Book Review: Predictably Irrational-By Dan Ariely

by | Jan 8, 2021 | Blog, Book Reviews from a fitness and health perspective.

The brain is simultaneously our superpower and our kryptonite; we have an almost exhaustible ability to consciously and unconsciously “screw” our future selves.

The human brain, like fire, can feed and fuel, but it can also kill … and by “kill” I mean kill our potential to live a productive, happy, and healthy future life.

We self-sabotage with almost unbelievable ease. If I was an alien viewing from afar I would assume most of us hated ourselves. How crazy would it be to witness millions of a separate species rationalize unhealthy, in-the-moment decisions (like smoking) purely to elicit an immediate dopamine hit, literally killing their future selves?

What the aliens wouldn’t understand is that the brain is not evil—it is just an emotionally driven hot mess wired to prioritize immediate rewards. Most of us don’t actually hate ourselves. Far from it. It is just that our brains are wired to keep us alive, not happy and healthy. In many ways, the brain just hasn’t caught up to the needs of the 2020 “get anything you want in a second” current climate. If you want to create a healthier future you, make it your mission to harness the positive powers of the brain, to strategically overpower the kryptonite, to “trick” the brain—to use our superpower for good, not evil.

What does this have to do with Predictably Irrational?

Predictably Irrational outlines various ways the brain “sorts” reality and motivates certain behaviours—ways that may keep us alive but often don’t keep us healthy, happy, or productive.

Since our brains don’t automatically “serve” our healthy future self, step one of the health process has to include working to understand individual triggers, the basic mechanisms of the brain as they pertain to motivation and habit change, and how the brain is “predictably irrational.” Step two is using that knowledge to create environments, systems, and positive emotional connections that will facilitate the future us we want to become.

To paraphrase Rachel Hollis, health is about being IAF—i.e., intentional as f*ck.

Predictably Irrational has valuable insights for your “IAF” health quest! Here are two examples.

  1. Relative: Make comparison circles that serve you

Left unchecked, we compare ourselves to what and who we interact with. When unaware, our level of happiness is relative to our circle of comparison. If we live in a neighbourhood where our house is the most expensive, we feel rich. If we move to a more expensive neighbourhood and our house value stays the same, we feel poor.

Here is an example from the health sphere. After a major surgery a client started out feeling, motivated and positive. Why? We compared her progress to people in analogous medical situations as well as to her “grade of fitness.” Then, she hung out with her family for the summer—family who had not had this surgery—and she felt like crap because relative to them she wasn’t “fit.” Her family was an unhelpful comparison. They were doing university math and she was in grade one. The comparison didn’t make her want to work harder; it made her feel like quitting. She needed a buddy in grade 1 or maybe grade 2.

The solution is not to become a hermit and divorce family. The solution is to become aware, to consciously architect a circle of relativity that is helpful. Curate the people in your life, people you follow on social media, and your inner expectations of yourself. Don’t expect yourself at age 70 to have the body you had at 20. Keeping the vision of your 20-year-old in your circle simply sets you up for failure.

Intentionally compare your progress to your grade of fitness. Compare yourself to the you in the recent past, to other people in similar grades of fitness, and to your “trend”—the direction you’re heading. Do you have healthier habits this month than last month? Can you walk farther than last month? Are your taste buds and movement preferences trending in the right direction?

Again, think IAS. Be selective. Be aware of your triggers. Keep people, objects, and environments in your circle that serve you.

  1. Consciously create anchors that serve the habits you want to foster: Herd yourself into healthy behaviour

Our initial decisions, whether conscious or unconscious, anchor how we think about those experiences going forward. Initial emotions imprint a belief of the worth of that habit. Our first interactions with a brand of cereal, a coffee shop, a person, a type of exercise, etc. anchor how we think about the product, brand, human, type of motion, etc. going forward. (That is, of course, unless we consciously decide to re-anchor.) Anchors then “herd” us into repeating these choices, habits, etc.

Think of a time you walked past a busy restaurant and thought “This place is busy. It must be good.” If you are like most of us, you probably went back to try that “good” restaurant or stopped on the spur of the moment to try it. Others then lined up behind you. The initial people in the establishment created an anchor. The patrons who came after were “herded.”

We also self-herd. If we try something once and have a positive emotional imprint from it we start to “own” that experience, product, or choice and thus consciously and unconsciously deem it worthy. We “line up behind ourselves.” The more often we line up the easier it is to continue to line up. We teach ourselves that the habit must be a “good restaurant.”

My question is, is it really that good of a restaurant, or are you just going out of habit? Did it used to serve you, but currently leaves something to be desired? Obviously, the restaurant is a metaphor. Think of “restaurant” as any habit that you believe is “yours”—a habit that you have anchored as part of your identity.

The problem with any anchor is that we often repeat the behaviour, choice, or product affiliation long past when the decision served us. My suggestion is to take inventory of your anchors. Where did they came from? Are they still serving you? What emotions do they fulfill? What are their pros and cons, etc.?

If your anchors are not serving you, work to create new anchors. Know that a new anchor is best created when connected to a need or an emotion. Think of Starbucks. People were willing to upgrade from Tim Hortons because of the new atmosphere that Starbucks created—the sense of community married with being fancy. If you want to “anchor” into anything—for example, being active—create an emotional connection. Try meeting friends so your workouts are understood as part of your social life. Or reframe the workout: connect moving to being the “type” of person who trains. Or join a sporting community—anchor to being an athlete.

The bottom line is that creating your fitter, future self is all about being intentional. Own your current self. Know who you want your future self to be. Consciously shape the strategic and emotional path needed to get you from your current you to your future you.