Listen to Episode #53 here:
Making Interesting Things with Dan Ariely
Our guest is Dan Ariely. He is a James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. He’s the bestselling author of Irrationally Yours, Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality and The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty. Welcome, Dan.
It’s good to have you here.
If you weren’t working as a professor, researcher, speaker or author, what would you be doing?
I love biology. There had been many interesting advances in biology from molecular biology to genetics to the role of bacteria in our lives. I’m a little bit disappointed I’m not getting to take part in that journey. I picked academia because I thought it’s a profession that fits my disability. I was injured badly. After I was in the hospital for a few years and when I left the hospital, I started studying physics and math at the university. In high school, I could do physics and math in my head. I didn’t need to write anything. The university was not easy. I couldn’t hold anything in my hands. I used to have somebody writing for me. I had somebody on the blackboard and I would dictate equations for them. It turns out to be not a good way to do math and physics.
I’ve seen Goodwill Hunting. I know how this stuff works.
I went to study philosophy and psychology. I found that it fits my life. On days when I had treatment, I would work less. Some days I didn’t have treatment, I would work more. I could work in any place I wanted. There was something about the flexibility of academic life and disability. The first thing that attracted me was not that I’m designed to be an academic. The first thing was given my disability, the ups and downs in disability and so on, what can I do? It became a good path. I could have been an entrepreneur, but I need something where I could control my schedule and change it when needed.
I want to ask you about both of those things. You talked about biology. I haven’t admittedly followed it very much. We as people in the world of behavioral economics, judgment and decision-making, talk about your gut as instincts and your feelings and so on.
All of a sudden, the gut is a zoo. It’s a universe. Lots of things are happening in your gut. It’s an active place, crowded.
There’s this thing called gut health and the notion that your GI tract has major implications for the quality of your life.A universe of things is happening in your gut. Click To Tweet
There are lots of bacteria on us and in us and they are part of us. They’re part of our functions. For example, there was this disturbing paper on Diet Coke that says, “Look what happens when you drink Diet Coke. When you drink Diet Coke, it gives you a lower calorie than regular Coke.” That sounds good, but it also kills your gut bacteria. What happens is that it’s good to get fewer calories, but it also kills your gut bacteria. What your gut bacteria does for you is to process food later on. It’s short-term versus long-term. Short-term, you’re getting fewer calories, but long-term you’re killing your ability to digest. Overall, the argument is drinking Diet Coke a recipe for gaining weight rather than losing weight because we are not the only ones processing our foods. Our gut bacteria do it as well. If we take it out, everything is much more difficult.
There are also these beginning results on the role of gut bacteria in mental health. In early days, there are lots of things to discover, but this whole idea that we’re not alone in our bodies. There are other entities and those entities have interesting dynamics. They do things to our smell. They do things for resistance to allergenics. They do things to the way we processed food. They do things to regulate our mood. All kinds of things happen and how do we get to treat those entities with respect so we can work together rather than work against each other?
There’s a particular lab called DayTwo. It’s an Israeli company. The research there comes from the Weizmann Institute. What they’ve done is take people and start with insulin resistance. They give people insulin measurements. You have a blood glucose measurement that you walk with and they document what you eat, what your blood glucose level is and what your gut bacteria is. They’re trying to understand the relationship between the three. It turns out that you and me if we have different gut bacteria, the effect of food on our blood sugar level will be different because it goes through the bacteria. Once they’ve done this to a lot of people, now you say, “We understand that mechanism. We can look at Pete. We can analyze your gut bacteria. We can tell you based on your gut bacteria what things you should and shouldn’t eat.” With diabetes, which is one of the most frightening diseases out there, a part of the issue is not what we eat but how much we eat. It’s a combination of what we eat and how much we eat. I can tell you, given your gut bacteria. Some things are much better for you and much worse. It’s not one size fits all.
My gut bacteria don’t like nachos as much as I do.
The question is there are things that would surprise you that you like and your gut bacteria will say do more of it.
A few years ago, I had a spicy Thai chicken fried rice meal and it destroyed my GI tract so much that for maybe a few weeks I had major problems.
Did it destroy the bacteria?
It affected the bacteria or something. The symptoms I had after it was I would start the day normally. I could eat breakfast. By 1:00 to 2:00 PM when everything was going through, I had pain and lethargy. I could work normally. I could have a normal day until about 2:00 PM and then for the rest of the day I was ruined. It scared the hell out of me. Is this permanent? I realized that there are people who have IBS, Irritable Bowel Syndrome, who have GI problems. How profound it is not to your GI track but your energy level, your brain, and your comfort. It did scare me and it made me much more appreciative of a healthy gut. This is always changing. There was a time where fat was the enemy, now sugar is the enemy and fat is good. We have these changes. A mutual friend of ours, I was having lunch with him, On Amir, was telling me about what’s happening with sunlight. Most of the time, the sun is a scary thing. It’s going to give you cancer, especially for pale white boys like me. There’s this emerging research that getting sun has all these other benefits that far outweigh the risk of melanoma because that’s a fairly low probability and also, it’s treatable too. It’s not like other forms of cancer.
We do live in a complex biological system. There was a study where they took people. This was in Africa and they treated him for iron-deficiency. Iron-deficiency seems like a bad thing to have. It turns out when you’re iron deficient, your body is less likely to attract disease for all other reasons. This idea that good and bad, X is good psychologically. It’s how we make sense of the world. Sunlight is bad. Moderation is something we don’t do well with. It says to do some, but not too much. Its multiple benefits and multiple costs and you have to weigh them. The world is like that. If anything in homeostasis, equilibrium, it’s never the answer. Living in darkness is always bad. It’s about finding the right mix. That’s going to be tough for us to act on. The things we’re good at acting are the deterministic things. Do X, don’t do Y. This is how religion works. Do you have a rule? If you say you get exposed to some sunlight but not too much, how are we going to do it? If we go in and say, “Eat some fat but not too much,” it’s difficult but that’s the reality.
It’s not like science helps because what reviewer A, B, and C want are to isolate this one variable and show that more is good and less is bad or vice versa.
We often have the tendency to break things into small components and look at them one at a time. I wouldn’t say science is not helpful. It’s this reductionist version of science is not helpful. Even in psychology, there are people who do holistic representations even in child psychology and so on. They say, “Let’s not take this reductionist approach. Let’s look at the organism in the environment and let’s not do an abstraction and so on.” For many things, especially for biological systems, I think it’s right. Here is what I would say to save science. I would say, “It’s good to start with understanding the factors and isolation, but we can’t stop there.”
In the same way, I did my own research and I’m happy to study things as individual components in the lab, but then we go to the fields. We say, “If you plug this into people’s lives, does it still have the same effect? Does it run out against other things?” One example, it’s easy to get people to save some money. We did some studies on how to get low-income people to save some of their tax refund from the government. It’s relatively easy to do, but the question is, “Are you affecting them negatively in other ways.” Imagine I got people to save 100% of their tax rebates. Will they take more credit card debt as a consequence of that or pay less debt? We figured out that we can get people to save about the third without hurting their other aspects.
More is not necessarily good.
Up to a third, it’s all good. Above a third, you could cut into other things. When low-income people get tax rebates, it’s usually almost twice as the regular monthly income. It’s the biggest paycheck of the year. The idea is to put a third of it into savings, a third of it to pay the debt and a third to spend because life is not about misery. You need some happiness. Not enjoying life sometimes and doing something is helpful. That’s the exact mix. If we studied saving in isolation, can we get them to save more? Absolutely. Would we hurt the other things? Absolutely as well. As we move from lab research to the field, it’s going to be more and more this way, the same way that if we studied gut bacteria in a petri dish we would not understand the whole complexity of what’s going on.
If we studied melanoma or skin cancer separately, we need to do more of those big field studies in vivo. This is where technology is helping us. Think about our field. The biggest revolution in our field has been technology. It allowed us to step out of the lab and into life. Before that, you wanted to study auctions. There are few auctions out there. There’s eBay. Think about the amount of data you’re with. Do you want to study dating? It’s difficult. Now, there are a million sites with different flavors and possibilities. It made the study more interesting. We don’t have to study gambles and abstract things. We can study real phenomena, but also we get much more interesting data. We in decision-making are moving into that.
I was telling some first-year grad students that the future of the paper and our field will be a mix of lab studies and secondary data. The journals aren’t quite ready for it because they don’t know how to structure reviewers for that. I think that’s where it is.Part of the issue is not just what we eat but how much we eat. Click To Tweet
It will give us richness back into our theories. Everybody would benefit from it.
The other thing you said was you’d be an entrepreneur. I liked that answer in part because I never was entrepreneurial until I got ten years into my career. Now, I think I would answer this question in a similar way. I never thought of myself as entrepreneurial, but now I do. I’m at the Center for Advanced Hindsight and this place feels like a startup. It feels like a place on Pearl Street where people are going through their series A and they are hiring people. There are open places to work and enclosed offices, couches, foosball tables and so on. Is that where your answer about I’d be an entrepreneur comes from because you are a professorial entrepreneur.
I have three lives. I have a life here at Duke. In the Center for Advanced Hindsight, we do mostly research on financial decision making and health. Mostly the US, some in Africa, a little bit in Europe and a little bit of China. We decided to be an applied research center. Mariel, Julia and Ting are the three leaders of the lab. The three areas: health, financial and international. Aline as well. We decided a few years ago to try and specialize and decided to measure our impact by how many people we help or by how much.
The Gates do this stuff.
They have a measure of their approach and we are doing the same thing. We’re saying, “Academic papers are great. If we can do them, that’s great.” The first hurdle to whether we’re going to do a project is like, “How many people can we influence if we are finding something and by how much?” That’s our mission. That’s life number one. It’s entrepreneurial from the perspective that our mission is to do good. We are doing good in all ways. Mostly we try to do focus on health and finances in the US and the rest of the world. If you have any project that you say fits that, that’s great. We are open to this. My second life is I have a group in Israel of about 40 people. There are about twenty people that work exclusively with the government and the government once a year comes to us with big topics. We pick five topics we want to work on and we do research and come up with solutions and so on. It’s a group of social scientists, designers and computer scientists. We try to develop apps, websites, technologies and solutions to things. They say, “Here’s a problem, go at it.” It could be from transportation to education to land disputes.
Do you keep a year timeline? Do you try to keep it within a year?
Our contract to the government is every year they come to us with new projects.
In terms of the time to a solution?
It varies on what we think is the right time horizon for the product. Some of them will take more, some take less. It’s a good thing to aim for. I do have some startups. Whenever I have an idea that nobody else picks up, I do a startup. I have three startups that I started. I also advise two other startups in a heavy way. I help lots of people.
Are these tech startups mostly?
Yeah, all of them.
I like to say that every company is a tech company now.
To give you an example, one company is a food company. We have a device called Genie, like an espresso machine, but it makes food. We started from a basic point of view. We said, “It’s all about portion control. You have to have the right amount of food.”
If you make the right amount of food, then you eat the right amount of food.
It has to be quick. It can’t take more than two minutes. We have a machine, Genie, that makes healthy food with no preservatives, no additives between a minute to two minutes depending on the dish. It makes a range of things from pasta with all things to quinoa to chocolate soufflé to soups. That’s one company. It’s been exciting because there are lots of elements. There are elements of the technology itself and the machine. There are elements of food and quality. There are elements of habit creation. Lots of things are interesting. A second company is also in health. We created a scale with no display. That also comes from social science. Health is something you need to think about every day. It’s something you start in the morning. You can’t start after lunch. We said, “Scale is a good Trojan horse.” Also, there is recall and recognition. The recognition is when you see something and it gets the idea in your mind. Recall is when you think about something yourself. Most things we need something to remind us. One of the things that happened in the digital revolution is that an app on our phone on page four and they’re not part of our physical environment. People sometimes think it’s enough. It’s not enough. We need to remind people about our existence.
The bathroom scale is a good thing. What do we know about the bathroom scale? Three things. The first thing is it’s good to step up on the scale every morning. Why? You remind yourself that you want to be healthy. You step on the scale. It’s like a little ritual and says, “Let’s eat a little bit less for breakfast.” The second thing is weight fluctuates a lot. How much salt when you enter the bathroom? If you’re a woman, menstrual cycle. That creates the opposite of loss aversion. We have this principle in behavioral economics, losses loom larger than gains. In weight, it’s the opposite. Gains are the negative side. Imagine somebody who doesn’t change their weight, they go up and down. The up days are miserable. The down days are slightly happy. On average, not good news. That’s why most people don’t like their bathroom scales. You experience this fluctuation. The trend is slow. The fluctuation is large. The third thing and we’ve done this on lots of healthcare projects, people expect their bodies to react quickly.
It takes forever to change your body, especially as you get older.Moderation is something we don't do well with. Click To Tweet
You’ve been on a diet for two days. You step on the scale and say, “I’ve been on a diet since yesterday morning. What’s going on? It’s not working.” You do a diet for three days and nothing happened. You take two days off and now your weight goes down. I said, “The regular scale is confusing and demotivating. Let’s do a scale with no display. Let’s get people to step on the scale. If they step on the scale, we say, “Congratulations, you stood on the scale. You’ve done your job.” We give people feedback on an app. It’s the trend over the last few weeks. What’s the good thing about the trend over the last few weeks? It eliminates the noise.
This is the narrow bracketing work on investments. If you look at your stock portfolio every day, it’s the same thing. If you look at it at the end of the year, you’re usually happy.
We also decided to do it on a five-point scale and to celebrate no bad news. In health, no bad news is great news. The status quo is fantastic. In many other cases, it’s not but here it is. We say, “Five-point scale, great news, nothing bad happened. The trend for the last week is slightly worse, much worse, slightly better, much better. That’s it.” We did a test in four call centers. We took people that are difficult to change their behavior. Low income, relatively obese, doesn’t do much throughout the day. The people who got the regular scale with the decimals, 0.3% of their body weight every month for five months. It didn’t slow down, continuous increase. The people who got our scale lost 0.6% every month for five months. You can say, “0.6% is not enough.”
Stopping the increase is great and it’s a nice increase. As a social scientist, it’s nice to say, “Let’s look at everyday objects,” and say, “How can we think about it from a social science perspective?” We used to have these mechanical scales with a thick needle and it was okay. We moved to digital. We said, “Let’s stick the display the same place and give people two decimals.” It’s not necessarily the right thing. We have this data revolution with lots of information about ourselves. What information should we provide people at what resolution? Just because we can measure something doesn’t mean that’s the right thing to give people to make decisions.
Where did the insight come from? Was it the study about looking at your stock portfolio? Was it this idea of, ‘What can we subtract from an everyday item?” Where did that idea come from?
It came from two separate interests. In decision-making, we say a lot. Reward what people do, not what the outcome is in a stochastic way. There is old research about multiple culpability learning, about how people get confused and so on. That was one piece that has been on my mind for a long time, for all things like the stock market, weight, blood pressure and blood sugar level. When we did the studies about how quickly people expect the feedback to be, we said, “We need to finish something.” The scale is one way, but there are lots of other places where we need to use that approach.
I like to say to my students when they worry that all the good ideas are taken. One of the things you should do is look at an everyday object that hasn’t changed in the last 50 years or has only changed a tiny bit. What I often say is people don’t buy vacuum cleaners. They buy clean floors. If you start thinking this way, people don’t buy scales, they’re trying to buy health.
With the scale, we also discovered that 79% of our population stood up on the scale five times or more per week. That’s an amazing adherence rate. We’re trying to think of it as the Trojan horse into health more generally. If people step on the scale and open an app and curious about something about their health, what else?
You are counting their steps and you’re doing these other things that might be integrated into that.
The third startup I have which is the ridiculous one from my perspective is a hedge fund. I got data about how companies treat their employees. Going back to 2006 until now and hundreds of companies, I looked at the data. Imagine that you have multiple dimensions. One dimension could be the quality of furniture, quality of coffee, equality of salary between men and women. How transparent people feel the company is. How much they understand their promotion. It turns out that if you do the following simulation and say, “Let’s imagine that it’s 2006, the day I got the first data. I saw the companies who do the best attribute quality of coffee to the worst and I buy at the prices of that day in the stock market. The 20% of companies treat their employees best on that dimension. I keep their stocks. In 2007, I got new data. One company moved up, one moved down and I change. I hold a portfolio of companies who do best on quality of coffee, quality of furniture and equality of salary, 80 different dimensions. I compared from 2006 to 2017. How did they do compared to the S&P 500? How many of them do you think do better than S&P? All but one. That’s shocking. We don’t have to use all of those. This is each of their building blocks separately.
Aside from one attribute and it does a tiny bit worse than the S&P 500. Almost everything you can measure does better. I’m telling you about all my ingredients. It’s not that I ran a million simulations and showed you three that worked. Here are my building blocks. All my building blocks aside from one do better on the upside in the S&P. Some a little bit better, some a lot better. The same thing is true for the downside. If you invest bonds money, they don’t do well compared to S&P. Now, all but two do worse than the S&P 500. We came up with a strategy where we buy the companies who treat their employees well and sell companies who don’t. We have a long fund and a long/short fund. When we started, the results were nice. Together we went through some hedge funds. There are lots of people who manage lots of money. It wasn’t clear that the right thing to do is to open the hedge funds where somebody could use that data. What happened is that lots of people were excited and they wanted to do something with us, but they wanted to combine that plus financial data and you can imagine why.
More predictors are better.
We didn’t want to because I want to go and say, “Look at my strategy.” The long strategy historically in that period does 12% over the S&P per year. We’ll see what will happen moving forward. If you look at this and you say, “What’s going on here?” If it was a mix of human capital and money, you’d never know which one it is. As an ideology, I want to go to investors and say, “I don’t look at quarterly earnings.” I’m sure it will get you better. I’m sure there’s more signal there but I say, “Look at how much we’ve neglected human capital.” That’s the important thing. I have all these funny discussions with people and they say, “We’re fundamental investors.”
What do you mean by fundamental investing? What’s the engine of growth of a company? Where’s it coming from? You say fundamental? Is this coming from the balance sheet? It comes from human capital. It’s ingenuity. It’s care. It’s interest. Another thing I did was I said, “Imagine we were designing annual reports. You as an investor have a way to tell companies what you want them to tell you. Don’t you want to know about how they’re treating the employees? How excited people are?” Nevertheless, we have this system that came out of accounting. Just because this is what we do in the accounting system, that’s the easy thing to put in the annual report. That’s not what we want.
The way I back this out is when you’re talking about what does a CEO do? To me, a CEO does three things. They raise money. It’s why so many CEOs are financed people because of how important that is. They decide on a high-level strategy. This is where we’re taking the company. The third thing which I think people overlook is they create culture. That is that they hire, fire and design the way the organization works. You need all three of those things together. You need money to execute strategy, you need culture to execute strategy and you need a good strategy. What you’re highlighting is the culture side of this. You’re quantifying the culture side of it.
If you think about the gap between the minimum of work we need to do not to get fired and the max we can do if we’re excited, that’s good will. That gap is about how much I care about the company. Companies that are good at that and everybody’s better off. Have you ever worked at the university when you were unhappy with your dean or somebody? Everybody suffers. All the activities that are usually joyful or contributing to the university, happy, doing all things. All of a sudden you are like, “Why am I doing this?” What do you want, for example, for me having the benefit of Duke at heart? It’s not necessarily they have it in the traditional way everybody thinks about it. Here is my teaching load and here is this.
By improving the brand and the experience of students.In health, nobody uses great news. Click To Tweet
I want to talk to alumni. Whatever I do, that’s goodwill. I care about the benefit of the university everywhere I go. It means that I spend more time with undergrads. It means I spend more time in all things that are good for the university. The question is, what is the culture? Incentives are not enough to get goodwill. What is the culture that gets people to have goodwill?
I read this book, it’s a series of essays by Paul Graham and Paul’s a tech guy, an impressive thinker. He talks about how difficult it is in an existing corporate structure because the assumption is you’re working as hard as possible. How do you create a situation where you’re willing to give a 10x effort to get some major benefit of that? He was like, “You have to leave the corporate structure because it’s not set up to do that.” What you’re describing is not 10x but 2x. That can accommodate that, but it’s not going to be money that does it. It’s going to be these other things.
It’s not just what pushes it forward, it’s what things we do to depress it? Sometimes we depress it. I was in some labor negotiation in a different country with the government and social workers in the labor negotiation of salary. I asked the guy who was on the side of the social workers, “If we’re going to increase your salaries to $500 a month, what do you think would they prefer? To get the money in cash or to get it in petty cash and allow them to spend it on the families that they’re trying to help.” One is going into their pocket and the other one is giving the money with no bureaucracy. To give as they please, this is creating autonomy. He said 100% of them want the cash. We looked at it, 80% wanted to give the money.
Think about the role of autonomy. You become a social worker. You’re not trying to maximize. You’re a good person trying to help out. Then we put you in a system that blocks your ability to help with bureaucracy. What’s the daily experience like? All of a sudden they say, “I’m giving you a way to get out of it. $500 a month is not enough to do stuff, but I’m giving you trust. I’m giving you autonomy. You can buy a book here, give some cash here and buy groceries here. It’s up to you completely. It’s a tremendous benefit.” That’s an example of the things that we do. Bureaucracy is the enemy of goodwill. What you do when you create bureaucracy is you say, “I don’t trust you to do the right thing. I have to put all these rules on you to make sure you do exactly what you are told.” Rules sometimes are good on average for most people, but not always for all cases.
My school wouldn’t reimburse a plane ticket for me that I didn’t follow the rules at. It’s an incredibly shortsighted thing.
Let me get another bottle of wine and we’ll call it even.
I didn’t do that in case anyone from Colorado’s reading. In 2008, you published your first book. You were a little early to this pop science world where publishers in the world were figuring out that there is an appetite to translate behavioral science into something accessible. You keep writing books. You co-wrote a book called Dollars and Sense with Jeff Kreisler. He is a comedian. You’re also creating other products besides books. You have a movie (Dis)Honesty that’s on Netflix. You have a card game, the Irrational Game. You have apps. Why are you still doing books?
I look at everything as a new adventure and something I want to learn myself. I wrote the first three books relatively quickly. I have an advice column in the Wall Street Journal. I teamed up with a cartoonist and I expanded on my answers in the column because the column is a little bit limited. He wrote cartoons about this and it was wonderful to get my answer to a question and to think that I condensed it. He has one sentence in a cartoon and he captures the whole idea in motion.
Who was the cartoonist?
Making Interesting Things: We have this very methodical way of learning we call experiments, but there’s lots of other ways to learn.
William Haefeli. He’s a New Yorker cartoonist. I got a request to write a short TED book. I thought, “That would be interesting as well to try and write something much shorter about a third of a regular book.” That was a new adventure. On that book, Payoff, I decided to be less scientific and a bit more exploratory. The first chapter is a very personal chapter about the kid I was trying to help who was badly injured and my difficult process through it but also my musing. The last chapter is about death, not something I’ve researched about. The middle chapters are research chapters like we used to. The first one is a personal experience. The last one is my musings about death and what it says about the meaning of life and so on.
It was fun to work together with Jeff and now, I just finished with Matt. We finished an illustrated book. He’s an illustrator. It’s an illustrated book with a little bit of text inside. A new adventure. It’s about market norms and social norms. The whole thing is focusing on what we do for love. What do we do for money? How do we do these things? Each of those is an adventure. I do them only if I feel I’m going to learn something new and create some value. I don’t want to do the same thing. We both give lots of talks and giving talks is fine. I teamed up with a magician in Israel. We have a mutual friend and she said, “Why don’t the two of you meet?” We met and we liked each other. Magicians are social scientists.
Have you been to The Magic Castle in Los Angeles?
That’s home base for those guys. They are super interesting.
I teamed up with this magician called Yuval Shahar, an amazing Israeli. We did six shows in Israel. I learned a few magic tricks. It was fun but over the six shows, they also got much longer. We started with an hour-and-a-half and ended in two-and-a-half hours because we like each other so much. The last show we had, I was tearing up at the end. I felt him and I would hang out on stage, showing each other and talking to each other. He goes more into what I say, I go. I try to read people’s minds and he does some of my stuff. I felt that we were just hanging out and 2,000 people were kind enough to come and join us at our party. I try to do things now that are expanding. Life is about learning. We have this methodical way of learning we call experiments. There are lots of other ways to learn. I’m interested in all of them. I want to improve myself. How do you get good ideas? What’s your experience? I started realizing a few years ago I want to invest more in myself as a learning tool. If I want to get better, I need to do all the things that are not necessarily academic papers. I need to try new experiences. I need to expand. I need to push myself. I need to do all things. Sometimes it brings ideas, sometimes it’s not. It’s enriched my own experience.
I’m really inspired by your life. When I looked to the person in the field for inspiration, it’s you. I’ve always appreciated the advice that you’ve given me. I marvel at what you’ve done because I know how hard I work at and struggle to do what I do. You are a difficult reference point, Dan. This is if I ever get to have the problem that you’re having, I don’t even think you have a problem. Your productivity is incredible. Your schedule is incredible. You laid out for the audience all the things you’re working on. Anyone of those single things is a full-time job. I see why you’re doing it. You have a mission. To make the world a better place. Help people, live better, healthier, prepare for the future. You have an internal curiosity about the world and excitement about ideas. “Here I am. I’m 50. How can I continue to grow?” This growth mindset is flourishing in this way. When is it going to break? The issue is when does the weight of all these things go to start to get in the way of that. Where do you go?
What’s happened? I’m excited about this idea. In 2008, you published your first book, a New York Times bestseller. It puts you on the map. You become a bit of a celebrity in the small world of academia. It was the perfect moment. Corporations were ready for this. You’ve been able to finance all of these things through talks, consulting, donation and the power of your brand and so on. You’ve started to build. The natural thing would be to continue to build this, but the model is still built on you as creative director, CEO or whatever it might be. Will this go on until you are 60? I am going the other direction where I’m going more alone. I have labs and stuff like that, but I’m going the opposite way which is leaner.Life is about learning. Click To Tweet
I’m lucky to work with people I love and admire and I only work with people I care about both professionally and personally. There’s nobody I work with that I wouldn’t want to spend real time with. That’s a part of it. I also trust people a lot. I tell them, “I’m here when you need me, but I don’t want you to report to me. Tell me what you’re doing. I’m at your service, not the other way around.” I get hurt infrequently, but I got hurt not too long ago. I trusted somebody and there was a terrible thing that happened. In the beginning, the instinct was to say, “Let me trust people less.” I said no. I need to understand that trust is a wonderful strategy. I get lots of benefit from it. I don’t see it all the time, but it’s an amazing strategy of everybody’s happier. We get lots of work done. Things are amazing. From time to time, there’s a cost. I don’t want to do the things insurance companies do. They say, “I don’t want anybody to cheat me. Let me make everybody’s life miserable,” or doing that. I have a basis of trust. In terms of growth, I’m unable to handle more projects. For example, I got an email from somebody who’s doing something interesting, close to my heart and I said no. I’m at the level of, “I can’t do more.”
Can I ask how you said no?
I wrote a few sentences about saying no. I have a sentence of saying no to talks. It’s in the shortcuts on the email on responding to that. I’ve made those and I used them to say no because I have to say no. When I write something, it’s easier. My assistant, Megan, she reads my email. We have email folders for her. I move things there for her to handle. There’s a folder called, “Megan, say no.” That’s for the cases when I didn’t feel comfortable saying no and she has no problem. There’s also a folder called, “Megan, you decide.” I know she always says no anyway, but it feels a little easier for me. I’m at that point. I need to take a few things off my plate if I could, but there’s nothing I’m willing to take off my plate yet.
There’s research that says if you don’t add anything, eventually it will come off your plate.
The more complex part of your question for me is the question of resilience. A lot of the projects are not happy projects. A lot of the projects are dealing with very sad things. We are not helping the happy people. It’s about diabetes and it’s about poverty and low-income. It’s about inequality and desperation and the terrible things are happening. For me, the toughest one is the exposure to the underbelly of society in many cases. When I go to Africa, I’m mostly in slums. It is tough and most of the day is spent on difficult things. For example, we have some projects in trying to figure out how to incorporate people with disabilities into society. We’re trying to figure out physical disability. It’s relatively easy. There are lots of prejudice and lots of challenges. The numbers are frightening of how many people are suffering from all kinds of things.
This is a question of how do you find happiness in a world where so much of the day is exposed to difficult things. Sometimes I feel there’s a wave of sadness that is coming over me that it’s hard to hold back because of the exposure to that. Working many hours and not sleeping is easy compared to that part from you. On one hand, it’s a motivating power because when you see so much sadness, you want to reduce it at least. Sometimes it’s too much. The big question is, “How long could it go on?” It’s a question of how long can I keep this level of resilience and look at difficult things and say, “Let’s put our sleeves up and see what we can do,” rather than saying, “This is sad and let’s stop trying.”
I could never hope to keep up with you, but I certainly have focused much more on my health. There are two things I’ve done that have improved my quality of life a lot. One is I’ve always been good about sleep. I’ve doubled down on my eating. I had always been okay about that, but I’ve gotten much better about that. In the last few years, I’ve gotten much better about my exercise because I let that go to work on the humorous stuff and the book and all that. You can’t do everything well. The other one is studying humor. You think about it as you go to a slum in Africa. I study Improv at Upright Citizens Brigade. I did a two-week intensive. I slept better than I had in years because for three hours a day I was playing with eleven other people. As adults, we rarely ever play. If we do, it’s soccer and we’re super competitive and angry because half the time we lose. When you go to an improv class, you almost always win. Especially as you get older, you don’t have the same motor.
The magician I have been with, one of his final statements to the audience every time is, “We don’t stop playing because we get older. We get older because we stopped playing.” It’s such a beautiful sentiment. I certainly am not good at those things. I certainly don’t exercise enough. I don’t eat well. Certainly, I don’t sleep. In 2018, I traveled for 300 days. 2017 was the same. It’s tough. When you travel, it’s tough to eat well, tough to exercise and to sleep well. I started hugging a pillow.
Even when you travel business it’s better, but it’s not the same as your bed and your refrigerator and so on. I always ask people on the end what are you reading, watching or listening to that’s good, that stands out to you?
I’m now listening to Michael Pollan’s book on psychedelics. I’m two-thirds in. It’s a good book, interesting and thought-provoking.
Our mutual friend, Janet Schwartz, was talking about this book. She commented on it. I don’t know if it’s inspired by the book or talks about it in the book is the idea when we think about new experiences, we tend to think about going out into the world. What psychedelics allow us to do is to have new experiences within our world.
The whole notion of what’s a world? What do we understand? What is this journey about? What are we experiencing? It’s a wonderful book and it’s good to think about what’s the range of experiences? It also gets you to think about what’s real and what’s not real. If you have a psychedelic experience, is it real? Is it not real? Your brain is doing this, but in the sense that is this part of our reality even if it’s induced or not. I’m going to admit that I only watch TV when I am flying. Not all the time, but that’s the only time I watch movies and TV. I downloaded Breaking Bad. I’m several years behind. I finally downloaded it and I’m flying. Maybe I’ll start watching it.
You’ve told this to me before that you watch movies on a plane. I should let you know that rule was helpful for me because when I was a grad student and I was an assistant professor, time on a plane was I would review papers. I would do this hard-ass work because you’re locked in. This is pre-internet on the planes and all this stuff. Flying is already aversive. When you’re 6’5” like me, it can be particularly aversive. I was doing this aversive thing on top of this aversive thing. I remember saying, “If Dan can watch a movie, then I can watch a movie.” I still do a lot of reading and writing on planes. I tried to make it a little more pleasurable side of the reading and writing world, but sometimes I let myself watch a movie. Thank you for the inspiration and for that tip about watching movies on planes.
Thanks. It’s lovely to see you as always.
It’s great. Thanks, Dan.
- Center for Advanced Hindsight
- Irrationally Yours
- Predictably Irrational
- The Upside of Irrationality
- The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty
- Dollars and Sense
- Irrational Game
About Dan Ariely
Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. He is the best-selling author of Irrationally Yours, Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.