We are being totally irrational…most of the time. Dan Ariely offers insight into our behavior.

March 17, 2010 § Leave a comment

Whether or not you believe in fate isn’t just something that gets asked at high school dances, anymore.

The question may be worded differently than it was when the lighting and acoustics of the school gym were a little more important in your life, but the answer still reveals if you take an active role in the choices you make each day.

Left entirely to fate, the decision-making process is on autopilot. But most people believe they play a big part when it comes to making choices. Before acting on an impulse, they consider the options, think about repercussions, and click yea or nay. A nice rational process, right?

It turns out that we might not be as sensible as we think.

One of the speakers at SXSW on Sunday challenged the commonly accepted belief that we make our decisions based on rational factors. Dan Ariely, author of Predictably Irrational and a social scientist at Duke University, gave the audience some pretty compelling reasons why much of the routine is often out of the decision-maker’s control and based on things that are…well, irrational.

There is a difference between what we believe influences our decisions and what really sways us. It’s a common belief that humans are capable of making choices in their best interest, but the truth is we’re often not. We procrastinate, we break diets and commitments to exercise, and we don’t schedule regular checkups with our doctors. We exist sub-optimally.

Ariely believes that when emotions take over, and they often do, humans are more likely to focus on their short-term desires. The longer goals of health and financial well-being are overridden by feelings that would postpone a swim or put off paying bills right now.

The next time Chatroulette! feels like an obvious choice over a jog or a Pilates class, unless you’re a social scientist or an avant-garde marketer with a professional interest in the site, it’s fair to assume that your emotions are driving the procrastination trolley.

The same holds true for counterfeiting. Most consumers who buy something fake understand they are doing something they shouldn’t be. In the moment, their emotions override longer goals of honesty and they make a purchase.

To prevent any self-sabotage, Ariely suggests using pre-commitments and incentives. So if you join a gym, it’s best to do it with another person. You’ll both be more likely to go. Even better is the use of an incentive where each time you duck a workout, you have to pay a penalty.

Ariely became interested in the subject of decision-making after an explosion burned 70% of his body and he was confined to a hospital for three years. The daily routine of recovery involved an excruciating bandaging process that he believed could be done in a less painful way. Despite his protests, the attending nurses insisted on a certain technique – quick and fast.

After he was discharged, he began conducting research on pain. When the experiments validated his original belief that lower intensity of pain over a longer time is preferable for patients, he set out to understand why the nurses, who wanted nothing but the smallest amount of discomfort for their patients and the shortest healing time, could be so willingly wrong. After witnessing the disconnect between what the nurses desired for the patients and their behavior, Ariely was curious about what other aspects of our lives might exhibit this kind of irrationality.

This desire to understand human behavior became the driving force behind his research.

Ariely finished Sunday’s discussion with a demonstration where he had audience members bid on a $20 bill. There were two stipulations, the first being that the winner would pay him whatever they agreed on and would receive the bill. The second stipulation was that the next highest bidder had to pay him as well without any reward. In a race of two, no one wanted to be second, so the bidding kept growing.

The emotion of the potential deal clouded the participants’ judgment so fully that they couldn’t see the long-term problem created by the game.

He concluded his talk at SXSW by assuring the audience that these types of contests are best avoided.

So a solid rule of thumb says that after an initial jolt of excitement hits in any situation, it’s a good idea to ask if what you’re feeling at the time is in sync with your long-term goals before making a decision. A little patience and self-awareness is all it requires.

You can see more of Ariely’s work at http://www.predictablyirrational.com.

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