Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and author of "Predictably Irrational," "The Upside of Irrationality" and, most recently, "The Honest Truth about Dishonesty." He studies irrational behavior and during a recent visit to Salt Lake City, Ariely sat down with the Deseret News to talk about the many ways in which we deceive others — especially ourselves — and how recognizing that can and should change our behavior.
DN: In your newest book, you talk a lot about dishonesty and how it relates to irrationally. What was the most interesting thing for you about dishonesty?
DA: Conflicts of interest are incredibly interesting to me, because I think they're everywhere. I think we're creating more of them, sometimes purposefully almost. And then our inability to recognize them. If you think about what makes something irrational dangerous is that it happens and we don't see it. And because of that, I think we're designing some really bad systems. Think about lobbying. It's one of the best investments in the U.S., and the reason for that is people are cheap. And I don't mean that people intentionally sell themselves. The wonderful part of human nature is that we make friends easily. Someone invites you for a drink, sandwich, all of a sudden you like them more, and you see life from their perspective, and it's really quite wonderful. But when think about OK, now they're business interested, now things are becoming much more complex.
DN: You talk about when individuals are annoyed or depleted, tired, they make less rational decisions, more dishonest decisions. If people read this book and learn that, how does that change their behavior, or does that immediately change and how long does the change last?
DA: The depletion part is interesting because it tells you two things. First it tells you that the hours in the day when you should face your moral decisions are probably in the morning. And you can do that always. Other thing that is more tricky, it tells you that when you make decisions, even if you make the right decision, the temptation itself created a cost. Imagine that your morning is full of temptation: muffin, croissant, Facebook, YouTube, saying something nasty to your boss, the morning is just full of temptation. And you've been able to resist of all that, good for you, but by the time you've resisted all of them, you've already paid the price. And the price you've paid is the price of depletion. So temptation is tough to deal with, but temptation has also this consequential cost that comes later that we don't see. You could be a great person overcoming temptation, but you'd be much better off not facing this temptation to start with.
DN: So how do parents set up a home to help promote morality and rational decisions among their children who are often very irrational?
DA: Let's start with adults. Think about your refrigerator. I'm sure you try to eat healthy, you buy fruits and vegetables, and I'm almost certain you have fruits and vegetables rotting in your refrigerator on a daily basis even though you paid quite a lot of money for them. And the reason is, it's a bad design. So what happens is we take the fruits, vegetables and put them in the bottom drawer and make it opaque. Then we take soda and put it in the easiest place to reach. So you open the refrigerator and ask yourself, "What do I want?" Your eyes gravitate to what's at eye level and easy to reach. Think about other aspects of the home. If you put the TV in front of the most comfortable sofa in the home, what are the odds that people would sit there and not turn it on? Not very high. One of the things I like a lot about behavioral economics is this obsessive attention to details. It's those little details that are important.
Now, with kids, so you remember of course the marshmallow test. The kids who resist temptation don't just sit there and stare at the marshmallow. They do things. They sit on their hands, they watch the ceiling, they sing a song, they turn around, they do things. That, I think, suggests that there is training. And Walter Mischel did this very nice experiment in which he asked the kids to think about the marshmallows as clouds, and that basically eliminated the temptation to a large degree.
In general, the ability to resist temptation, I think, is largely will, mostly will, but some of it could be trained, which is incredibly important. As a mother, what do you do to get your kids to think about tricks for temptation? This notion that we have a central capacity for self-control and that we can learn tricks, we can learn to reframe temptation is very important.
DN: To expand this question, what can universities do to promote and support this attitude of honesty, and moral, rational behavior?
DA: We teach people in the social realm to lie for good reasons, because we care about other people, because we don't want to offend people, we want to be polite. The problem is the business world has different rules. You want your husband to care about your feelings, you don't want your accountant to care about your feelings. In the business world, you want straight answers. The trick with universities is that for them, the overlap between the social realm and the professional realm is almost complete. For most people, you have your social life where some dishonesty is desirable, then you have the business world and the picture is very different. But for the students, when does one stop and when does one start? You sit in an exam next to your best friend, they ask you for an answer, now what should you do? Two principles are contradicting each other, one is friendship which the university promotes the other one is honesty, which the university also promotes. I think the students have really complex lives, and I don't think we give them really good, clear-cut rules.
What I like about religion is that in many religions, many cases give you clear-cut rules. This is just something you don't do. I'm Jewish and the amount of rules we have is unbelievable. You want to keep the Sabbath, there's a book of what you do, what you can't do. Of course, the rules were written a long time ago, so people interpret them in different ways, but it's clear what you can do and can't do. And you get into the details and by doing that, you basically know at each point if you're on the right side or the wrong side. There's no gray zone, or there's very little gray zone. I think universities don't give enough clear guidelines for the students.
DN: As you start to impose more regulations on someone, as they hear all these moral reminders, do they become desensitized, is there an overload, do they push back?
DA: I'm sure it will depend on how you do it and what kind of meaning you tie to it. So if I said, "You only have to wear blue and khaki and that's it," and I don't give you any reason for that, it would be very tough. One of the things that religion does, it doesn’t just give you a rule, it creates a connection from the rule to the deeper meaning. If you have to rely on people to make the right decision every time based on cost-benefit analysis, the odds are that people will fail and fail often. But if we make something a sacred value it's linked to a whole set of things. So I think an honor code has to be linked to that.
DN: You study a lot of people who make irrational decisions, who lie, who cheat. How has this affected your faith in humanity?
DA: It's not just lying and cheating. All of my research is about human stupidity. In some ways, behavioral economics is sad. You can say if you think people are able, capable, wonderful and so on. That's a beautiful view of human nature. For me, I think people are myopic and vindictive, and don't know what they're doing, and foolish and wasteful, so on. But the way I find solace is that if you believe people are perfectly rational, you would look at the world and you would say "That's an outcome of 8 billion rational people and that's the best we can do." I say, "This is the outcome of 8 billion irrational people and we can do much better." So it's true that I have a lower faith in human nature, but I have a higher faith in human potential.
And the key is that unlike basically any other animal, we build our world, and we can decide which world we're going to build. So we build the financial markets. Do we want to build them with conflicts of interest or without? We are building restaurants. Do we want to build them with very large portion size and free soft drinks or not? We are building cars and cellphones, do we want texting and driving to be possible? If we're left to our own accord, we'd make bad decisions when tempted, but we can engineer the world to get us to make better decisions.
DN: You're teaching a free Coursera class that begins March 11. What is generally the response from people when they learn about these things. Are they excited to learn about their weaknesses or do they push back against it?
DA: To a large degree, people think about other people's weakness and not their own. I try very hard not to be judgmental. First of all, I readily admit that I make many of these mistakes, that's who we are. I think that the moment we say, "This is who we are, this is the data, this is our limitation and we're lucky, we can do things differently, so, what do we do?" for me that's the real value. So I don't think people get upset, I think people get energized with the idea that we could do better.