ignorance is bliss?

In my seasonal bout of deciding upon a career path (or simply grad school), this month I’ve decided to inquire into the life and study of a behavioral economist. I was lent the book Predictably Irrational, written by Dan Ariely, nearly half a year ago, and finally took the time to lend an ear.

Challenging the commonly held notion that humanity is irrevocably rational, Ariely conducts a multitude of sensible, enlightening, and comical experiments proving the contrary. In summation, he states that we are so irrational in our actions that we are, without fail, predictable. Hence the title of his bestselling book.

In his closing pages he writes:

“Behavioral economists, on the other hand, believe that people are susceptible to irrelevant influences from their immediate environment (which we call context effects), irrelevant emotions, shortsightedness, and other forms of irrationality…

If I were to distill one main lesson from the research described in this book, it is that we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires – with how we want to view ourselves – than with reality.”

For example, and this was referenced in his book, think about when you first started taking the product Airborne. Maybe in high school? Earlier? It was created in the early 1990s and started hitting large-market shelves by the end of the decade. However, in 2008 a $23 million lawsuit was put against the owners and distributers of the supplement who “made false claims that Airborne products are clinically proven to treat colds. Turns out the tablets are merely filled with loads of vitamins (which, as one would rationally perceive, would be good for you, when in reality the absurd amount of vitamin C, for example, oxalates and is hardly absorbed into the body), with no clinically proven studies to back up the claims of their ability to prevent and alleviate sickness.

So does it actually work? Or does one’s misperception, wishful thinking, or sheer will to believe it so grant the credibility? Studies show the mind to be so powerful that once conditioned, it can cause the body to react in a way it typically wouldn’t when presented with a familiar stimulant. In other words, those that took Airborne with the conscious expectation it would work, may have conditioned the body to produce chemicals it wouldn’t have otherwise in order to combat that creeping cold; thus rendering the supplement just useful as a sugar-filled placebo.

That said, it begs the thought of whether those who believe what I’d just written above – while not having heard about the Airborne lawsuit – can still use Airborne with the same results. Or is it now just a quasi-functional tablet? Because Airborne, though under different management, still has zero endorsements from medical professionals for whether or not it cures or prevents illness.

This claim, of course, rests under the belief that the medical field is the true and only arbiter of what can and cannot cure us. Which makes this argument humorously ironic, now that I think about it, as I am using whatever rationale I have to justify the claim of human irrationality…

In all seriousness, however, this concept of irrationality (if you want further examples, you can actually just check out the wiki page for this book, as it summarizes many of the experiments) has me curious about medical ethics. At the end of the book, Ariely poses the question of whether or not our irrationality benefits or wounds us; though he offers little words on the matter. But say you have a mortally ill patient who conjures an irrational belief that if they exercise, take a pill, eat a certain food, or avoid particular activities that they may live for two years past the one-year ultimatum you have already informed them of. An ultimatum that has never proved wrong, with one year being a generous maximum of life expectancy. Do you try to break through the irrationality? Or will it actually matter as their death will silence the irrationality indefinitely?

There are, of course, other factors that play into this, but it’s a question strong enough to make one wonder. Perhaps irrationality can be welcomed in some contexts, while in others it needs to be debunked.

Lastly, and I am realizing this right before I make the post: I think the words above cater more to behavioral psychology than economics. At least, the example I gave did. In fact, the two are inseparable, but if you want more clear-cut examples that cater to economics, look at nearly all other instances within the book or wiki page. However, whether it is market economics or psychology of the individual, both have themes that speak to the everyday decisions we make, and how they aren’t as conscientiously driven as we initially thought.


~ by Chris Kyle on February 16, 2012.

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