Interview with Dan Ariely
'Short-term goals have an emotional component that overtakes us. Nobody says, "Today's a good day for a colonoscopy!"'
KATE FILLION | February 6, 2008 |
Q: What exactly is a behavioural economist?
A: Much of standard economic analysis assumes rationality. If you ask a standard economist why people don't save enough money, they'd say it's a meaningless statement; people are reasonable, they know what they're doing — they might not be saving a lot because maybe they don't have enough resources right now, maybe they want to check out how it would feel to live with their kids at retirement, maybe they really want to test out the bounds of social security. Behavioural economists, though, believe that people make all kinds of irrational mistakes, and we try to analyze them in order to create opportunities to help people out. For instance, have you ever gone to a restaurant wanting to watch your diet, but when the waiter came with a tray of desserts, you succumbed to temptation?
Q: That's just because I'm weak.
A: Well, a standard economics perspective would say, "If you eat a cheesecake, at the end of the day, it means you are not really concerned with your weight." Behavioural economists say, "No, people are really concerned with their weight, they just can't handle the emotion that comes over them from getting so close to the chocolate soufflé, and as a consequence, they make a mistake and regret it later." You have a different long-term goal than the short-term goal, and in many cases, short-term goals have an emotional component that overtakes us and makes us forget our long-term goals. Think about health care. Nobody wakes up and says, "Today's a good day for a colonoscopy!" Because of the fear and disgust that takes over when we think about it, we procrastinate and eventually don't end up doing it.
Q: Speaking of irrationality, do you find people have negative expectations of you based on the fact that you have visible scars on your face and hands?
A: Yes, very much. When I meet people, I'm very sensitive to whether they shake my hand or not, and I very much categorize people by the type of handshake they give me. There are these people who kind of hold [my hand] between their thumb and their index finger.
Q: Like it's a bug or something.
A: Yeah! I can understand that it's not comfortable and you don't know exactly what to do, but on my side, it's difficult.
Q: How were you injured?
A: I was 18, at the beginning of mandatory military training in Israel. I was in a place that had some ammunition, and among the things they had were flares, these bombs that are supposed to light up the whole battlefield. One of them exploded next to me. There's nothing glorifying about that injury, it was just a stupid accident.
Q: How did you get from lying in a hospital bed with 70 per cent of your body burned to reaching the top of your field and teaching at MIT?
A: The hospital is a completely different universe, and I was there for a long time. For months I couldn't eat, I was fed through a tube, I couldn't walk, I couldn't even move. I started looking at the people around me and feeling more and more like a neutral observer because I wasn't a part of that life anymore. I really started working on [the idea of] human irrationality through the bath treatment, which is the horror of every burn patient. Every day, sometimes twice a day, burn patients are lowered into a big metal bath filled with water and iodine to soak a little bit, and then the nurses start tearing the bandages off. Everybody's had a Band-Aid removed, and it's always a question of do you do it slowly, or fast? But when it's 70 per cent of your body, and occurs every day, and takes more than one hour, and there's absolutely no skin so the bandages have adhered to flesh, it's really very intense. The nurses in my unit believed the best way to get the bandages off was by tearing them very fast, one after the other, and trying to finish quickly.
Q: To minimize the torture.
A: Right. But I thought it would be better to make it slower and more steady for a longer duration, with less pain every second. When I got out of the hospital, I wanted to test out my theory. So I created experiments [at university] in which I would hurt people in different ways. Sometimes you would get a high intensity pain for a short time, sometimes low intensity but longer duration, sometimes pain that increased, sometimes pain that decreased — all kinds of versions, and I hurt people in all kinds of ways: with heat, with a carpenter's vise I would crunch their finger, and so on. It turns out that the nurses were wrong: it's much better to have a longer duration of pain with lower intensity than a shorter duration with higher intensity. It also turns out that it's much better to start with the most painful part and end up with the least painful, to create a decreased pattern of pain over the treatment. The nurses didn't know that. I was bothered by the fact that here were these really good people who had tons of experience — they did many of these baths every day for many years. How could they not know the right approach? And I started wondering: what are other cases in which we have a lot of experience and data but very little real knowledge?