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Are We in Control of Our Decisions by Dan Ariely (Full Transcript)

Dan Ariely

Here is the full text of behavioral economist Dan Ariely’s talk: Are We in Control of Our Decisions at TED Talk conference.

Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Dan Ariely on are we in control of our decisions


I’ll tell you a little bit about irrational behavior. Not yours, of course — other people’s.

So after being at MIT for a few years, I realized that writing academic papers is not that exciting. You know, I don’t know how many of those you read, but it’s not fun to read and often not fun to write — even worse to write. So I decided to try and write something more fun. And I came up with an idea that I would write a cookbook. And the title for my cookbook was going to be, “Dining Without Crumbs: The Art of Eating Over the Sink.”

And it was going to be a look at life through the kitchen. I was quite excited about this. I was going to talk a little bit about research, a little bit about the kitchen. We do so much in the kitchen, I thought this would be interesting. And I wrote a couple of chapters, and I took it to MIT Press and they said, “Cute, but not for us. Go and find somebody else.”

I tried other people, and everybody said the same thing, “Cute. Not for us.”

Until somebody said, “Look, if you’re serious about this, you first have to write a book about your research; you have to publish something, then you’ll get the opportunity to write something else. If you really want to do it, you have to do it.”

I said, “I don’t want to write about my research. I do this all day long, I want to write something else, something a bit more free, less constrained.”

And this person was very forceful and said, “Look, that’s the only way you’ll ever do it.”

So I said, “Okay, if I have to do it –“ I had a sabbatical. I said, “I’ll write about my research, if there’s no other way. And then I’ll get to do my cookbook.”

So, I wrote a book on my research. And it turned out to be quite fun in two ways. First of all, I enjoyed writing. But the more interesting thing was that I started learning from people. It’s a fantastic time to write, because there’s so much feedback you can get from people. People write to me about their personal experience, and about their examples, and what they disagree and nuances. And even being here — I mean, the last few days, I’ve known really heights of obsessive behavior I never thought about. Which I think is just fascinating.

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I want to tell you a little bit about irrational behavior, and I want to start by giving you some examples of visual illusion as a metaphor for rationality. So think about these two tables. And you must have seen this illusion. If I asked you what’s longer, the vertical line on the table on the left, or the horizontal line on the table on the right, which one seems longer? Can anybody see anything but the left one being longer? No, right? It’s impossible. But the nice thing about visual illusion is we can easily demonstrate mistakes. So I can put some lines on; it doesn’t help. I can animate the lines. And to the extent you believe I didn’t shrink the lines, which I didn’t, I’ve proven to you that your eyes were deceiving you.

Now, the interesting thing about this is when I take the lines away, it’s as if you haven’t learned anything in the last minute. You can’t look at this and say, “Okay. Now I see reality as it is.” Right? It’s impossible to overcome this sense that this is indeed longer. Our intuition is really fooling us in a repeatable, predictable, consistent way and there is almost nothing we can do about it, aside from taking a ruler and starting to measure it.

Here’s another one. It’s one of my favorite illusions. What color is the top arrow pointing to?

Brown. Thank you.

The bottom one? Yellow. Turns out they’re identical. Can anybody see them as identical? Very, very hard. I can cover the rest of the cube up. If I cover the rest of the cube, you can see that they are identical. If you don’t believe me, you can get the slide later and do some arts and crafts and see that they’re identical. But again, it’s the same story, that if we take the background away, the illusion comes back. There is no way for us not to see this illusion. I guess maybe if you’re colorblind, I don’t think you can see that. I want you to think about illusion as a metaphor.

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Vision is one of the best things we do. We have a huge part of our brain dedicated to vision — bigger than dedicated to anything else. We do more vision more hours of the day than we do anything else. And we’re evolutionarily designed to do vision. And if we have these predictable repeatable mistakes in vision, which we’re so good at, what’s the chance that we don’t make even more mistakes in something we’re not as good at, for example, financial decision-making.

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