Research Heroes: Dan Ariely

dan ariely

This week we’re proud to feature Dan Ariely who is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and the author of three New York Times bestsellers: Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty.  He has also been featured in a number of popular TED Talk videos and he blogs regularly at his personal website

[The following is an abridged interview that was conducted verbally with Professor Ariely.]

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career… I wish somebody had helped me figure out how to emphasize the process of enjoying writing. We do lots of writing and academic writing is restrictive and unfriendly so I really wish that somebody would have helped me find the joy in writing early on in my career.

For me this relates to another important topic: how do you enjoy the process of science to a higher degree? How do you look at the small nuances that happen and find joy in it? I think often people focus on the outcomes like getting papers published. The source of happiness should really be about the research itself, but I needed some help in enjoying the process of writing and communicating and that would have been a great help early on.

I most admire academically is George Loewenstein. I think George is an incredible thinker – I think of him as someone who sits and observes the world in a very keen and astute way. He also has a huge understanding of the literature and is able to ask new and interesting questions that connect what he sees and what we know and what we don’t know and come up with new observations. He starts with something that is about the real world outside and then connects it to an interesting theory and then develops it in a very nice way.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… is probably dishonesty, partly because I’ve worked on it more than any other particular topic. That’s part of it – my own investment in my own research. It is also important because I think it connects basic research with lots of policy implications. Often when we do experiments on decision-making we find out what people do badly which gives us opportunities to fix it. However, not all of these impact policy. But in the case of dishonesty, there are strong policy implications which I think are central to how we regulate banks and think about lobbying and all kinds of other things.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career or the one project that I should never had done… There’s probably a few of them, but there is one particular project on smart agents. The project was based on an interesting idea but then I had to learn Java and programming, and the amount of work that the project required was unbelievable – not just in terms of learning how to program but it was all based in simulation. Our field does not really appreciate simulations to a high degree, so I felt I learned something from it. However, the ratio of learning to effort was something that was not a reasonable exchange rate.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… Analyzing the data from a study we did in India. It was such a complex study and it took so much time and so much money. I think of analyzing data as almost a religious experience. Sadly, I don’t do it as much as I use to, but on that day I took a glass of wine and prepared the data set and created everything and started doing the analysis. When I do analysis I always start by looking at the means – I don’t care initially so much about statistical significance as I just want to see how things look like and want to see the patterns. That’s how I get my initial answer to the questions: was I right, was I wrong, and what’s going on? On this particular occasion it was really interesting because it was such complex data. Some of it worked as I expected which was great and some of it didn’t work as I expected which is also great because I learned something.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… I actually learned a lot about life in general from being a long-term patient in a burn department. I learned things about bandage removal, relations between people as well as feeling part of society and not feeling part of society. Many of those experience are hard to capture in an experiment because experiments are inherently simple: they are about a few conditions and don’t capture the complexity.

I’ve also written something that I posted on my blog about my life as burn patient and I actually wished we had an outlet for that stuff more: in medicine there are experiments and then there are case studies. Maybe in medicine they put too much value on case studies but I would like to do more of them. I actually tried to submit something to a journal as an ethnographic reflection but they said it did not follow their procedures and methods, and in some sense it is a shame because if you think of research as a collection of insights, it would be nice if we could include more insights, even ones that are not the standard academic ones that we know how to do in experiments.

A research project I wish I had done… For a long time I wanted to do research on productivity in the workplace as a function of different types of rewards: financial rewards, bonuses, kind words, paying with pizzas, group rewards, or whatever you could think of. I am getting closer – we are just starting to do a few, but there are many challenges.

On one hand compensation is main thing in business – it is the main line item for any business and yet we know so little about it. I would love to do experiments to with bonuses to CEOs and bankers and so on. I would settle for small bonuses as well with strong research practices. It’s is clearly something we need to study but the problem is that the people who are getting big bonuses don’t really want to know the answers. It’s definitely an important objective to figure how to do it and how to do it well, and in general how we do research on compensation.

 If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… Hard for me to say of course, but I have a deep love for biology. I sadly haven’t had enough time to study biology in the past few years, but I look at the advances in biology and molecular biology in particular and I am just amazed. That would have been one thing I would have loved to try to do. In another direction I would have loved to been architect as I think of them as designers of human interaction. Granted, not all architects but many are: they create the environment in which people live, and in that perspective I think they are like social scientist but in a particular domain. I would have loved to try that and have an impact on how people live.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years… would be to understand the generality of the findings we have. We have lots of findings and different aspects and we have assumed for a long time that they would just carry over in different contexts and different occasions.

Of course, when we talk about the theory of mind or psychology, the context doesn’t have to be part of the theory, but as we get access to more people and more cultures, I think we’ll have to have a more nuanced understanding of our theories and we will have to learn to adjust them based on other intervening factors that might come from culture for example. We have been ignoring culture too much.

It has less to do with the theory and more to do with application: as we try to apply things and try to change human behavior, we will need to understand those nuances to a larger degree.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is… research in general is a lonely long term endeavor. I think before you start with it, it is important to figure out exactly what you love doing – even if other people are not particularly in favor of and it is not particularly the hot topic of the day. I think that is less important – if it is something that you deeply care about, go for it, because at the end of the day the quality of the work is something that requires that thinking and investment over days and months and years and the only way to do it is to do something you really love.

Love first – suitable with the profession second.


5 thoughts on “Research Heroes: Dan Ariely

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