Is this guy the most irrational man in America?
Dan Ariely has created a cottage industry around the most basic of human endeavors – decision-making.
Dan Ariely is about to perform a wedding. Which may sound odd if you know anything about Dan Ariely. He's never performed a wedding in his life. Indeed, he's never even met the couple he's about to marry. So why is he doing this? Perhaps it's because Dan Ariely has made a name for himself as America's king of irrationality.
But let's take a step back. He is a wedding officiant who's never once uttered the words, "You may now kiss the bride." Who is this guy?
If an academic can be a rock star, then Ariely is one. He's a tenured professor of behavioral economics at Duke University in North Carolina. His books are New York Times bestsellers and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He has more than 92,000 Twitter followers. His numerous TED Talks have been viewed 13 million times. Millions more listen to his podcasts and read his advice columns.
The Israeli-raised Ariely has become one of the world's leading experts in decision-making. Which, in essence, makes his talent of enormous interest. CEOs of major corporations – Amazon, American Express, McDonald's – have Ariely on speed dial, hoping to pick his brain about human behavior, about what motivates consumers to make the choices they do.
Once, when Prince Andrew discovered that Ariely was in London, he invited the professor to Buckingham Palace for tea. That first meeting went so well, he has been back to the palace several more times, although the laid-back Ariely is not a fan of the royal dress code. "I don't like ties," he quips.
Why is he so popular? Following in the footsteps of his mentor, the Nobel Prize-winning economist and fellow Israeli Daniel Kahneman, Ariely translates what could be a ho-hum topic like behavioral economics into mainstream morsels of wisdom. He studies everything from income inequality to pizza delivery.
His latest book, published this month, is called "Irrationally Yours: On Missing Socks, Pickup Lines, and Other Existential Puzzles." It is a compilation of his bi-monthly advice column in the Wall Street Journal. In it, he reveals everything from the secret to being happy while stuck in traffic to answering that age-old question: Which bathroom stall is the least used? (Spoiler alert: It's the one furthest from the door.)
What's perhaps most interesting is that Ariely has managed to write so prolifically despite a disability that leaves him in great pain. A freak accident when he was a teenager left 70 percent of his body covered in third-degree burns. He spent the next three years wrapped in bandages in a hospital. Now, as a 48-year-old world-renowned author, the pain in his hands persists, and he can only type a couple pages a day. He gets by with the aid of dictation software and responds to emails by voice recording.
The injury left him with life-long scars, but its legacy is perhaps something poignant: An acute sense of empathy for others' pain. Take, for example, his advice column. He gets hundreds of questions that are never answered in his Wall Street Journal column, but he often takes the time to respond personally to people to help them navigate important decisions in their lives.
Ariely explains that his own traumatic experience has helped him in this regard. "I think I do cry more than I would have otherwise," he says, recalling the accident. "I feel the pain of others. I think I understand the depths of their pain to a higher degree."
But writing and teaching and consulting are not enough for Ariely.
He's created several iPhone apps designed to help people be more cognizant of the decisions they make. There's one called Pocket Ariely, which lets you take Dan's brain wherever you go. He's invented technologies that were later sold to Google, including a time management app that the search giant acquired earlier this month. This summer he will split his time leading seminars in America, Europe and Israel, where he still has family. This fall he will be launching the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, which will help entrepreneurs and startups use his academic research to help their business models.
He's a curious creature, to say the least. "I'm addicted to lots of things," he tells From The Grapevine in a moment of candor.
"I am a gambler," he admits. "I don't gamble with money, but I gamble with my time. So I get all kinds of requests from people to do all sorts of odd things. And sometimes – maybe too often – I am so attracted to interesting, exciting, odd things, I try it out. And from time to time, it ends up being wonderful. And sometimes it ends up being not so wonderful. But because sometimes it winds up being wonderful, I get addicted to these new things I've been trying."
That's how he ended up officiating this wedding – it was one of those odd requests he received from some adoring fans. "It was a costly decision in the sense that I had to get certified by some online church, I had to get a license to marry people in New York, I had to go to New York, it's going to take some time," he says. "I actually thought for a while about what I want to say at the wedding. So this was certainly a commitment of time and effort to do this. But it's really kind of an interesting adventure."
Another example of his increasing interests isn't far behind: When we reach Ariely on his cell phone on a recent Friday, he's at the San Francisco airport, en route to Los Angeles for a film premiere. Mind you, it's for a documentary he produced and stars in called "(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies."
It was another one of these random meetings that led him to meet Yael Melamede, an Academy Award nominee and fellow Israeli, who directed the film. The film opened this past weekend in limited release and will be broadcast this Thursday night on CNBC.
So, Ariely is one busy man. But we couldn't help but wonder: How was the wedding he officiated? "It was just great," he told us a few days later. "I gave some advice based on psychology. My recommendation for the couple was to think about something they find about each other that they admire and keep on striving for the rest of their life to improve in that dimension."
Advice, it seems, Ariely has taken to heart himself.
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