Dan Ariely was an 18-year-old in the Israeli Army when the accidental explosion of a magnesium flare confined him to a hospital for three years. With 70 percent of his body covered in third-degree burns, fed by a tube and moved by a forklift, he felt like an outsider. Two things happened, he says. The first: "I started observing everything, but forgetting how you do things. I had to remind myself how you walked, or how to chew food, or get into a bath. I had to think about everything and say, 'How did I get here?'"
Secondly, the excruciating way his nurses changed his bandages significantly altered the way he thought about the world, he says: "How could people with all this experience and good intentions get something so wrong? That basically fueled the rest of the experiments."
The "rest of the experiments," or at least a lot of them, inform Ariely's book, "Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions" (HarperCollins), published in February. Residing in the United States since 1992, Ariely is the Alfred P. Sloan professor of behavioral economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a researcher at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. He has made the MIT campus his petri dish and the students his variables in an ongoing series of experiments about human behavior.
Among the questions he's exploring: Will undergrads self-regulate without deadlines imposed by a professor? Are they as likely to cheat on a test after reading an honor code? Are they as likely to enforce the use of a condom after watching Internet porn?
No, no and no. After crunching the data stimulated by his experiments, Ariely suggests plausible solutions for those inevitable moments when the human species lobs reason out the window.
Could we use self-imposed deadlines in the health care system to further preventive care? Could the Internal Revenue Service impose an honor code before we file our taxes? Can we learn to predict how we'll react in an aroused or highly emotional state?
Has society integrated any of these suggestions?
"Regrettably, not that much," Ariely says. "Part of the issue is, people believe in standard economic theory, and it's hard to convince them of something new. I haven't given up and will continue to try, but it's not that easy."
His current experiments will try to determine whether people in the political arena or the business arena are more apt to cheat and whether language has an impact on morality. So far his findings suggest that people in politics are more apt to persuade themselves to cheat and that when people use sports terminology to describe acts of love, they are more likely to perceive sex as a game.
As a behavioral economist, Ariely is more focused on behavior than economics. "Economics can keep on being economics," he says. "I don't want to revise or change it and I'm not attacking it because I don't think it's wonderful. I'm attacking it because I want us to have a bigger picture of the forces that shape our behavior." As a member of the newly formed Center for Future Banking, which just received a multimillion-dollar grant from Bank of America, Ariely's research centers on how to help people think more carefully about money.
Whether or not it's related to economics, every scenario Ariely observes takes the form of a question. "Unlike what we usually think of classical scientists who have a particular theory or domain," he says, "I look at the world and find things that interest me. There are just so many of them." S
Dan Ariely will speak and sign his book at the Junior League of Richmond's 63rd Annual Book & Author Dinner Tuesday, May 6, at 7 p.m. at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. Additional authors at the sold-out event include Rick Bragg, Joanne Harris, Ellie Krieger, Min Jin Lee and Cokie Roberts.