Why We do Dumb or Irrational Things

A friend pointed to the PsyBlog article Why We do Dumb or Irrational Things: 10 Brilliant Social Psychology Studies that itself lists ten classic studies of human behavior / sociology and invites readers to vote on their favorite of the ten.  I don't know if Jeremy Dean offers other voters to pick other studies, but these are some good ones:

Like eminent social psychologist Professor Philip Zimbardo, I'm also obsessed with why we do dumb or irrational things. The answer quite often is because of other people - something social psychologists have comprehensively shown.

  1. The Halo Effect: When Your Own Mind is a Mystery
  2. How and Why We Lie to Ourselves: Cognitive Dissonance
  3. War, Peace and the Role of Power in Sherif's Robbers Cave Experiment
  4. Our Dark Hearts: The Stanford Prison Experiment
  5. Just Following Orders? Stanley Milgram's Obedience Experiment
  6. Why We All Stink as Intuitive Psychologists: The False Consensus Bias
  7. Why Groups and Prejudices Form So Easily: Social Identity Theory
  8. How to Avoid a Bad Bargain: Don't Threaten
  9. Why We Don't Help Others: Bystander Apathy
  10. I Can't Believe My Eyes: Conforming to the Norm

[all links are to additional PsyBlog articles that explain the studies in greater depth]

These are great studies to reference when it's time to scratch your head in wonder at "why are they doing that?"

I don't know if there is a single study on "you get what you measure," but I think that might be my favorite.  People may seem to behave irrationally in the business setting, but there is usually an understandable chain of cause-and-effect behind it all.  Why doesn't the plant produce more, so that we can sell more?  Because the plant is heavily penalized for "waste" and not credited for sales successes, so they always low ball their production numbers.

3 Comment(s)

Brett said:

I remember this question coming up in an Organizational Behavior class many years ago. The professor had what I think is a very interesting insight: Everyone behaves rationally.

The caveat, of course, is that they behave rationally within their own mind. The trick for someone observing that behavior is to understand why the person thinks their behavior is rational. (Any parent knows exactly what I mean.) I haven't had a chance to read all the articles, but it looks like thats what they address.

If you find yourself in this situation, it is also worth exploring why you think the behavior you are observing is irrational. I've been surprised several times when I realized that it was, in fact, me who was being irrational (though I emphatically deny ever doing anything dumb ;-)

Jack Vinson Author Profile Page said:

Brett- Thanks for this comment. It reflects what I was attempting to say above. Pretty much everything we do -- even when it appears to run counter to the needs of the organization / individual -- can be checked against fairly rational logic. It is usually NOT that people are irrational, it is that the rules and measures they have in place are forcing people to operate in certain ways.

Jack.. thank you for pointing to this blog/article. Human & social psychology, and social / cultural anthropology play "large" in the effectiveness of knowledge exchange / collaboration / transfer etc. It makes me wonder if managers need to build a bit of knowledge in these areas in the future, if organizations need to explicitly access to this type of professional capability..

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