“I saw all kinds of things in the burn department that I
didn’t like. I thought my doctors were not doing things the right
way — not because they weren’t good people, but because the
procedures were just not suited for patients,” he says. Nurses
woke him at 5 a.m. for the sake of a daily schedule, no matter
how late he’d been tossing and turning. They pulled off his
bandages quickly, even when Ariely argued that removing them
slowly was less painful. And often, he says, staff talked about
him as if he wasn’t in the room, rather than involving him in
the decision-making process.
After he was released, his first instinct was to become a
physician. But his hands had been too damaged to go through
medical training. “So I started studying psychology, and I
learned that social science is a wonderful tool to help people do
better,” he says.
Ariely went on to earn one PhD in cognitive psychology
from the University of North Carolina, and, at the urging of
Nobel laureate and psychologist Daniel Kahneman, a second in
business administration from Duke University. After more than
a decade at MIT, Ariely returned to Duke in 2008 as a professor
of psychology and behavioral economics, where he specializes
in studying the irrational ways we make decisions. He’s also the
founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke, where
he and his colleagues work to translate academic research into
accessible tools to help people make better decisions about
finances and health.
Ariely is also known for his frequent public presentations
and TED talks, and his advice column for The Wall Street
Journal — all projects undertaken with the goal of helping
people do things a little bit better, one decision at a time.
How do you define the field of behavioral
I think of it as applied social science. Economics has a
descriptive side (here’s how people behave) and a prescriptive
side (here’s how to do things). From that perspective,
economics and psychology are very different. Psychology
doesn’t have a prescriptive aspect. How many cognitive
psychologists look at their goal as improving health care or
improving savings? Not many. With a few notable exceptions,
psychology as a field has basically been interested in
understanding human behavior rather than figuring out how
to design institutions or interventions.
I think behavioral economics is trying to be the prescriptive
side of social science. People in all kinds of disciplines
are discovering all kinds of knowledge, in economics and
psychology and philosophy and theology and history. Behavioral
economists don’t care so much where ideas come from. We want
to figure out which scientifically valid methods will get people to
do a little bit better.
Much of your work has focused on irrationality and
dishonesty — not exactly our proudest traits. Why
are you drawn to these aspects of human behavior?
I do look at the downsides of human nature, but it’s really
about trying to figure out where we go wrong and how to
fix it. I think this is one of the benefits of looking at things
from the perspective of social science rather than economics.
Classical economics assumes human beings behave rationally.
But if you believe everyone is rational, and you look at
humanity and see how much misery there is in the world,
then you have to conclude that this is the best we can do.
From a social science perspective, you could say people are
myopic and vindictive and emotional and dishonest and
make mistakes — but the world isn’t like this as an outcome
of the decisions of eight billion rational people. It’s like this
as the outcome of eight billion irrational people. That means
we can do much better. I do look at the downsides of human
Dan Ariely, PhD, ends his emails with a signature sign-off: “Irrationally yours, Dan.” It’s a valediction any one of us could use. If there’s one thing Ariely has learned in his years studying behavior, it’s that humans make some bizarre decisions.
Ariely says he first started thinking critically about human behavior as a hospital patient. As a
teenager in Israel, he was severely injured in an explosion. He sustained third-degree burns over
70 percent of his body and spent most of the next three years in hospitals and receiving painful