The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life As An Experiment by A.J. Jacobs

Read: 28 June, 2011

I listened to the audio book version of this. I’m finding that my ability to hold books is being seriously hampered by Captain Wiggly’s wild gesticulations. And it’s only gotten worse now that he’s started teething and requires holding at all times. So, at the recommendations of several friends, I’m giving the audio reading experience a try.

In The Guinea Pig Diaries, A.J. Jacobs conducts a number of experiments on himself. For a while, he tries to life according to George Washington’s code of conduct, he tries to scrub his brain of all irrational thinking, he outsources much of his life, and he dabbles with radical honesty.

Since the book is episodic, with each experiment serving as a discreet section, I thought it might be best to give my thoughts on each separately.

What would George Washington Do

In this segment, Jacobs tries to incorporate George Washington’s Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior. In the process, he learns about the ‘founding father’ and learns a new respect for Washington.

I found the history of this piece to be very interesting, but it may have been the weakest of Jacobs’s experiments in terms of its impact on his life. Keeping a straight face and adopting good posture isn’t exactly revolutionary. Ha ha! See what I did there?

The Unitasker

After a failed multitasking attempt causes Jacobs to lose driving privileges, he decides to experiment with unitasking – focusing on a single task at a time. This section had quite a bit of relevance for me as I’m almost never doing fewer than at least two things at a time. Even while I’m playing with the baby, I’m generally reading a book or even getting dishes done at the same time!

The human brain can’t multitask, says Jacobs. What we end up doing instead is simply switching back and forth between our tasks. This is inefficient because there’s some “now where was I?” time between each switch. He argues that we’re actually faster and more productive if we simply stop and focus on one thing at a time. From personal experience, I find that I get more enjoyment out of the task too, because it’s actually “there” mentally. It wasn’t a great chapter, but he made his point and I think I’m provisionally convinced.

I Think You’re Fat

In this section, Jacobs gives radical honesty a try. The concept is that you must tell the truth, all the time. All the time. Lying by omission is also out. If you’re a fan of gimmicky detective shows, you may have encountered the concept of radical honesty on Lie To Me (featuring Mr. Orange). Personally, my first exposure came when my brother-in-law started practising it.

Jacobs’s experience seems fairly similar to what I’ve seen first hand. There are quite a few occasions where it serves everyone well. It gets uncomfortable topics out in the open, initiating a dialogue that can actually fix the inter-personal problem. It can also help achieve short-term goals by forcing you to ask for the things you want. But on the other hand, it can also cause quite a bit of negative feeling.

For the project, Jacobs meets with radical honesty’s inventor, Dr. Brad Blanton. During his description, he mentions that Dr. Blanton has been married multiple times. This is shocking given Blanton’s claim that radical honesty “leads to intimacy in relationships.”

And that’s my main observation of radical honesty – the disconnect between the claimed benefits and the reality of its practice. Jacobs also points out a psychological quirk that voicing thoughts solidifies them in our minds. So, feeling a little down in the dumps about your job today? Vent about it and your opinion of your job will actually become more negative overall, even on the good days.

That’s why I’m much more in favour of a little thing I like to call radical positivism. Always say nice things until you train your brain to believe them. This doesn’t exclude constructive criticism, by the way. It’s merely a policy against whining.

240 Minutes of Fame

Jacobs happens to look a great deal like an actor I’d never heard of but who apparently had a little spot in the sun a couple years ago. When the actor decided not to attend one of these fancy Hollywood award ceremonies, Jacobs attended – letting people think that he was the actor.

He soon realized just how intoxicating fame can be, and how constant praise skews an individual’s perception of reality. I quite enjoyed this section because it pointed out just how fallible we are and how quickly any one of us, no matter how nice, could turn into one of these tantruming celebrity monsters.

My Outsourced Life

This may have been the best section, if only for the entertainment value. Jacobs uses firms in India to outsource parts of his life. It starts out fairly normal, outsourcing research for his articles and other menial tasks. But then he starts pushing the boundaries, even outsourcing a fight with his wife.

The lesson for this section is a good one. He starts off with what I think is a fairly common perception in the West that the people we’re outsourcing to are somewhat brutish. They’re great for simple, mindless work like the call centre screen reading that passes for tech support. But he soon realizes that his virtual assistants are every bit as intelligent and creative as American workers – if not more so.

The Rationality Project

This project struck a chord with me because it’s something that I’ve been working on for a few years now. In this project, Jacobs tries to eliminate as much irrational thinking from his brain as possible.

What he learns is rather similar to what I’ve learn, that simply being rational doesn’t necessarily eliminate subjectivity, nor does it allow us to find “correct” answers. For example, he experiments with toothpaste – does the rational mind choose based on cavity protection or taste? Well, as one of his sources points out, 10 years without a cavity may be worse than 9 years without a cavity but spent enjoying a much more pleasant brushing experience. Even though the latter is the “wrong” choice based solely on the cavity protection metric, the actual answer is far more complex and involves subjective preference.

That’s not to say that rationality is bunk. There are unquestionably “wrong” answers that we should make every effort to purge from our brains. But what Jacobs learns is that it’s perfectly rational to be an emotional human being and that subjective experiences are legitimate.

My life as a beautiful woman

This section was an extremely close runner-up for entertainment value. For this project, Jacobs tries online dating on behalf of his very attractive nanny. What he finds is fairly expected, that saying “no” to forceful advances all day gets tiresome and that there are some really mean manipulative jerks out there.

To be fair, his experience as a beautiful woman is only online, so he’s meeting a large collection of the scummiest individuals in high concentration without additional worries such as physical safety. As a result, his ability to really learn from the episode is somewhat stunted. But still, his writing style brings the adventure to life in a really funny way.

The truth about nakedness

Included for your edification

This is the deep feminist piece that “My life as a beautiful woman” couldn’t be. Jacobs’s job is to edit an article by actress Mary-Louise Parker on the experience of doing a naked photoshoot. Additionally, Parker is asked to illustrate her piece with a nude photo. But Parker, brilliantly, turns it around by only agreeing to write the article if Jacobs will also pose for a nude photo, which she gets to choose for the final print.

Jacobs isn’t writing any kind of deep analysis, but the lesson of sexual objectification does get conveyed. He experiences the shame of being exposed, the loss of control of having someone else get to choose which picture makes the cut, the emphasis on status when his shoot isn’t catered as nicely as Parker’s, etc.

Whipped (a.k.a. the perfect spouse)

For this experiment, Jacobs vows to be the perfect spouse for one whole month, doing everything his wife (who is a saint!) says. As expected, he quickly learns to appreciate just how much she does for the household. As Jacobs puts it, she was doing chores that he didn’t even know existed!

Though treated lightly, he brings attention to a very serious issue with our “post-feminist” society – that women are now working as much as men, but are still expected to come home and do the bulk of the housework and childcare. Not an issue in my household, thankfully, because my husband is every bit the feminist I am (and a fabulous cook to boot!).

Conclusion

I really enjoyed The Guinea Pig Diaries. As expected, this isn’t an in-depth treatment of any of the subjects Jacobs covers, and the lessons he draws are, for the most part, fairly superficial. But what he does is provide a light, entertaining, and humorous introduction to a wide range of social and global issues. There’s plenty of food for thought, served with a spoonful of sugar.

It works well for what it is.

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