Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Upside Of Irrationality: Chapter 9

Through a series of experiments, Dan Ariely documents the many ways in which humans behave irrationally. By understanding these human tendencies, we can both learn to behave more rationally when it is to our benefit, and better understand why those around us are behaving in the way they are.

Twenty-four hour news programming provides interesting insights into the tastes of media consumers. For example, people seem to be far more captivated by rescue attempts of a child that has fallen into a well than by genocides in other countries. Through a series of experiments that allowed subjects to donate their own money, Ariely discusses the factors that determine what makes us care more about some tragic events over others.

One important factor is how close we are to the victim, both physically and emotionally. Someone within our family, or that we know, or that is within some physical proximity is more likely to elicit our help than someone in a land far away.

Another important factor is the vividness (as opposed to vagueness) of the danger. A drowning child that is screaming or begging for help is a vivid signal, whereas a dry newspaper statistic is less likely to draw a response.

Finally, the amount that we personally can help is also a factor. If our efforts would amount to only a drop in the bucket we are less likely to help (e.g. we can help one starving child, but are discouraged when faced with mass starvation).

These findings have implications for a wide range of problems that humans face. Understanding these problems can help deal with the apathy confronted by those looking to fight against genocides, diseases and global warming, for example.

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