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Thu
16
Jun '11

Swayed by our own Irrationality

I just finished listening to the book: Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori and Rom Brafman. It was a fascinating book that looked at the reasons and factors behind why we don’t always act rationally. It was a quick read (ok, listen) but made some really good points and had some great examples that really made me stop and think about my own behavior.

One of the more interesting points to me was the section on the Idea of Fairness and how that affects our behavior. Basically, the idea is that we will make an irrational choice if we feel that it is unfair to us (or others).

The book talks about the following experiment to illustrate their point. An experiment was conducted where 2 people are involved. One person is given $10 and told the rules: They are allowed to make an offer to a 2nd person on how to split the $10. The 2nd person is allowed to accept or reject the offer. If they accept, they each get their agreed-upon share of the money. If they reject it, neither gets any money. The two people will remain completely anonymous to each other during and after the experiment. In the results of the study, the majority of people split the money 50/50 and it is accepted. But, when the person who decides how to split the money does not choose to split it 50/50 (say by giving themselves $8 and the other person $2), it is rarely accepted by the 2nd person. The reason given: “It isn’t fair!” This is completely irrational! They would rather leave with nothing than allow an unfair split that still gives them something! But, our sense of fairness gets in the way and we aren’t going to allow someone to treat us that way.

We’re more interested in proving our point about fairness to that person (even though we have no idea who they are) than by getting some money. Proving this is that when they did this same experiment but replaced person 1 (the splitter) with a computer, the 2nd person most often accepted the offer, even if it wasn’t an even split.  So, when you take out the human element, we act much more rationally and have a different sense of fairness.

Now, although this is irrational behavior, it is not entirely bad. Our sense of justice and ability to think about more than just rationality is what sets us apart from the animals and robots of this world. If we only ever acted completely rationally and logically, compassion and love would often times take a back burner. So, while we need to recognize our behavior and be aware that we may be acting irrationally, it is also important to hold to your principles, even when (or, especially when) it doesn’t benefit you.

2 comments »

2 comments to “Swayed by our own Irrationality”

  1. Christine Says:

    Sounds like a thought provoking book. My first thoughts were as everyone in the study – 50/50. It’s interesting that I would feel ‘entitled’ to half of something I did nothing to earn. Totally irrational! Thanks for sharing. Christine

  2. asebesta Says:

    I know! I felt the exact same way! It was really interesting because they did the same experiment cross-culturally and went to a remote village in the Amazon. But, in this case, the split was normally 85/15 and the 2nd person almost always accepted. The 2nd person usually said something along the lines that “It was unlucky that they were not the person who got to choose but that they were satisfied to get anything at all.” The only people in that experiment who rejected the offer if it wasn’t even had spent considerable time away from the village. Interesting! I wonder if there is a culture where the person deciding how to split the money would give themselves less money?

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