If Your Psychotherapist Were A Behavioral Economist

This article was originally published on The Psych Report before it became part of the Behavioral Scientist in 2017.

It’s easy to feel like you’re the only one. The only one who has trouble finding a significant other, remembering to call your mother, or dealing with your teenage son or daughter when they bring home a dud.

But thanks to Gutenberg, our penchant for oversharing, and our love of telling each other what to do, the advice column exists and we’re blessed with a weekly reminder that we’re not alone. That there’s some other person out there who can’t figure out why they have so many missing socks just like you.

In his newest book, Irrationally Yours: On Missing Socks, Pickup Lines, and Other Existential Puzzles, psychologist and behavioral economist Dan Ariely brings together the best of his Wall Street Journal “Ask Ariely” column, with previously unpublished advice to create a brief book of wisdom and wit that is well worth the read.

Why do I stuff my face with food at midnight, after resisting temptation all day? Should I marry my boyfriend or stay life-long friends with benefits? What’s the return on investment for an all-you-can-eat buffet? These are just a few of the topics Ariely tackles as he dispenses his special blend of advice—scientific expertise mixed with wry Jewish humor, familial wisdom, and the perspective of someone who, through a severe injury suffered in his teens, spent months in hospital recovering, thinking about why humans do what they do. If your psychotherapist was an Israeli behavioral economist, I imagine the experience might be something like reading Ariely’s book.

It is an incredibly self-affirming experience to read advice doled out to others. By doing so we are able to remind ourselves of what we know so deeply, but forget so easily—that we’re all just as human as the next person, awkwardly groping for answers until we’re so desperate for one that we decide to ask a complete stranger in a public forum. Advice columns reveal to us that our problems aren’t as unique as we think, and remind us that if we have an embarrassing question chances are someone else does too. (But God bless the poor soul willing to strip himself of his pride and ask the question so we don’t have to.) It’s on these points that I’d optimistically like to think advice columns can add to the general level of humanity. Of course, advice columns can also add to the general level of inanity. But Ariely’s advice, however humorous, manages to reveal the deeply human elements of the conundrums we find ourselves in.

For instance, when faced with the perennial question of how to make sure Americans save enough for retirement, Ariely writes:

“There are basically two ways to get people to have sufficient money to fund their entire retirement. The first, is to get people to save more money, and to start saving at a younger age. The second approach is to get people to die at a younger age. The easier approach, by far, is getting people to die younger. And how might we achieve this? By allowing citizens to smoke, subsidizing sugary and fatty foods, and limiting access to preventative health care. So, when we think about savings in these terms, it seems like we’re already doing the most we can on this front.”

When asked, why communication on the internet “seems to make people descend to the lowest common denominator,” he replies:

‘It’s easy to blame the Internet, but I think we see such behavior mostly because people generally gravitate towards trafficking in trivialities. Consider your own daily interactions. How much is witty repartee—and how much is the verbal equivalent of cat pictures? The Internet just makes it easier to see how boring our ordinary interactions are.”

Ariely also provides insights on more weighty topics including marriage, having kids, and choosing a career. In one reply to a soon-to-be college graduate debating whether or not to postpone the start of her career in order to teach English in Spain, he writes:

“When I graduated, I asked Ziv Carmon—one of my academic advisers—which university I should aim for as my first academic job. His answer was that I should go to the place where, five years down the road, I would be most likely to emerge a different person…Since then, I have been a fan of thinking of the early years of life as an opportunity to collect lessons and experiences so that we are better equipped for the long and unpredictable road ahead…Maybe you can think of this time in Spain as gambling with your own time now for a future benefit, but since the seeds you sow now can yield fruit over many, many years, I would go for it.”

In addition to Ariely’s advice, the book also feature illustrations by cartoonist William Haefeli, which share a similar wit and irreverence as Ariely’s replies.

Irrationally Yours is a front row seat to a purely human exchange, led by someone with incredible knowledge of human behavior and a knack for carving out the essence of a problem. While not necessarily packed with scientific explanations, which Ariely has left for other mediums, the book touches on a range of cognitive biases and psychological concepts in an entertaining, insightful, and human way that the reader is sure to appreciate and enjoy. Take it from me.