Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics. He teaches at Duke University and is the founder of The Center for Advanced Hindsight and also the co-founder of BEworks.
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Hi again Reddit, I’m Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke, and the author of Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, and Irrationally Yours.
I’m pleased to partner with the Ways & Means podcast to bring you this AMA as part of their Season 2 premiere. They invited me to talk about why innovation in government is so hard. Please check it out!
I'll be here answering your questions from 5pm-6pm.
Why do so many Americans adopt a political worldview that doesn't make obvious sense given their economic situation?
Very good question. There's lots of reasons for this... one interesting answer comes from research about something called solution aversion.
In this research, they took a group of Republicans and randomly divided them into three subgroups. One of those groups - they asked them how much they believe that global warming is a problem. And the answer was that they don't believe global warming is a problem. Another group, they told them that the solution to global warming is more government intervention, more regulation, etc., and they asked them how much they thought global warming was a problem. They didn't think it was. They told the third group that the solution was to have less regulation, for government to get out of the way and allow private enterprise to get into this area. Now, this group of Republicans said that they believe global warming is a serious problem, almost at the level of Democrats.
What these findings show is that sometimes when we don't like the solution, we deny the problem.
Imagine for example that your physician just told you that you have a unique medical condition that tells you that you cannot have chocolate any more. If this was the case, there's a good chance you deny the problem so you don't have to stop eating chocolates.
So what does that mean in terms of your question? Sometimes people vote against their best interests, but sometimes, this does not mean that they don't understand the data, they just don't like the proposed solution.
So, for example, someone who is relatively poor is objecting to government programs for the poor not because they don't want more help, but because they don't want more government interventions.
How do you counteract us vs them and win people over to your side?
We generally see our group as being comprised of many different people with different preferences, personalities, and nuances, while we see the others as being all the same. One method that has been shown to work is to break that belief and to give people some examples of the uniqueness of people in the group of the others.
What's your take on Social Psych's issues around proving or even attempting repeatability? I was quite disillusioned by one of my favorite areas of psychology when I heard that last year.
In general, I think that the recent interest in replication and robustness checks is an important step for social science. Overall, I think there's some good things about that.
That said, I also think that sometimes we take findings that don't seem to replicate, and we throw away the original findings too quickly. For example, imagine that we run an experiment in one domain, and we find that making choices very complex gets people to procrastinate more and to be less likely to make a decision.
Imagine that we then do it in a slightly different setup, with a different type of individual, or in a different cultural context, etc., and we find a different result. Does that mean that the original theory doesn't hold? Not necessarily. Maybe what it means is that life is more complex, and we need to create theories that capture some of these extra nuances.
I worry that some of the attempts for replication are of the sort that should reveal extra nuances, but we instead treat them as undermining the initial results.
How bad would a Trump presidency be for the economy?
Very hard to say, partially because it is hard to figure out how much control the president actually has on the economy, and partially because it's hard to really understand what Trump believes in and what kind of policies he would try to enact.
Interesting...thank you. I now wonder, though, why this segment of the population is averse to government intervention, depsite knowing the interventions would help them.
One more reason why the poor are against something that seems to be in their best interest comes from a paper called 'Last Place Aversion.' That paper showed that people who object most to the increase of the minimum wage are the people who are right now likely above the minimum wage, and if this policy was to be enacted, would become in the last place. What this shows is that this aversion to being in the last place is so strong that people seem to be voting not in their best interest.
Hi Dan. I recently finished a PhD in psychology, and your book Predictably Irrational was one of the key catalysts for me embarking on this career path - so thank you for that.
If you don't mind me asking a question, what are the current developments in psychology that you think are most promising and/or are the most excited about?
I am most excited about the fact that psychology is leaving the lab, and getting into the field. This change is exciting for me for two reasons: the first is that we take lots of things that we're learning and apply them in ways to get people to live a better life. This includes getting people to save money, to spend less, to take better care of their health, to sleep better, to fight less with their significant other, and so on. The second thing is that by getting out of the lab, we are discovering more things, more social phenomena that are interesting and important, and are also discovering more nuances and differences.
For example, we have started to discover some very important things about poverty in the last few years. Poverty is something that is very hard to study in the lab, but by going into the field it was possible to understand the mindsets and the challenges and the complexity of the life of the poor, and understand better the decisions that they're making.
For example, it turns out that the poor make many more consequential decisions than the wealthy. If you're poor, every decision you make is a trade-off. If you decide to have breakfast, you might not have money for the bus. If you decide to get dinner, you might not have money for rent. If you decide to pay the phone bill, you might not have money to buy gas for your car. This state, where each decision is consequential and important, ends up being depleting. It ends up taking tremendous amounts of energy out of people — so much that as people go through the day making more and more consequential decisions, they simply get tired of making difficult decisions, which makes them much more susceptible to temptation later in the day.
How much does evolution/genetics impact psychology?
Very much, but it's hard to tell.
There's no question that genetics and evolution are deeply important. At the same time, it's very hard to study scientifically. When Darwin was studying the finches, if I remember correctly, there were about 16 different types, and he could look at differences between them. When we're studying the relationship between the size of testicles of different animals and how long they stay with their young, we can study across many different animals.
But when we're studying human beings, we basically have just one type, which means that we can't study variation across people, making it very hard to be scientifically sure the extent to which evolution and genitics matter.
What makes someone authoritative?
How frustrating is it that so many superficial cues control our perceptions? (Thinking about the media's analysis of presidential debates for example, it is generally 'They came across so astute, and authoritative, and presidential.' and nothing about content.)
It is indeed sad, and we do judge things on many superficial levels.
In terms of being authoritative, there are many ways to be seen as such. Not questioning yourself is one. Having high confidence is another.
In social science experiments, it is very good to wear a white lab coat. [There's a new movie about Stanley Milgram and his experiments, called The Experimenter, and I highly recommend it.]
Personally, I think that writing some books that made it to the NYT best-seller list makes it easier for me to be authoritative as well. I highly recommend that method.
What is charisma, and how does it work?
I've been searching for it myself for a long time, so far without success.
Are you planning on doing your course again through Coursera or another web service? What happened that made you terminate it when you had done so much work to produce it?
It was great btw. Thanks for creating and sharing it.
Thanks for the kind words!
We did spend a lot of time on it. If I remember correctly, the team in total spent about 4,000 hours on this class.
The challenge with the class was that every time I taught it, and I taught it twice, there were a few people in the class, very few, who made my life miserable. When you teach a class with a lot of students, let's say 200,000, there's a non-negligible probability that some of them will be difficult, unpleasant individuals. Indeed, every time, I got a few people from that category. These individuals basically made the whole process terrible for me. They took a tremendous amount of my time, they made things very difficult, and when I asked the people at Coursera to eliminate them from the class, they told me that it was their policy to allow everybody in. While I understand that policy, it is also the case that I can't risk another period of my life where a few people will have the ability to take over my life and make my life, and the life of some of my students, miserable.
PS: Of course, if you're interested in making the connection between my experience on Coursera and some of the questions about Reddit, there are clearly useful links between the two.
What is the oldest psychology study that still holds water?
It was probably God's experiment, maybe cruel experiment, to create men and women.
How much do our perceptions and responses to them influence our lives?
If I were to say, "Dan, I am so broke and hungry can I please borrow $5?" you would probably say yes, if I spoke in a different tone and said "Hey big shot, you got $5 I can borrow?" you would likely say no. My needs haven't changed, but in the second case I chose a bad way to phrase it and a stupid tone, so I miss out. Someone who doesn't have the people skills, though they might have the intelligence and everything else, misses out because of how they are perceived.
No question about this. You're absolutely right.
A very interesting skill that many people have is called theory of mind. Theory of mind is our ability to put ourselves into other people's shoes and feel how they would feel if we said something to them or asked them for something. And by having theory of mind, we navigate our space in the world. We figure out how close or far away to stand from somebody. We figure out what we can tell them and what we should hold back. We understand how to be polite.
Some people don't have theory of mind. In particular, people with Asperger's syndromes don't have theory of mind. This is why they're blunt and more truthful. This is why they have to create for themselves a rule of how far or close to stand from other people. As a consequence, they have a very hard social life.
People on the autistic spectrum are an extreme case of people who don't have theory of mind, but these challenges are not limited to them and them alone.
Do you think Psychiatrists over medicate, in the general US population?
Yes, and I don't just mean that they themselves take too many drugs.
Overmedicating is not limited to psychiatrists. For example, we know that physicians give people antibiotics even when they don't need them. Often people come to the doctor and they feel that unless the doctor prescribes some medication, that they haven't really been treated. The doctors, knowing this and feeling the pressure to prescribe medication, often prescribe medication. The same thing is true for psychiatrists.
In addition, psychiatrists have all kinds of other pressures to over prescribe medications. They get pressure from pharmaceutical companies, from the hospital, from insurance companies... In general, we've created a system that is creating dramatic over prescription.
The most recent challenge with over prescription, of course, is with painkillers, where we're realizing how much we've over-prescribed pain medication, and how many people we've gotten addicted to pain medication over the last few years.
Over medication is certainly something we need to understand better and get control over.
That's it for now — I've got a flight to catch! This was fun as always! Thanks for your great questions.
How do I stop drinking ?
You have to create a rule. There are many decisions in life that are easier if we have a do or don't do rule. If you basically start drinking, and then you ask yourself whether you should have another sip, or another glass, there will be many times when you will end up drinking more than you hope to drink. But if you create for yourself a rule, this will help you know exactly where you are, and help you avoid drinking.
Even more interesting, you can take a lesson from religion, and connect this rule to a higher order meaning. This, by the way, is some of the principle of AA, where they have a rule that says no drinking whatsoever. You can ask yourself why this strict rule? Why not allow people to drink half a glass a day?
But it's actually very simple... if the rule was to drink up to half a glass a day, we all know what would happen. There would be a market for very big glasses. And people would say, 'I will drink twice today, but not tomorrow.' People will cheat themselves.
This is why having a very simple rule - even though it decreases our joy in life in many ways - helps us stick to our intentions.
Has anyone tested our individual understanding of what is rational? What is a rational decision on Tuesday, might be different on Wednesday? Is it concrete?
There are many different versions of the meaning of the word "rational." There are two versions that I like.
The first one is to take the basic assumption from economics about what rational means, which is that people know their preferences, that they can think with infinite capacity, that people don't make mistakes in decisions, and they always make the right choice. I like this definition because economics have become a guiding light for how to run the world — how to run businesses, how to set policies, and so on. To the extent that we show that the basic economic version of rationality doesn't hold, we also question some of the implication of economics for how we design the world and live our lives.
The second version of rationality and irrationality that I think is important is about the fact that sometimes we don't understand the forces that shape our own choices. The reason I care about this second definition is that those are the cases where we are likely to make mistakes. As long as we understand our own decisions and what governs them, even if we're rational from an economic perspective, we might take all of the inputs into account and make a decision in our best interest. If we don't understand what's actually driving our decisions, these are the places where we might fail, and I want us to think more carefully about those cases so that we can prevent mistakes in our decisions.
Why do I like to make myself sneeze, Dan?
Sneezing is slightly connected to the feeling of losing consciousness. At that moment of sneezing, you actually have very little control over anything that you do. Maybe, what you enjoy so much is the lack of control.
On the last day of Social Psych back in undergrad, the Prof shouted to us all as we left, 'If you remember one thing from this class it is that you are what you do.' (And not what you wish, feel, think, expect etc...) What do you think of that motto? Does it sum us up?
No. It is true that in the short term, what we do is a good description of us. But if you look at the world, and you look at the kind of things that we do to ourselves and to others, if you look at hate, if you look at war, if you look at obesity, diabetes, domestic violence, fraud... I don't believe that we are living up to our true potential.
I believe that we have created all kinds of systems, from the conflicts of interests in banking, to poverty, to highly subsidized corn syrup that causes us to behave in ways that don't maximize our long-term best interest. And it's true that as long as we have those systems, we're going to behave in those ways. But the key to human progress is the recognition that we don't have to settle for those systems. We can build systems that are much better. And therefore, we can actually be very different people.
There is no reason for us, once we understood how dangerous sugar is, to keep on subsidizing the sugar industry. There is no reason for us, once we understood how corrosive conflicts of interests are, to keep on having the same conflicts of interests in lobbying, Wall Street, and medicine.
It is true that human freedom is limited by the systems in which we live, but we can, with some effort, change those systems.
Is psychology a science or a pseudoscience?
Psychology is certainly a science. Every time that you create hypotheses and collect data in a way that can either support or disprove your theory, you're talking about a science. From that perspective, there is no question that psychology is a science.
What is extra interesting about any social science is that social science keeps on changing with time. Think about physics: physics has not changed much for a very, very, very long time. But social science is changing. Why? As we change the world in which we live, our psychology changes with it. For example, a long time ago, we did not need to worry much about divided attention, so social science did not study much divided attention. Now, between texting and driving, watching TV while being on your phone, listening to lectures while being on Facebook, divided attention becomes much more important to understand.
Social science, unlike natural sciences, keeps on evolving, and the questions that we need to explore are continuously changing as well.
> Psychology is certainly a science. Every time that you create hypotheses and collect data in a way that can either support or disprove your theory, you're talking about a science. From that perspective, there is no question that psychology is a science.
Astrologers make similar claims, as do untold numbers of people involved in the supplement, diet and homeopathic trades. What distinguishes the rigors of the scientific methon in psychology vs. the aforementioned?
The key for something being a science is that it could be disproved by following the scientific method. So, people who do food supplements could submit their science to a rigorous scientific method and find out if their food supplements are helping or not.
Even an astrologist, in principle, could get multiple astrologists to predict the results for the next month, and see if they agree among them and if there's any accuracy to their measures.
In the case of acupuncture, I remember a set of studies in which they took people who had no idea about acupuncture. They gave them some needles and patients and asked them to prick these patients in any place that they wanted. What they showed is that these random pricks by people who knew nothing about acupuncture was as helpful as the acupuncture created by acupuncture experts.
What does this tells us? That acupuncture has a big placebo effect. It tells us that it's probably almost all placebo.
The point is that we can take many areas in life and submit them to the scientific process, and as long as it's an area that we can submit to the scientific process, and as long as we've done that and the results are positive, this, in my definition, would be scientifically based.