Fearful Symmetries

Witness a machine turn coffee into pointless ramblings...

13 November, 2009

Horns For Halos: Dan Ariely @ the Union Theatre


(Photo lovingly horked from The Badger Herald.)


Behavioral economist Dan Ariely spoke at the Union Theatre earlier this week and I find it rather odd how well the whole experience complements Umberto Eco's Baudolino, which I am currently in the middle of. In the book, the titular protagonist claims to have had visions, tells tall tales, and literally erases history and supplants it with his own. Baudolino is a most unreliable narrator and it is not altogether certain just how much of his own story he really believes himself. Although not directly referenced by Ariely, it is this last part which plays into the lecture.

Ariely was in town to promote his latest book, Predictably Irrational and his talk began with a story of how he became interested in irrational behavior. At some point Ariely was badly burned over much of his body and he described having his bandages ripped off by nurses. Despite the intense pain and his pleas for a less painful approach, the nurses thought they knew best and that meant quick, very painful removal vs. a slower approach in which the pain was meted out in smaller doses. The nurses, he maintained, didn't understand that people generally find intensity of pain a more important factor than duration. During the rest of his lecture he detailed his research into how people don't always act reasonably.

To begin, he showed us a trio of visual illusions including this one:



Which table is longer? Most people answer that the one on the left is but, in fact, they are equal in length. The shorter width throws us off. Ariely went on to show that often times our decision making abilities are similarly hamstrung.

For instance, European countries with high rates of organ donation make citizens check a box to opt out of the act rather than to opt in. Ariely noted that we like to think of ourselves as autonomous agents but the environment in which we make decisions has a large role. Another factor was complexity. As more options were placed on the table to be considered, the more likely we are to just punt. This was shown by the results of a jam tasting stand at a store. When the stand had 6 jams to sample and coupons were given away for a discount on the product, 30% of people went on to buy jam. However, when a whopping 24 samples were available, shoppers hit jam overload and only 3% took advantage of the coupons to fill their larders.

Ariely also noted that experiments show that it is very difficult to motivate people about long-term things. When it came to current events, he explained the fallacy of executive compensation, namely, that exorbitant pay yields the best results. Not so, said Ariely. As the amount of money at stake increases, it goes from being a motivator to a stressor.

Cheating was another topic that Ariely broached and it perhaps hit close to home for much of the audience which was mostly comprised of students. Experiments with students doing a series of math problems revealed that we generally tend to cheat a little bit. When the tests were graded, they got an average of 4 problems correct. However, when students were asked to self-report the results, the average got bumped up to 6 problems correct. We engage in a modicum of cheating to advance ourselves but not so much that we feel bad about it. But environment has its say as well. People cheat more when someone from an "in group" cheats while they cheat less when it is someone from an "out group" that does the deed.

This was the area where I thought of Baudolino and was surprised that Ariely didn't delve into it a bit more. It also relates back to some things Steven Pinker noted a couple weeks earlier when he was in town. And this is how we want to project ourselves to others – how we want others to see us and what we want them to know about us.

Ariely said that people cheat more when they see others from an in group cheating. To me, this is about people modifying their behavior in order to be seen in a good light by others. But when we were told that people tend to cheat enough to gain advantage but not enough to feel bad about ourselves, I got the impression that Ariely was making this out to be an exclusively egotistical move, i.e. – to trigger guilt or not. I wonder if he thinks fear of getting caught is a factor. By this I mean that, when we are caught cheating or caught taking advantage of something to the detriment of others, the opinions our peers have of us turn sour. We are relegated to an out group. One can argue that this fear is somehow wrapped up in feelings of guilt, but Ariely mostly spoke in terms of exclusive feelings and inner cognitive mechanisms which get reset under certain circumstances.

For instance, he related the results of an experiment where people would not cheat when it came to recalling the 10 Commandments. Similarly, people tend to (temporarily) cheat less after having confessed to a priest. Are these to be explained merely by reverence for the sacred and having a mental mechanism reset, respectively? Or is it possible that these results reflect individuals taking into account their place in a larger group? In the first example, might people be thinking that "God is watching" or something similar? For the second, I think it's less the opening of a cognitive pressure relief valve and more that they walk out of confession thinking of themselves as being a part of a particular group, i.e. – those cleaned of sin – where certain standards of behavior are expected of members. After all, the farther away in proximity and the further in time people get from confession, the more likely they are to resume cheating. Perhaps they tend to think of themselves as having joined another group yet again which is concerned with more earthly matters.

This is all speculation and I readily admit that I've not read Ariely's book but I still feel that he gave short shrift to the notion that navigating a social world where our place in it is significantly derived from how others view us can help explain irrational behavior. Baudolino told tales which portrayed himself as a prime mover in history. (E.g. - you know how Frederick Barbarossa drowned? Well, that's not quite how Baudolino tells it.) While we don’t go around in everyday life telling people that we are the lynch pin of America, very few of us apply the maxim "honesty is the best policy" all the time. We fudge things and we make exaggerations, however slight, so that people will look upon us favorably.



Two final thoughts:

1) Ariely said his experiments were mostly done on college students. Would we get the same results experimenting on people middle aged and older? How about people in Japan, a drastically different culture from our own?

2) At the end of his talk, Ariely asked if we were Superman or Homer Simpson. He thought we were somewhere in the middle and reminded us that human beings are endowed with many irrationalities and that by studying them, we have a chance to overcome them.

I felt a bit ambivalent when he said these things. Maybe it's because I've read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy too many times ("Thank you the marketing division of the Sirius Cybernetics Corporation.") but, regardless, Ariely came across as slightly utopian to me. That is, he seemed to think that his research would help fight global warming, increase organ donation, etc. But after having seen him introduced by a UW marketing professor, I couldn't help but think that Ariely's research was being co-opted by marketers in New York City drooling over its potential to get people to buy Tide and Pepsi.
|| Palmer, 1:31 PM

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