Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Predictably Irrational

This guy, Dan Ariely, having survived third-degree burns over seventy percent of his body and a contaminated blood transfusion that left him with liver disease, endured the medication that would eventually save his life but cause him to suffer debilitating side effects by conditioning his irrational self to associate taking the medication with his favourite past-time -- watching movies. Incredible story. And his message is important: "man the rational animal" is a misnomer. We would do better to acknowledge how predictably irrational we are, and use that to our advantage.

In this CBC Quirks and Quarks interview, June 5: The Upside of Irrationality, Ariely addresses human empathy when it comes to large scale crisis and the 'identifiable victim effect'. Stalin said "One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic." Mother Teresa said, "If I look at the masses, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will". One child falls down a well and there is more news coverage in forty hours than Rwanda and Darfur put together. Big, statistical problems mute us. When people 'feel' sympathy for a victim they care and are willing to take action. But when people have to 'think' about a crisis they are far less willing to do so.

Climate change. How do we get people to care about a crisis that is more abstract, less immediate, and in the long-term future? Lame attempts at eliciting sympathy for polar bears or displaced Northern coastal communities? The problem is far more crucial than this. Ariely suggests "reward substitution" to get people to do things for global warming AS IF they care. Playing to the irrational ego toward a rational end. I suspect 'game design' may become important in this respect -- marketers and large corporations designing recreational or consumer driven activity that draws on cognitive surplus, immediately satisfies the irrational, selfish ego, yet somehow contributes to effecting change and benefiting society.

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