The guru of advanced hindsight

A talk with Dan Ariely
By PHILIP EIL  |  April 24, 2013


The name of the lab that rock star behavioral economist Dan Ariely founded at Duke University sounds like a joke: The Center for Advanced Hindsight. But it isn't. It's a real-life place where Ariely and a crew of researchers study pain, overeating, cheating, dating, decision making, and the relationship between eye contact and trust. According to the center's website, they're also working on developing programs and iPhone apps "to save the world."

Ariely — author of the bestseller Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions — brought his trademark curiosity and world-saving passion to Providence on April 20 in a lecture titled "Who Put the Monkey in the Driver's Seat?" for RISD's "Shared Voices" Presidential Speaker Series. True to form, the man's ideas ranged from an alarm clock that donates money to the user's least favorite charity if they continue to snooze, and the observation that, if you wear an ugly shirt from another culture, political correctness will prevent people from ridiculing it.

The Phoenix caught up with him before the talk. The interview has been edited and condensed.

WITHOUT KNOWING ME, CAN YOU TELL ME IF I'M MAKING BAD LIFE DECISIONS? You are. I can tell you what they're likely to be. Most likely you haven't thought carefully about retirement. My guess is that, if you're like a lot of Americans, you're not taking good enough care of your health — thinking long term in terms of getting habits for healthy eating. If I think about other general categories, my guess is you've texted and drove in the recent past and you probably had unprotected sex at some point. As a journalist, you probably procrastinate and you wait [until] the couple of hours before the deadline to really focus. My guess is you don't go to sleep on time.

[LAUGHING] WHAT IS IT LIKE HAVING THESE THOUGHTS ABOUT THE PEOPLE AROUND YOU? I don't think that people are bad, I just think that our human nature is incompatible with the environment we design for ourselves. Knowing that you text and drive for example, doesn't make me think worse of you. It just makes me think, "OK, how [did] we create this system that is so terrible? What would we do better?"

LAST NIGHT — FRIDAY, APRIL 19 — YOUR TALK IN BOSTON WAS POSTPONED BECAUSE OF THE MANHUNT FOR ONE OF THE MARATHON BOMBERS. IS THERE ANYTHING ABOUT THOSE RECENT EVENTS THAT RELATES TO YOUR RESEARCH? The question of course is, "Why is terrorism so successful?" The way we understand these events is that [one of] the two biggest contributors to the irrational fear . . . is the intentionality on the other side. There is somebody who is intending to kill you, unlike [with] car accidents or other things. The other thing is that there is no room for perception of control. So when you drive, you feel you are in control. The truth is, somebody drunk could just swerve and hit you and you have no control, but we have this feeling of being in control.

The other thing which is kind of interesting is thinking about the police force. I think the force of anticipated regret is so powerful that the police basically did not want to get to a situation in which somebody later on would say, "You should have done x." In order to prevent that, they shut down the whole city.

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