|Dan Ariely is a James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. He’s the author of world famous books including Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, The Honest Truth About Dishonesty and, Dollars and sense.
What motivated you to work on Behavioural Science?
I was badly injured when I was younger and I saw lots of things in the hospital that I didn’t like; in terms of how they treated their patients in terms of pain medication, bandage removal and control. I had a strong sense that these things needed to be fixed. Since then, I have found lots of other things that I think need to be fixed. In general, that’s my motivation. I go around the world, live my life and see things I don’t like and then I try to use the scientific method to figure out if indeed it is a problem or a bias or something people are not doing well, and then I try to think about the mechanisms to fix it. For example, in the question of burn, I was trying to figure out what is the right way to remove bandages from burn patients. On the questions of credit cards, I was trying to figure out what is a kind of credit card that will get people to spend less and pay back their debt on time. So what motivates me, in general, is things that I think are not designed correctly to maximise human potential and think about how to design them better.
What do you think is the future of Behavioural Science in the next five, and ten years? What major challenges do you foresee?
I think there are lots of paths for behavioural science, but what I see evolving the most is applied behavioural science. I see companies using it more and governments using it more. The idea is to use social science to design policies and procedures for education, health, dieting etc. in the same way that we use engineering to build bridges. It is a little different from engineering because if you build a bridge, you build a bridge but in social science, you build an education system and then five years later, things change. The different technologies out there are distractions for kids. Therefore, the process needs to be continuously evolving in which we have an idea of what would work the best and we test it. We compare different approaches and figure out the best one, and we continue doing this. I am very much hoping for an applied approach for behavioural science that companies and governments would use continually.
Which behavioural scientist(s) do you admire the most and why?
Probably the person I admire the most is George Lowenstein. I think he is an amazing scholar. I love how he thinks. He has the beauty of an armchair philosopher, who can sit and think about life and come up with very creative ideas about what might be going on and then he tests those theories in an elegant way.
What advice would you give to a beginner in Behavioural Science? What are some of the crucial skills one has to develop to succeed in this field?
I think skills from the class’s perspective have to do with some microeconomics, some social psychology, some statistics, a bit more data science and a lot of decision making. If somebody is interested in health, it is good to study things that have to do with health. If somebody has an interest in the government, it is good to study how governments work. If somebody is interested in financial decision making, it is good to focus on that field. If you want to change behaviour in health, there are some similarities as to changing behaviour in education and financial decision making. But there are also a lot of differences. So, it is good to pick a domain in which you want to change behaviour and focus on that.
If you were starting your career again today, what would you do differently?
My career mingled and moved around and had lots of changes over time, but it was an amazing adventure. So, I don’t think I would have done anything differently.
What books/publications would you like to recommend to our readers?
If people want to look at my books, my first book was “Predictably Irrational”, the second one was “The Upside of Irrationality” and the third one was “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty”. But if I were to recommend three books, I would recommend “Predictably Irrational”, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty” and “Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations”, a book that I find short and incredibly important.
What is your favourite quote in Behavioural Science?
Amos Tversky said, “My colleagues, they study artificial intelligence; me, I study natural stupidity”. I don’t think people are stupid and Amos does not think that people are stupid. But I think that it shows the contrast between these amazing technologies we’re building based on some assumptions of perfect intelligence and ability, and then what we have in our day-to-day.
How do you apply the notions of Behavioural Science in your personal life?
If you think about decisions, there are small decisions, large decisions and habits. Regarding small decisions, sometimes when I go to a coffee shop and find Oh! they’re charging me more here or they’re doing this trick and that is good to know. But mostly, I make the same mistakes as everybody else. I do stop more before big decisions and look at the possible mistakes I might be making, what biases might be hidden here and try not to make those. I also try to work hard to create good habits. Habits are basically about small decisions because we do them a lot, they stay with us for a long time. So, there’s a lot of value in working correctly on creating the right habits, but we cannot do it all the time. Once a year, we may sit and design our habits correctly and try to set them up.
If you could interview any one fictional or historical figure, who would you choose and why?
There are lots of people I would like to interview. But if I could really understand Donald Trump, I would interview him. His years in office have been incredibly devastating for lots of reasons. If he were willing to tell me a little bit about why he really made those decisions, I would try to understand the psychology of that devastating force. It would probably be incredibly sad but interesting and important as well.
Tell us something interesting about yourself most people don’t know.
I enjoy nature tremendously. Time, when I get to walk around in nature, is some of the most precious time I have.