Aug 172011

So I was listening to Dan Ariely’s book The Upside of Irrationality a little while ago… while I was on the treadmill at a hotel at 6:00AM.  I’m practically certain, although I have no way to prove it, that the only other person there ended up convinced I was mad.

The recording got to chapter two, relating a story about how rats were observed showing a preference for work, in an experiment that first conditioned them to press a bar to release food and then receive a bowl of food without having to “work” for it. In both cases, the food was taken away randomly and without warning. The conclusion, when the rats later opted to press the bar for food despite there being a full bowl in the cage, was that they “preferred” to “earn” their meals.  Therein proving the intrinsic value of work.  [It’s been a couple weeks, I hope I recall it sufficiently accurately.]

If one takes the scientists’ assessment as related at face value, which is the intent I suppose, it indicates that rats–and by extension humans–are not efficient in this sense. That is, rational efficiency would suggest that a person or rat would do the least for the reward (food) and take from the available bowl rather than working at the lever if given the option.  It’s a rational conclusion, but it’s also the point at which I started making loud noises that sounded a lot like, “What a crock of shit!” — or something like that.

Far be it from me to challenge the conclusion of behavioural scientists or animal trainers . And I have no insight into the brain functioning of lab rats. But, while this is one conclusion for sure, isn’t it also a reasonable conclusion that a rat–or a person–presented with this same situation might be greedily preserving the food that was visible and “easy,” storing or saving it as it were, while pressing the lever (working) to get the food that was not visible and easy? Sort of the idea behind putting a little something away for a rainy day; keeping a bird in hand, creating a nest egg, and so on? It doesn’t require much more than primitive cognition and the type of training given the rats for even a rat to make this kind of connection does it?

So, of the two “conclusions”:  the official and scientific one and my galloping-wheezing on a machine alternative, which do we suppose Ockham would suggest more plausible?

 Posted by on 17 Aug 2011

  One Response to “The Outside of Irrationality”

  1. […] below, I wrote a post with my thoughts about one specific experimental vignette in Dan Ariely’s […]

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