When Irrational Behavior Can Be Beneficial


What are some examples from history of people behaving irrationally in a way that was beneficial? originally appeared on Quora – the knowledge sharing network where compelling questions are answered by people with unique insights.

Answer by Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, on Quora.

Mostly when we use the term irrational we think of things as bad behavior but there are many irrational behaviors that are wonderful. For example think of altruism, from a perfectly rational perspective we should never help somebody we don’t expect to interact with ever again, we should be selfish and maximize our own benefit but people show over and over that we have a tremendous capacity to want to do things for others, a tremendous capacity for generosity and those aspects while irrational are incredible. They are what makes us human, there are many aspects that we might want to get rid of if we redesigned humans but the altruism and caring about others is certainly not one of them.

One other example for how people behave irrationally that is beneficial is starting new businesses and restaurants. Let’s take restaurants for example. The probability that a restaurant will succeed is incredibly low and if people were rationally looking at the cost and benefits, the chance of success, they would not start a restaurant. People are taking an incredible risk when starting to new restaurants or businesses. But this is at the individual level, think about the society level, how much would you like to live in a place with no new restaurants? While people are taking an irrational risk at the individual level they are playing a hugely important role for society and we all benefit from them.

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