Is Irrational the New Rational?Sep 15, 2009 In Design By Nishant Kothary
The idea that people make consistently logical choices has always befuddled me. Because honestly, it seems that evidence to the contrary is all around us.
Ori and Rom Brafman’s book Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, which I picked up a few weeks ago, confirms my thinking. By the time I reached the book’s halfway point, I had startling insights into previously unexplainable aspects of my personal and professional life: why some coworkers are so “emotional,” why a certain manager is illogical about one particular thing, why so many people hate Microsoft, & why my mother won’t ever take my advice about her diet.
Dan Ariely’s Predictably Irrational, which I am currently reading, is a meat & potatoes version of Sway. Ariely, a behavioral economist, gives insights into human nature that promise to change how you build products and behave within your organization.
Case studies and lab studies in both books reveal ways in which irrational behavior is,in fact,quite typical.
In one case, individual X was invited to participate in a study and taken into a room filled with other participants. What participant X didn’t know was that his fellow participants were paid actors.
The study began with a simple task: the lab instructor asked X to pick out the longest of three straight lines on a piece of paper (one line was unquestionably longer, so the answer was obvious). One by one, the paid actors answered out loud. And every time, much to X’s growing disdain and confusion, the actors picked the wrong line.
So what do you think X picked? Yep, you guessed it: he picked the same wrong answer that the actors gave. Despite knowing better.
In Predictably Irrational, Ariely talks about how humans tend to think relatively. He shows that we generally don’t know the intrinsic value of something; we only know its value in relation to something else. An example is purchasing a house. Choosing between a colonial and a craftsman, for instance, is very difficult because we have no basis for comparison. However, throw in a second colonial that’s slightly better than the first one (called the “decoy”) and we generally perceive the second colonial as superior not only to the first one, but also the craftsman.
Sounds crazy, but is it really so unusual? Haven’t we all been in a room where the vocal minority ends up swaying a vote at the last minute? Haven’t we all bought something we didn’t really want because we perceived the alternatives as inferior in comparison?
Natural marketers, salesmen and even pick-up artists have instinctually capitalized on our predictably irrational nature. Using a “decoy,” for example, is a classic tactic that many a lady friend of mine has confessed to using: when single women go out with the intention of meeting a guy in a pub, for example, they sometimes invite along another woman (“decoy”) who is comparable but slightly inferior to them in terms of attractiveness. Why? It helps convince potential mates of the “better” pick.
The New Emotional Design
The insights of behavioral economics are supremely important to most anyone who works with human beings, and especially those of us who work in fields with a “subjective” element (like design). These insights equip you with the background you need to understand and combat situations where smart people exhibit irrational behavior in a predictable manner (e.g. knee-jerk reactions in design review meetings from one or a set of individuals).
Predictably Irrational is a bible for any designer who works as a part of a bigger organization. I can comfortably say it’s the best “book on design” I’ve read in the past few years. Donald Norman‘s got nothing on Dan Ariely. OK, maybe I’m being hyperbolic, but seriously, go get the book. If it doesn’t change your thinking, I’ll buy you a drink.
Have you faced situations where you cock your head to the side wondering why everyone around you is acting slightly crazy? Have you read about behavioral economics? Is it your trade? We’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. Feel free to follow us on twitter if you liked this post, and we’ll notify you of future ones.