Ariely talks irrationality in decision-making and how to combat it

There’s bad news. Modern temptations are killing us. Worse news? They’re growing in number. But the good news? Dan Ariely, a behavioral economist and expert on human irrationality, is here to help.

Ariely helped Chautauqua Institution craft Week Four’s roster of speakers around the theme of “Irrationality.” He is the author of three books, most recently The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone — Especially Ourselves, which was published in 2012. Ariely delivered his lecture, “Who Put the Monkey in the Driver’s Seat?,” Monday in the Amphitheater.

There are upsides and downsides to irrationality, Ariely said. The focus of his lecture was self-control and how people struggle with it when making decisions. That internal battle generally comes down to a question of preference between instant or delayed gratification.

He began with a series of thought exercises, querying the audience on what they do versus what they don’t do. In many cases, while the “right” choice is obvious, many people make the opposite decision.

Ariely used texting while driving as his example. Despite knowing the risks and potentially fatal consequences, many people continue to do it. Why? Because thinking changes when the phone vibrates — sometimes with tremendous consequences.

In his second example, he asked the audience how they would react if he offered the world’s best chocolate, passed it around the crowd and allowed everyone to see and smell it. If he offered half of it now and the rest in a week, he asked who in the audience would wait for the extra chocolate.

Nearly half of the audience raised their hands

“I’m willing to bet if I actually passed the chocolate around, there’d be fewer of you,” he said.

He changed the timeline from a week to a year. Nearly the whole audience raised their hands. As Ariely showed, it’s a question of delayed gratification.

“In the future, we’re wonderful people,” he said. “We’ll exercise, we’ll diet. The future is full of wonderful things. The problem is we never get to live in the future. We live in the present.”

Temptations are arguably what run a capitalist economy, and Ariely said society has accepted behaviors that kill individuals faster, from texting while driving, smoking and obesity. In an analysis of people 100 years ago, the percentage who died from poor decisions was less than 10 percent.

Today, it is over 40 percent, Ariely said.

He added we’ve also created an environment around these behaviors. The fast food industry wants customers to buy more food. Facebook wants users online more frequently throughout the day. Smartphones are designed to be used more. Ariely’s examples continued.

“Who actually cares about your long-term well-being?” he asked.

How does one look out for his or her lifelong health under a daily barrage of temptation? Ariely outlined two scientifically proven strategies.

The first trick is reward substitution. For this example, Ariely drew on personal experience. When he was in a hospital for burn wounds, he underwent a bad blood transfusion. He later discovered he had contracted hepatitis C. Ariely’s doctor offered him placement in a trial for the drug interferon. At the time, the drug was not yet FDA approved. He agreed.

“The problem was they gave you injections, and they had terrible side effects — vomiting, shaking, headache, fever,” he said. “Not as bad as dying from liver cirrhosis, but for sure bad for the night.”

After a year and a half of treatment, he had beaten the disease. But his doctor informed him he was the only trial participant that took his prescribed medication regularly.

The reason was because he changed the environment around his dosage. He didn’t treat it as an obstacle in his life. Instead, he made a deal with himself: Every morning, he would rent movies he wanted to see and carry them throughout the day. Viewing them was something he could look forward to. When he viewed them at the end of the day, he would take his interferon.

“The difference was that liver cirrhosis was long term in the future,” he said. “In contrast, the movies were there, immediate and for sure.”

Another motivator is regret. Ariely defined regret as “driven by a contrast between where we are and where we think we could have been.” He walked through another thought experiment. Is it more frustrating to arrive two minutes late to a flight or two hours late?

The reality is same: The flight gets missed. But it is the contrast between the imagination and reality that makes the former seem so much worse. Olympic medalists display this behavior. The happiest medalists aren’t sequentially gold, silver and bronze, but gold, bronze, then silver.

“Why is silver the most unhappy? Because imagine for four years you got up extra early to train, and 90 seconds ago, you got second place,” he said. “The thought that you cannot chase away is ‘if only.’ ”

Those who experienced regret in an experiment would do almost anything to avoid the feeling again. Thus, compliance rates jumped to 98 percent.

The second strategy is the Ulysses contract. In the classic tale, Ulysses is sailing home from Troy, beset by obstacles from the vengeful god of the sea, Neptune. One of his trials is the call of the Sirens, dangerous-yet-beautiful creatures that lure unsuspecting sailors to their deaths.

To survive the Sirens’ call, he instructed his men tie him to the ship’s mast. Then they filled their ears with wax.

“It is a mechanism that says, ‘I will be tempted, so I will act to prevent it,’ ” he said.

The same principle can be applied to exercise. Forking over a payment to a trainer presents a choice: follow through on the appointment or lose the money.

“Nobody ever said, ‘Today, I feel like a colonoscopy,’ ” Ariely said. “But putting down a $500 deposit can act as a strong motivator. It forces your future self to behave better.”

What motivates individuals to behave better? Calorie information on fast food, for example, doesn’t do it, Ariely said. One reason is nobody is really surprised to find out how unhealthy fast food is. Another is the public is ill-equipped to deal with such information anyway.

“The thought that the barrier to rationality is a lack of knowledge or information is untrue, yet so powerful, the federal government mandated any chains with more than 20 stores label their food,” he said.

Self-control is the problem, and it takes practice to get right. But even so, it comes with its own challenge. Studies show that willpower is like a muscle — it gets tired and worn out the more we use it.

“Our willpower diminishes the more we resist,” Ariely said. “This means even if we resist temptation, we are paying a price.”

Rules are very useful to conserve willpower, Ariely said. He cited religion as a master of this art. By creating rules, it is easier to not even consider the temptation.

“Temptation is everywhere,” he said in conclusion. “Can we eliminate it? No, but we can create new rules and strategies to deal with it.”