even write a book.  None of these discussions would come close to explaining who we are, or why we are mean to each other, occasionally even despite our best intentions.