The Man Who Knows Too Much

When Dan Ariely ’94 isn’t sorting through the confusion that chokes the path to wisdom for the rest of us, he wonders whether he could ever again bear the pain that gave him his insight.

M. Lengemann

Dan Ariely spent his first year of college in a hospital burn unit inside a tight, brown elastic suit that

covered everything but his eyes, ears and mouth — the better to protect the tissue still healing underneath. There, a universe apart from all the behaviors he used to know, he began to watch others as though he were an immigrant in a foreign land — all these strange and wondrous ways that people lived their lives and made their decisions.

Every day for three years, Ariely’s nurses quickly tore the bandages off the third-degree burns that covered 70 percent of his body. A forklift raised his stretcher and lowered it into a disinfecting bath, and the bandages were reapplied, so that the entire process — rip, dunk, dry, reapply — could be repeated the next day, and the next.

Three years later, after getting out of the hospital, Ariely began to see the world as a series of questions in need of answers. As an undergraduate in the late 1980s at Tel Aviv University, he started a research project on pain, and over the next few years, he questioned our ideas about discomfort. Ariely wanted to determine scientifically, for example, if removing a bandage was less agonizing if done slowly or quickly.

He enlisted some of his friends, and he experimented on himself, too, though that must have seemed superfluous. Ariely, who later would come to Chapel Hill for advanced degrees in cognitive psychology, knew how it felt to have bandage after bandage torn rapidly from his skin.

Later, when he got the results from his experiment, Ariely triumphantly returned to the burn unit to tell the nurses who had cared for him that he had been right all along. Slow was better. Slow was less excruciating.

But that wasn’t the biggest revelation that he got that day. The nurses, surprised by his findings, said their understanding of pain may have been influenced by the difficulty they experienced in putting patients through the process. Fast removal of a bandage shortened the nurses’ emotional distress. So wouldn’t that method shorten the patients’ distress, too?

“If the nurses, with all their experience, misunderstood what constituted reality for the patients they cared so much about,” he concluded, “perhaps other people similarly misunderstood the consequences of their behaviors and, for that reason, repeatedly make the wrong decisions.”

So much of what Ariely would gain in the more than two decades after his experiment at Tel Aviv — including his position as James B. Duke Professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, his best-selling books on irrational thinking, his access to powerful individuals, a personal calendar that crackles with demand and a name recognition bordering on celebrity — can be traced to pain.

To his own, of course: To the flames that rippled over him one Friday afternoon in Israel when he was 18, the result of a religious rite (a ktovet esh, or fire inscription, for a youth movement) that exploded in front of him as he prepared it. But also to the struggle he saw all around him and to his journey to decode and solve it.

Ariely built a powerful muscle for understanding human behavior from his accident’s psychological debris. All that time observing and listening to others behind a gauzy mask of bandages, all that time working to prove he was smarter than he thought he must look, all those instances of wondering who would shake his disfigured hand and who would not, became the protein for a research career that would make him one of the most sought-after intellectual personalities on the planet.

It all led to 2008 — 14 years after earning the first of his two degrees from Carolina — when he released an uncommonly entertaining book about his behavioral economics studies, Predictably Irrational, which explained with charm and wit and clear-eyed reasoning why we make choices that fall short of logic — for better or worse. It also happened to be the year that we were left scratching our heads over a financial crisis that had kicked so many in the teeth and, Ariely said, exposed the folly of our decision-making and of the markets we trusted.

“All of a sudden,” he said, “people realized that if nobody really understood the financial markets, and the financial markets can fail in such a big way, it must mean that [irrational behavior] plays a bigger part in other areas of our lives.”

Pain of one kind or another is why so many people began to seek Ariely’s counsel. But they have stayed past the recession to watch his TED talks, read two more of his books, follow his Wall Street Journal column and become one of 175,000 people to sign up for his free online course for something much broader: for the desire to act with the wisdom we might actually have, if we dig deep enough.

Or as Aline Grüneisen, the lab manager at Ariely’s Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke, said with a sigh: “People can be stupid. People need help. We all need a lot of help. It’s a fact too human to escape.”

Molding minds, responsibly

Ariely and I live in the same city, but four months of our trying to meet in person was reduced to this: a phone call from a New York airport. He was waiting to board a plane to Kenya, and then to South Africa, and then home to Durham for a couple of days before returning to New York, followed by trips to San Francisco and Seattle. In Ariely-land, that might be considered a slow week.

Three days later, he followed up our conversation with an audio email (Ariely has trouble typing with his damaged hands for long periods of time without experiencing pain), and his ruminations were punctuated with yawns he could not pretend to stifle. His body had no idea what time zone it was supposed to be in — it hasn’t known since he became the kind of guy who could land on the guest list for Kate and William’s wedding. (He was too busy to attend.)

Ariely’s inability to say no to all the people who want a piece of his time is but one reason for his bloated schedule. The other is this: He knows how to steer us in a particular behavioral direction, and he has the science in the lab and in the real world to back it up. That makes him a valuable asset to everyone from heads of state to members of the royal family to the guy thinking about proposing to his girlfriend.

He knows, for example, that we will go gaga over something that is free but look down on an item that costs a penny. He knows we will be fair about how much we take of something that costs us nothing, but when we’re paying, we will clear out the stock on the shelves if we want to.

We also are more likely to help someone change a tire for free than if we’re offered a couple of bucks for our time, and we work harder and with more enjoyment when a task isn’t defined solely by the income we might receive from it — which is why an itemized list from your employer about how much your benefits cost the company will not motivate you to stay late.

“When price is not a part of the exchange,” Ariely wrote in Predictably Irrational, “we become less selfish maximizers and start caring more about the welfare of others.”

He feels his power

Ariely once told an Israeli newspaper, “I know all kinds of methods to persuade people to do things that I want them to do.”

Is he a man with a superpower?

Ariely, who has served on federal committees and advised many world governments, laughed gently at the suggestion. “I don’t know if it is a superpower,” he said, “but it is definitely a power, and it is definitely something I am very responsible and careful about and something I talk with my students about. Governments can do lots of regulations to get people to behave one way or the other, but how do we make sure that, at the end of the day, that’s in people’s best interest?”

Ariely won’t work with some industries on principle. He has turned down requests from cigarette companies because he knows he can inflict damage on the audiences to which they market. Human beings don’t always evaluate short-term vs. long-term risk capably; it’s one of the reasons we often make poor decisions about our health and our finances. Ariely understands those mechanisms of our minds, the nuances that influence them and the ways to bend them.

“If you can change that — it doesn’t have to be dramatically — you can change some degree of how people think about their own risks of their actions,” he said. “It would modify what they decide to do. So particularly with things like cigarettes, that have short-term, long-term implications, this is very important.”

In South Africa, an insurance company’s wellness program offered participants a 25 percent discount on healthy food purchases, but people weren’t biting. So the company contacted Ariely, who set up a study in which participants pledged to increase their healthy food spending by 5 percent. If they met the goal, they kept their 25 percent discount; if not, they forfeited it. The results are awaiting peer review but were “very successful,” said Janet Schwartz, an assistant professor of marketing at Tulane and the co-author of the study.

“Dan is really good at thinking about how people may want to change their own environment,” Schwartz said. “And once we know what they may want to change, the question becomes, ‘How can we create a world where we can leverage people’s awareness of their own limitations, to help them combat these problems?’ ”

Rarely has Ariely met a human tendency he could not turn into research, and as a result, he can predict how we will respond in many situations. Nina Mazar, a marketing professor at the University of Toronto and partner with Ariely in BEworks, a behavioral economics consultancy firm, said Ariely simply “sees the world in a different way.”

“I don’t know how else to put it,” she said. “If you’re just walking around and you see something advertised for free, that just doesn’t seem all that interesting to most people. But Dan has the ability to take that first observation and turn it into a research question and then take it all the way to some very compelling experiments that tell us about human behavior. That’s what makes his research so engaging. It’s about very basic, human things, and he finds the fascination that’s within them. That’s a gift that not many people have.”

Because Ariely’s research has shown that people are more likely to be honest if they, say, read the Ten Commandments before filling out a tax form (regardless of religious affiliation) or sign a pledge promising not to cheat before they take a test, he’s also coveted by institutions who battle fraud.

“In many ways, Dan has an optimistic view of people,” Schwartz said. “Even though a lot of his research is about how much dishonesty there is in all of us, there’s always this perspective that there’s a lot of good in us as well. It’s not that there are lots of bad people out there; it’s that there really are forces in the environment that can shift people’s behavior in ways that are predictable but understandable, and what can we do to help people lead a more rational and moral life?”

From the outside, Ariely’s skill to see through us all seems quite a load to bear, so clever and otherworldly that it might drive one to madness. And it can feel slightly supernatural from the inside, Ariely said. “You know, it feels like it from time to time,” he said. “That people are saying something, and I can understand what they really mean, even if they are not saying it. We know perfectly well what they mean. It becomes second nature. There’s clearly a downside to thinking about human behavior all the time — clearly a downside to having a discussion with somebody and in the back of my mind thinking all the time about an analysis of the situation and why they are doing that.”

Still, Ariely loves the mysteries he uncovers every day.

“From time to time, I think losing control would be a good thing. But generally, I don’t think I’d want to give it up. I have a friend who is a magician. We had a discussion once about whether magic would be more interesting if you knew how it was done. And he said that he thinks many magic tricks would be like this, because you would still see the magic but you would also understand how it works. So working in behavioral economics is a little bit like visual illusions, right? You know how it’s working, but you see the illusion, and it’s still extra interesting.”

Battling the past by helping the future

One person who never feels that Ariely is one step ahead of her behavior is his wife, Sumi Gupta Ariely ’99 (PhD), an assistant professor of global health at Duke. The Raleigh native, who met Dan while both were in graduate school at Carolina for psychology — she for developmental, he for cognitive — actually finds that notion funny.

“In our conversations, I’m waiting for him to get to it already,” she said, laughing. “It’s like, ‘No, we’ve already decided this. Are you confused about that?’ I wish he’d be a little bit faster catching on, so I could kind of be led in the conversation instead of having to lead it.”

So the superpowers have limits. Sumi recalled that she and her classmates used to tease Dan for being a deeply serious student after he graduated from Tel Aviv in 1991 and came to Carolina. (His Israeli professors, some of them UNC alumni themselves, had recommended the program.) He was the kind of guy who got to his office at Davie Hall every day at 4 a.m., shut the door behind him and routinely “rolled his eyes at those of us who were running down the halls, laughing and joking and popping our heads into people’s offices. He really seemed like much more of a grown-up than the rest of us.”

His life had, of course, been very serious indeed before he arrived in Chapel Hill. And growing up in the Middle East lends a gravitas that, Sumi said, isn’t as prevalent among young people in the U.S. But Dan also has what Sumi calls “supreme self-confidence.” While at UNC, he once delivered a lecture on cognitive psychology to an undergraduate class she was teaching. It was a developmental psychology class — and she had only asked for his help in setting up a fussy video player.

“He just took the class over.”

But that’s the professional world, where Ariely combines an engaging goofiness with an approachable intellectualism. (Last May, Ariely — the father of an 11-year- old and an 8-year-old — grabbed his light saber and dressed as Obi-Wan Kenobi to speak at Carolina’s doctoral hooding ceremony.)

“Professionally, I feel very successful,” said Ariely, who also owns a doctorate in business administration from Duke. “I feel people want to listen to me and to think about social science and get my opinion, but [that confidence] doesn’t necessarily lead to the social side of things.”

In social situations, even given his popularity, he said he finds himself steering discussions toward his most comfortable realm — research — and that the scars of his injury play some part in the redirection.

One of his early research projects studied how we rate attractiveness relative to potential mates (10s date 10s, fours date fours, and so on), an idea that came directly from Ariely’s personal experience trying to determine his new place on that scale following his accident. But Sumi said she didn’t notice Dan’s scars at first. “There’s something about how he talks and presents himself,” she said. The first time they spoke at length, she saw the depths beneath his extreme studiousness.

“There was just that sense of how brave he was and how passionate about the work he was doing, to have gone through what he went through and to have handled it so gracefully.”

‘We just behave’

It seems Ariely is constantly summoning grace. He battled frequent liver infections after his injuries and, while in Chapel Hill, once again found himself in the hospital, where he discovered he had contracted hepatitis C from a blood transfusion during one of the many operations he had in Israel. He signed up for an experimental treatment that meant more pain — vomiting, headaches, shaking — which he endured while going on job interviews.

“It was very tough, and I was trying to hide it,” said Ariely, who eventually landed at MIT for 10 years before coming to Duke in 2008. “I would take the injections with me in a little ice box to universities, tell [the interviewers] I couldn’t meet them the night before and then try to sleep off the effects.”

Even now, he said, he lives with daily pain. And there is some weariness in talking about his accident that didn’t exist before he became so popular, when he wasn’t asked about it quite so much. He may understand how emotions work, he said, but that doesn’t mean they go away or become any easier to manage.

“A couple of times when he has talked about the accident recently, he’s actually choked up,” said Sumi, who added that her husband is “driven” by the pain and suffering he endured, and that every project he undertakes has some focus on alleviating the pain of others — “whether it’s financial planning or burn bandages.”

“He gets very emotional,” she said. “There have been people who have heard about him and what happened and have referred someone who’s had a similar accident, whether it’s a child or someone else. So he will talk to that family or talk to that individual, as anybody who has been in an accident would do. That’s brought back a lot of the trauma and the memories under there.”

The sense of responsibility he feels for other people’s suffering, even in light of his own great hardships, is at the core of what makes Ariely more than just another stratospherically smart guy. Yes, he wears Crocs and jeans, and he favors an accessible vocabulary and engaging storytelling over stiff scientific language.

“Dan can get deeply interested in anything, even lawn mowers,” said Michael Norton, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard and another Ariely collaborator. But that’s not what has made him a pop culture entity, the people’s behavioral economist, part professor, part therapist.

“Usually we don’t think about our own lives very much in a lot of detail, we just behave,” Ariely said. “This kind of research gets us to pause and think about our own lives — not just about the mistakes that we do, but also the ways to improve things. It has a lot of potential, and it’s very personal, and everybody finds some connection to it, which makes it very appealing.”

The difficulties he has experienced and his career success certainly go hand-in-hand, Ariely said. But he wrestles with what-ifs on a scale that most of us cannot imagine.

“Life is really interesting right now,” he said. “I do lots of interesting things; I meet lots of interesting people. But hospital is a very miserable experience, and I had a really, really tough time. And it is not clear to me still, if I got injured now, I would want to continue with life. Even if I could have pain for three years and then go back to my current life, which is very good. It is very hard to balance so much pain with goodness, even if it lasts so much longer and even if it is relatively very good.”

Ariely, with his four hours of sleep per night, his working vacations and his seat
at the table with politicians, knows that being in demand means he’s missing out
on a lot of first days of school with his kids, and other milestones that make for a very good life.

“It’s a terrible, terrible problem,” he said, one that he’s hoping to fix. But as long as there are irrational humans on the planet, alleviating his perpetual time-crunch is an experiment that is likely to continue for a long time.

Copyright 2014 UNC General Alumni Association

From the January/February 2014 issue of the Carolina Alumni Review.