Dan Ariely teaches psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and is the bestselling author of three books I love:

Here’s one of his TED talks:

Dan is starting an online course called “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior“. You can check it out here.

He and I spoke about the ups and downs of irrationality, how to make better decisions, and overcoming procrastination.




Irrationality Can Be A Good Thing


Can you talk about the Lego study, the IKEA effect and people’s investment in things?


So this is a great example of something that is irrational but wonderful. And what we’ve basically found is that the moment that you invest something of yourself into something, you start overvaluing it. My personal experience started with IKEA furniture which is the reason that we call it the IKEA effect. But what happened was I’m not particularly good in assembling things and it took me a long time. I made all kinds of mistakes. But I found out that when I finished assembling this truly mediocre piece of furniture, I was actually incredibly proud of it and I kept moving it with me from city to city as I would keep on moving, while the objective quality of it did not support that.

And I started wondering whether my love of it was due to my investment of time and energy. And we’ve done all kinds of experiments on this. We’ve done experiments with people doing origami and building Legos. And what’s interesting is when people build origami, okay, every origami’s a little different so maybe people cannot get attached to it. But when you build Legos based on instructions, there are no differences between the Legos you build and somebody else builds. But even with those provisions, people still attach more to the kind of Lego that they created.

I think the most extreme example of this is kids. So I haven’t done this experiment, but this is a question I ask many people. I say imagine I would come to you. I go to people with kids, and I would come to you and I would say would you sell me your kids? How much money would you charge me if I wanted to buy your kids and take all your memories and association and so on and I promise to give them a good home. And as long as these are not teenagers, people say lots of money. They can’t see their lives without the kids. And I say imagine a different place. Imagine that you don’t have kids. You went to a park and you met these two kids and you played with them for a few hours and they were wonderful little kids just like your kids right now. And after a few hours, you were ready to say goodbye, but before you said goodbye, the parents said you know, by the way, they are for sale. Are you interested? How much would you pay for those kids? And most people at that time basically realize that they wouldn’t pay much for these kids.

And I think this is because kids are an ideal example of the IKEA effect. We love our kids. I have two kids; I think they’re the most adorable kids in the world. We just went skiing and I couldn’t believe that anybody else wanted to do anything on the mountain besides watching my kids ski. How could they find anything else more adorable? If you want, I’ll send you the video. But the realization I think is we love them so much because they’re our kids. We think that IKEA furniture comes with better instructions. Kids really come with no instructions. Very tough to deal with, difficult, complex, but incredibly involving and time consuming and I think the love that comes out of it is an example of the effect of a tremendous investment.


What happens when we try to overcome our irrationality?


So in terms of trying to use your research practically, what do you think most people do wrong when it comes to trying to be more rational or trying to overcome their biases? What mistakes do most people make?


When they try? I think most people don’t try. There’s some really beautiful research by Wilson and Schooler showing that when people decide about buying jams and you get them to think very carefully about it, they actually get jams they don’t like. So sometimes when people try to be more rational, what they end up doing is they just think more cognitively and they think less about what they like and they think more about what’s the right thing to do. So in the Wilson and Schooler example, you give people jams and jams are not a rational product. It’s about what you enjoy and what you don’t enjoy. But you give people the choice between jams and you tell them to think hard about it. What they end up doing is they buy jams that they don’t end up liking. They’re basically trying to do the right thing by a computation, and it ends up not being the thing that they enjoy.


Are Creative People More Dishonest?


Can you talk a little about the connection between creativity and dishonesty?


Yes. So think about what we find about dishonesty. What we find is it’s a struggle between two forces. You want to think of yourself as an honest, wonderful person on one hand and you want to gain from dishonesty on the other hand. And the way you can do it is to tell yourself a story about why this is actually okay. So ask yourself who can tell better stories? It turns out more creative people can tell better stories, so that’s actually what we find. We find it when we measure students that are more creative, they cheat more. We find that when we use prying to increase creativity, we also increase dishonesty. And when we went to an advertising agency, we also found that the people in the advertising agency who were in more creative job titles also had more flexibility.


What Books Do You Recommend?



Take the “Outside Perspective”


If somebody said to you “What’s a tip I can use tomorrow?” — what would your piece of advice be, gleaning from your research?


If I had to give advice across many aspects of life, I would ask people to take what’s called “the outside perspective.” And the outside perspective is easily thought about: “What would you do if you made the recommendation for another person?” And I find that often that when we’re recommending something to another person, we don’t think about our current state and we don’t think about our current emotions. We actually think a bit more distant from the decision and often make the better decision because of that.


Part 2

We’re Different People When We’re Turned On


You did a fascinating study about what happens to peoples’ ethical decisions when they’re sexually aroused. Can you talk about that a little bit?


Yeah, that’s a great example for both how emotion works in us and how we don’t understand how it works in us. So we took a group of young people and we asked them to make judgments about how they would behave, how they would behave when they’re sexually aroused if they encounter all kinds of questions. So one set of questions was about “Would they behave immorally towards women in order to try to get them to go to bed with them?” And there was a range of activities that range from would you tell a woman you love her even if you don’t to try to convince her to go to bed with you? Would you try to get the woman drunk? Drugged? Would you try to force things? But people when non-aroused, when we say how would you behave in those cases? How likely would you be to do each of those when you’re aroused?

We also asked them about condom use. You would be aroused in a room with a woman. You’re both half-naked and all of a sudden you realize you don’t have a condom. Would you go and get one? Stuff like that. And finally, we also asked them questions about sexual appetite. So how likely are you to have sex with somebody that smokes, that you hate, how much would you like to have somebody watching you, animals, people urinating, all kinds of things. And what you basically find is the men said “I will always be nice to a woman, I will always wear a condom, and I’m not interested in any of those odd sexual activities.”

And then we took another group, but also sometimes the same people, so it was a mixed design. Some were the same people, some were other people. And we said okay, we’re going to give you these questions, but before we give you these questions we want you to get sexually aroused. The way we did it is we gave them the same laptop, but this time some pornography appeared on the laptop and we asked them to self-stimulate. We asked them to do it in the privacy of their room. We asked them to sit in the bed and we gave them a one-handed keyboard and we asked them to use the other hand to self-stimulate themselves. When they got to a certain level of erection but before they ejaculated, we asked them at that point to try and maintain that level of arousal and then answer these questions. And what happened is people answered the questions in a very different way. All of a sudden, they thought they would do all kinds of immoral things to women. They thought they would not be as likely to wear condoms in all kinds of cases. And they were interested in all that . . . much more interested in all the activities we showed them, legal and illegal by the way.

And the thing is, in some sense, everybody knows that. I think there’s a joke. There’s many versions of this joke, but one of them is God gave men two organs and only enough blood for one of them at a time. And we all know that. But the thing is, and what the study shows, is that we don’t know it enough. Because if you said “oh, I know that when I’m aroused I will behave differently”, then you would answer that way. Even when you’re in a cold state, you would say “Now I don’t want it but I understand that when I’m aroused I’m more interested in this so I will do it like this.” But the fact that there was a gap, and the fact that in both conditions people were asked not what would you do when you’re unaroused. In both conditions, we asked what would you do when you’re aroused? So most people don’t understand the extent to which arousal influences themselves.

So we understand the influence of arousal with erections, but we don’t understand the intensity of how arousal would act for us. So you could say “Oh yes, I understand. When the cake shows up, I would be more interested in it than when it’s not around.” But you don’t understand the extent to which it would change it. So this goes back to our original, the initial question. You asked me what is irrationality? I think that’s irrational, that you don’t understand the extent to which an external stimulus or internal state like arousal would actually influence your behavior.


How To Stop People From Cheating


The rational theory says that it’s all about consequences, right? So imagine there are three times. There’s the time before you have an opportunity to cheat, the moment that you have an opportunity to cheat, and the time after you cheated. The rational theory says let’s just give people big punishments. We’ll give a big punishment at the end after people have had a chance to cheat and then everybody will compute it and will think about it and will decide this is not worth it.

But I think we need to pay attention to the other two signs. We need to think about what happens before people have an opportunity to cheat, which is all about education. To think about how to create the moral fiber. Right, that’s the good part of human beings, which neither economic theory predicts. And then we need to think about what we do at the moment of temptation. So I think that if we shifted our attention from what happens after cheating to what happens before which is education and what happens at the moment of temptation, life would be better.

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