Episode 14: Dan Ariely, world-renowned social scientist
The Duke University professor is a leading expert on the most basic of human endeavors – decision-making. So how did he decide to answer our questions?
The guest: Dan Ariely is a tenured professor of Psychology and Behaviorial Economics at Duke University. If an academic could be a rockstar, then Ariely is certainly one. His books – like "Predictably Irrational" – are New York Times bestsellers and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He has close to 200,000 Twitter followers. His numerous TED talks have been viewed 13 million times. Millions of more fans read his advice columns each week in the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times has called his research "revolutionary."
The gist: Following in the footsteps of his mentors – Israelis Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky – Ariely has become one of the world's leading experts in decision-making, which, in essence, makes his talent of enormous interest. Why is he so popular? Ariely translates what could be a ho-hum topic like behavioral economics into mainstream morsels of wisdom. He studies everything from income inequality and pizza delivery to dating advice and IKEA furniture. He's launched several startups and has invented technologies that were later sold to Google, including a time management app that the search giant acquired. On today's episode, we visit with Dan Ariely to talk about what he's researching now, a strange experiment involving clowns in traffic, and how a new scale he invented may actually help you lose weight.
- Read our profile of Dan Ariely
- See photos from Ilana's hike in Israel with Ariely
- Ariely's advice on how not to get overwhelmed by decisions
"Our Friend from Israel" is hosted by Benyamin Cohen. Our podcast theme music is by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel. Follow our podcast on Facebook for behind-the-scenes access to the show.
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Benyamin: On this episode of Our Friend From Israel:
Dan: I think it's worthwhile to think that our basic ideal about human motivation is that we think about people like rats. People don't like to work. If we were left to our own accord, what you would be doing, we would be on a beach somewhere, sipping mojitos. The only reason we work is because we need to get money so that we can eventually sit on the beach, drinking mojitos.
Benyamin: That's Dan Ariely. He's a tenured professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. If an academic could be a rockstar, then Ariely is certainly one. His books are New York Times bestsellers and have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He has close to 200,000 Twitter followers. His numerous TED talks have been viewed 13 million times. Millions more listen to his podcast and read his advice columns each week in The Wall Street Journal. The New York Times has called his research revolutionary.
Benyamin: Dan 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 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.
Benyamin: Why is he so popular? Ariely translates what could be a ho-hum topic like behavioral economics into mainstream morsels of wisdom. He studies everything from income inequality and pizza delivery to dating advice and IKEA furniture. He's launched several startups and has invented technologies that were later sold to Google, including a time management app that the search giant acquired. In today's episode, we visit with Dan Ariely to talk about what he's researching now, a strange experiment involving clowns in traffic, and how a new scale he invented may actually help you lose weight. Stay tuned.
Benyamin: Welcome to Our Friend From Israel, a podcast brought to you by fromthegrapevine.com. I'm your host, Benyamin Cohen, and each week we'll have a conversation with an intriguing Israeli. They'll come from all walks of life: Actors, artists, athletes, academics, archeologists, and other news makers. In today's episode, we chat with Duke University's Dan Ariely.
Benyamin: Hello, everyone, and welcome to today's show. I am joined today in the studio by my colleague Ilana Strauss. How are you, Ilana?
Ilana: Hey. Pretty good.
Benyamin: Yeah? You got the enviable job of getting to interview Dan Ariely for this week's episode. I am kinda jealous, I gotta tell you that.
Ilana: I've been stealing him from you for years now.
Benyamin: The reason we gave you this assignment is because you've actually hung out with Dan Ariely. You went hiking with him last year in Israel?
Ilana: Oh, yeah. Yeah. That was a seven or eight hour hike. It was intense.
Benyamin: How did that come about? How did you end up hiking in Israel with Dan Ariely?
Ilana: I think he posted on Facebook or something. Basically, he had an open invitation. People can send in an application and a certain number are chosen to be able to go hiking with him if you can get out to Israel.
Benyamin: He was doing this for his 50th birthday? It was like a bucket list thing or something? He was trying to walk across Israel for his 50th birthday, I think.
Ilana: Yeah. I think hiking the Israel Trail, which is this trail that just kinda goes all throughout the trail. We hiked a good ways across the width of it, actually.
Benyamin: He's a smart guy. He's a professor. Was he teaching you guys stuff as you were hiking?
Ilana: Oh, yeah. People were asking him behavioral economics questions as we went. I mean, I was.
Benyamin: Just to be clear, this podcast was not recorded while hiking. This was recorded later. I mean, he's involved in so many random things. Didn't he invent a new scale?
Ilana: Yeah. He had the glorious insight in that the regular bathroom scale doesn't really help people lose weight too much. It makes them freak out over decimals. You go up or down a few pounds and you're like, "Oh, my God. This exercise routine isn't working," or whatever. And really, your body just fluctuates a little bit. So, he came up with this sort of new scale that wouldn't make you depressed after you stepped on it, basically.
Benyamin: Wow. Sounds cool. It's been great catching up with you, and I'm looking forward to hearing today's episode. So, here we go: This is Ilana Strauss interviewing the one, the only, Dan Ariely.
Ilana: Well, how's it going today?
Dan: Okay, in general.
Ilana: I haven't actually seen you since we were hiking in Israel, but I've heard you since then, and you've been very busy.
Dan: I am busy.
Ilana: Are you working on any new experiments now?
Dan: All the time. All the time. That's what we do. There is a phenomena called "paradoxical persuasion" that I find fascinating. The idea of paradoxical persuasion is that imagine somebody holds some beliefs. Let's say they are against vaccination. We know that giving them information from the other side of the spectrum just doesn't help. If you go to somebody who is against vaccines and you say, "Hey, vaccines are really good. You should do it," they just don't listen. Paradoxical persuasion is about saying, "Let's give people opinions that are from their side of the belief, but even more extreme than what they are right now." Right?
Dan: It's not just about being more extreme; It has to be more extreme and challenge the people's identity. Let's say something about vaccination: "Let's have our kids be carriers of diseases, and then if people who meet them are weak or old or something like this, from a Darwinistic perspective, maybe it's time for them to die anyway." Right? People who don't vaccinate themselves, it's not just about risking themselves, it's about the fact that they become carriers.
Dan: There was a study that showed that there was one year that was a shortage of vaccinations in Japan, and that year, lots of grandparents died, right? Because the kids themselves, they get the flu, but they are strong enough that they get sick but they don't die. But then, they go and visit their grandparents for Christmas, and the grandparents get the flu, and for them, it's much more damaging. Instead of just saying it, you basically kind of embrace it, and you say, "People don't need to live so long. If somebody is weak and old, they're just a drain on society. Let's get this over quicker."
Ilana: Did you run this experiment, where you ...
Dan: We haven't run those yet, but we're about to start. We're about to start doing those things both in the political domain and in health, so we'll see how that will pan out. I'll tell you about one other fun thing that we're working on. There's something called "benign masochism".
Ilana: Okay, this sounds fun.
Dan: Benign masochism is when we enjoy pain, or we learn to enjoy pain. We started this by actually observing Olympic athletes, and we found out that Olympic athletes, particularly cyclists, really suffer. Cycling is a very, very tough sport, right? It's very, very painful. We found that these cyclists sometimes just say, "I just want to last 30 more seconds," and they last 30 more seconds. "I just want to last 30 more seconds." It's the same muscle group working against friction; Very, very hard. But they also learn to enjoy pain. [inaudible 00:09:43] cognitive reframing, where if they don't have pain, they don't think that they've done their job, right?
Dan: There's something about their pain that is ... kind of has a positive reflection. Now, it's not as if you come to them and you say, "Would you like to be hit over the head?" They say, "Yes, please." But they interpret muscle pain in a different way, right? The body gives us signals for pain to say, "Avoid this." But if you do it for something different, you say, "Yes, the body's saying, 'Avoid this,' but we understand that this means improving our long-term stamina, changing our muscles, burning folic acid ... not folic, whatever the thing is, and improving our muscles." They learn to reinterpret the pain.
Dan: Right now, we're doing other experiments to figure out where else can we get people to start interpreting pain in a more positive way. Of course, the Holy Grail would be to get people to think in a different way about side effects of medications. Can we get people to experience medications in a less negative way? I'm not sure that we can get there, but that's the goal.
Ilana: It's kind of like mouthwash, right? You use mouthwash, and you feel like if it's not burning ... I mean, I think that was an ad campaign, actually. "If it's not burning, it's not working," or something like that.
Dan: There was something on kind of Head & Shoulders, I think ... Or, "Itching does it," or something. I think there are beliefs like that, and that's part of it. Yeah. So, those are some things we're just working on now and trying to figure out whether we could get people to do more ... become healthier.
Ilana: No results yet, though.
Dan: No results.
Dan: Takes time.
Ilana: You're supposed to do it immediately. What is taking so long?
Dan: No, no, no. Enjoy the process. Enjoy the process.
Benyamin: When we return, Dan Ariely explains the logic behind a new futuristic scale he invented, and it doesn't even tell you how much you weigh.
Dan: So, we said, "Let's create a scale with no display. Let's separate the act of stepping on the scale, which is good, from the act of reporting about it. Let's create a scale with no display, and when people step in the morning, we say, 'Congratulations, you've done your job.'"
Benyamin: All that and much more after the break. If you're enjoying this episode, you'll also wanna check out our recent interview with classical pianist Michael Pasikov. After surviving cancer, he lost the use of his right hand. What could have been the end of his career, Michael instead saw it as an opportunity.
Michael Pasikov: So, if you get depressed over what's happening, it's like you're wasting the day. I look at it as a growth opportunity to learn more about music than I ever would have done had it not happened.
Benyamin: Hear Michael's incredible and inspiring story at ourfriendfromisrael.com. That's where you'll find a complete archive of all of our episodes. And now, back to today's interview with Duke University's Professor Dan Ariely.
Ilana: Have you been noticing, sort of in your daily life, kind of bits of human behavior that have sort of interested you?
Dan: Lots of things, but I'll tell you about maybe the two thing that excites me the most these days.
Ilana: Yes, wonderful.
Dan: They both relate to kind of startups that we try to do to change behavior.
Ilana: Okay, awesome.
Dan: The first one is a company where we said, "Let's help people lose weight." I'm going to describe to you kind of the thought process, because I think the thought process was very nice. We said, "Let's help people lose weight," and we said, "When do people think about health in general?" The answer was, "Almost never." It just doesn't come to mind. It's not as if you go around your day and you said, "Let me be more healthy." It's true for lots of things. Most of things are kind of brought to mind by something in the environment. You see the refrigerator, you open it, you think about what to eat ... We see things, and then things come to mind.
Dan: So, I said, "Okay, if we want to be part of people's health life, we need a starting point. We need a Trojan Horse. What would be a good Trojan Horse?" We said, "Let's take over the bathroom scale."
Ilana: Oh, interesting. Right, because everyone's got one.
Dan: That's right. If you have an app and you're on page four of somebody's phone, you're not going to be top of mind. If somebody gives you two square feet of their bathroom floor, that's an important thing, so let's take it.
Ilana: That's valuable space. It's like a billboard in your house.
Dan: Yeah, exactly. So, we said, "Let's take over," and then I said, "Okay, so what do we know about the bathroom scale?" We know three things: The first one, it's really good to step up on the scale every day. Actually, it's good to step up in the morning; Not so much in the evening. The reason for that is that if we step in the morning, we remind ourself that we want to be healthy. It's like a little ritual, right? You stand on the scale, you remind yourself you want to be healthy, and then you eat a little bit less for breakfast, right? We do small things after that. If you step on the scale at night, you weigh a bit more, that's true, but the real thing is you just go to sleep. You don't get this opportunity to change your behavior.
Dan: So, it's really good to step on the scale every morning. That's point number one. Point number two is that weight fluctuates a lot. If you're not a heavy person, weight can fluctuate two or three pounds a day based on salt intake, when the last time you went to the bathroom, and stuff like that. If you're obese, it can fluctuate eight pounds a day. This fluctuate creates two things: The first one is what we call "gain aversion". In standard behavioral economics we have "loss aversion", right? Loss is a little larger than gains. If you lose $1000 you'll be really miserable; If you gain $1000 you'll be slightly happy, but they don't balance each other out. Losing is more painful than gaining is making you happy.
Dan: Weight is the opposite, right? A day that you gained two pounds is really miserable; A day you lose two pounds is slightly happy. But on average, it doesn't balance it out.
Ilana: The same principle ... Oh, sorry.
Dan: That's right, same principle. Imagine somebody who doesn't gain weight on average, but weight goes up and down, up and down. Every day weight goes up, it's real misery; Every day it goes down is light happiness. The average is not good news, right? So, what happens? People stop weighing themselves. Okay, so that's the second thing. The third one is that people ... we expect our bodies to change very quickly. Lots of people say to themselves something like, "I've been on a diet since yesterday morning. I had nothing, and nothing has happened." Right? It's the motivator. Now, I'm joking about "since yesterday morning", but if people have been on a diet for three days, they certainly expect to see something good happening, and it doesn't. The body can take eight days, like to weeks, to react to a diet.
Dan: Now, think about what it does. You go on a diet for three days, you ate nothing, and then you step on the scale and your weight went up by 0.7 of a pound.
Ilana: I've literally had this experience. Has this ever happened to you?
Dan: Oh, yeah. A lot. A lot. It's just heartbreaking. It's heartbreaking. And you say, "Something about the laws of physics is not operating in my bathroom." Because it just feels like nothing came in. Nothing came in. How can it be? Now, I read the papers. I know it take eight days to two weeks, but no matter what you know, it just doesn't seem like it's possible. Imagine somebody who is on a diet for three or four days, they step on the scale, their weight goes up a little bit. Then they take a few days off, and then the weight goes down. Right? Yet they say, "Oh, weight go down after a day of Netflix."
Dan: The point we got to is it's good to step on the scale in the morning, but weight fluctuates a lot, gain aversion, people expect things to be faster and they're not ... how should we fix it? We said, "Let's create a scale with no display. Let's separate the act of stepping on the scale, which is good, from the act of reporting about it. Let's create a scale with no display, and when people step in the morning, we say, 'Congratulation, you've done your job.'"
Ilana: All right, there's gotta be more to it than that, right?
Dan: Of course. Of course. And then we said, "Let's do give people feedback, because feedback is good, but let's not give the feedback on a daily basis, let's give it on a running average of the last three weeks." Right? Now, you would basically eliminate the randomness. But then we said, "Okay, something else. In health, it's really good when nothing bad happens." If you spend a whole year and nothing bad happens, that's great news. But we don't naturally celebrate nothing bad happens. So, we said, "Let's not do the average weight, let's do a trend of the last three weeks, and let's celebrate when nothing bad happens."
Dan: We came up with a five-point feedback mechanism. Nothing bad happened in the last three weeks, you're just the same, slightly worse, much worse, slightly better, much better. It's just basically the trend over the last five weeks. We do one other trick, and I'll tell you about the result of the study: If you're a woman and you're on your menstrual cycle and you've gained two pounds, in a regular scale what you'll do is you'll step on the scale, you'll say, "Oh, I gained two pounds," and then you say, "Oh yes, but I'm on my second day of my period. Let me deduct a little bit because of that." Instead, we say, "Why ask women to do that? Let's just do it for them." So we ask women to tell us when the day of their cycle is, and we make this in a better way.
Dan: That's basically the system that we created. Now, here's the study: We went to a call center. We went to four call centers around the US, and we picked call centers because call centers are places where people are low income and generally obese. Not everybody, but of course, in general. We wanted to try and change some of the hardest people to change. We went to a call center and we got people to ... some people got the regular scale, some people got our scale. Some people got a scale that told them their weight in decimals, some people got our scale, and what happened is the people who got the regular scale gained a little bit of weight every month for five months. The study lasts five months, and they gained on average 0.3 percent of their body weight every month for five moths. So, that's the general trend we see. People gain a little bit of weight all the time.
Ilana: You think that's because they had the scales, or just because people gain weight? Yeah.
Dan: No, that's just general. People gain weight. A bit more in the end of the year, but on average, that's the trend. It's a creepy increase that happens all the time. The people who got our scale lost 0.7 percent of their body weight every month. Most interestingly ...
Ilana: How much is that in pounds?
Dan: Well, if you're 200 pounds, one percent will be two pound a month, right? People lost, if you think about 0.7, it's maybe a pound and a half per month for five months.
Ilana: Oh, that's pretty good.
Dan: Right? Yeah, it's pretty good. It's not enough. I would have loved for people to lose one percent, so one percent of their body weight in a sustained way. 0.7 is ... there's still room for improvement. But here's the thing for me as a social scientist: We look at everyday objects and we say, "If you look at everyday objects from the lens of a social scientist, what can you improve?" If you think about the digital scale, we had an analog scale, a mechanical scale, and we had this thick needle, and with the thick needle, we never knew exactly how much we weigh. And then we moved to digital, and the first thought was, "Let's stick it in the same way. Let's put the display in the same way that we had the display before, and let's just add some decimals to it. So, now I know I'm 162.75."
Dan: But when you think about it from a social science perspective, you say, "What's the right information we should really give people? What's really helpful?"
Ilana: So, it got worse, is what it sounds like.
Dan: That's right. I think that the digital scales actually made things worse. I think they got more gain aversion, they got more confusion than if we didn't have it. Also, people don't like stepping on them anymore. [Nati 00:25:17], my partner in this, did a funny experiment. He went to Starbucks and tried to just ask people to step on the scale, just to see how much they weigh. People hated it. 30 people agreed to step on the scale. He had to offer them money and coffee and all kinds of things to do it, and everybody had a story, right? "I'm wearing my heavy cotton," or, "It's my day of the month," or all kinds of things like that. We have this scale, which is in principle, an amazing tool, but we've made it something that people just hate.
Ilana: Yeah. That's a gutsy thing to do: Walk into a Starbucks with a scale just to weigh people. Did he have to psych himself up for that? Did he just ...
Dan: No, he has a good sense of humor. He's the kind of guy that embraces these kind of things.
Ilana: That's good.
Dan: But when we think about the quantified self, we can say, "What is the quantified self for? Are we trying to just give people more information, or do we want to do something where we would give people kind of information that would actually get them to make better decisions?" I'm in favor of the "getting people information that would get them to make better decisions". I think we need to think very, very differently about that.
Ilana: So, this is a real scale that ... Can people buy it? Is it out?
Dan: Yeah, it's out. Right now, the way we're thinking about it is to say that it ... Okay, so here's one thing that I didn't expect: 79 percent of the people step up on the scale six times or more per week, which is amazing. Which is amazing that it's so frequent. With this, what we're trying to do is we're trying to figure out, okay, so should we now make that the starting point for people's health journey, right? If it's something that people stand up so often, should we maybe not settle for just a scale and weight reduction? Should we also use this as a starting point for people's health journey, to talk about medication adherence and vaccination, and all kinds of other things?
Dan: Right now, we're trying to talk to some health insurance companies about doing something together, where the scale is not just a scale, but it's kind of step one of starting your health journey for the day.
Ilana: Okay. What are the other steps?
Dan: It's about medication adherence, for people with diabetes, it's about checking their feet. I mean, there's all kind of things that happen with specific illnesses that we're trying to get into. What are the health things that you do every day, that during those moments, you're actually receptive to thinking about your health? Brushing your teeth and standing on the scale. That's about it. And if you eat a very healthy breakfast, then it might also be during breakfast. Those are the moments.
Ilana: Yeah, I was thinking cooking. Every time I plan on cooking something, I sort of have to survey ... Really, I just look in my fridge and figure out what I have and try to make something out of it, but there's a decision: How healthy of a meal should I make?
Dan: Probably, it works for you if you cook healthily.
Dan: Right? It's about being in the healthy mindset. If you cook something very healthy, let's say kale, that's probably a good moment for you to think about other health-related things that are consistent with that. But if you're just getting out a frozen dish from the refrigerator, it's probably not going to have an impact.
Benyamin: Hello, listeners. You'll notice that every single podcast on the planet asks you to rate and review them on iTunes. Why is that? Well, here's the answer: The more reviews and ratings that a show gets, the higher the show winds up on the iTunes charts, which in turn helps more people find the show. So, if you're enjoying this podcast, please head on over to iTunes and leave us a rating and a review. It's greatly appreciated. If you're looking for more episodes of Our Friend From Israel, head on over to fromthegrapevine.com. One episode we'd recommend is our interview with Brian Blum, the author of a book about an Israel startup called Better Place and its charismatic young CEO, Shai Agassi.
Benyamin: I think I read in your book he was also a competitive poker player with Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire, and he ran in those circles.
Brian Blum: Well, I wouldn't say he exactly ran in those circles, but he used to sometimes play in the World Series of Poker, which took place in Las Vegas. At some point, Ben Affleck and Tobey Maguire were also in those World Series of Pokers, and Shai won a few small but decent sized pots as part of his poker playing, but he gave that up, actually, when he started Better Place. When Better Place went out of business, actually, he went back and played a little poker and won a little bit more.
Benyamin: Look for that episode at ourfriendfromisrael.com. And now, for the conclusion of today's interview with Dan Ariely, we pick up with a conversation about his book on dishonesty.
Dan: With dishonesty, there's a slippery slope, and there's not a slippery increase, right? We haven't found the ability to just switch people slowly.
Ilana: It's like Jenga. You take out a piece and it kinda falls, and it's hard to ...
Dan: Well, it's slower than that.
Ilana: That's good.
Dan: Thankfully. But you need a coordinated action. One of my favorite politicians ever, Antanas Mockus, was the mayor of Bogota. Bogota, at the time, there was this problem that people just did not stop on red lights, right? You got your red light, some people stopped, some people went into the junction and just tried to get faster out. You don't need that many people to get into the junction for the whole system to not work, right?
Ilana: Right. It's like a game theory problem.
Dan: Yep. You can't solve this problem by getting people to be one percent better, right? Every day. You have to stop it immediately, and he understood it. What he did was he hired hundreds of clowns. They were dressed in kind of white with the gloves and so on, and he got them to be stationed in every street corner in the city. Every street corner in the city. They basically, with their bodies, stopped traffic and made fun of people who did not obey the traffic law.
Ilana: Oh, that's adorable.
Dan: It's wonderful. Immediately, he changed equilibrium, right? Basically, what happened is everybody stopped on the same day. People realized that this new world is a better world, right?
Ilana: Right, because traffic's more efficient.
Dan: That's right, and everybody benefits from this new world. I think that's what we need to do, is we need to basically create this stopping point. If you think about politics, and you say, "What are the odds that if we let it alone, that the next political season will be more honest than this one?" Not that high. What we need to do is we need to do something much more intensive, and kind of basically do a reset. Will we be able to do this reset? Will we have the political guts to do it? I'm not sure, but if you ask me what do we need to change, is that's the kind of things that we need. We need to recognize that we need to take a big step. We can't just fix things here and there.
Ilana: What you're saying is we need more clowns.
Dan: Yes. I wish I came up with that sentence, but yeah. That's a great sentence. Very good. I have to run. Keep me posted.
Ilana: Yeah. Thanks for meeting. This was really cool. I loved hearing about the clowns in particular.
Dan: It's always my pleasure. Talk to you soon.
Ilana: All right. Bye.
Benyamin: Our Friend From Israel is a production of fromthegrapevine.com. Extra notes and a transcript of today's episode can be found at ourfriendfromisrael.com. Want behind the scenes access to the show? Join the Our Friend From Israel Facebook group. Subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Google Play, or your favorite podcast app. Feel free to leave us a review there. When you do, it helps others discover Our Friend From Israel. Our show is produced by Paul Kasko. Editorial help from Jamie Bender. Our Head Engineer is Everett Adams. Our theme music is by Haim Mazar, a Hollywood film composer who grew up in Israel. You can visit our website at ourfriendfromisrael.com to find more episodes of the show. And if you have an idea for a future guest that we should interview, send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm your host, Benyamin Cohen, and until next time, we hope you have a great week.
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