Dan Ariely on Self Control at TEDxDuke (Full Transcript)

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Dan Ariely – Behavioral economist

Self control. So, you must be thinking: ‘What do you have to do with problems of self control?’

Let’s take a little survey: How many people here in the last week have procrastinated more than you wish you would? How many people have exercised in the last week less than you wish you would? Have eaten more than you wish you would? Have had more unprotected sex than you wish you would?

So, I want to talk a little bit about self-control and self control is basically the problems that we have all this desire from ourselves for the long-term, but then in the short-term we do very different things. And to get us thinking about this, I want to tell you about one of my biggest challenge with self-control.

So, I was in a hospital for a long time and one of those things I got in hospital was a particular version of hepatitis. I got a bad blood transfusion and I got a liver disease as a consequence. And from time to time the liver disease would flur up and I would get even sicker than I was anyway and this was very unpleasant.

And about 7 years after I was already out of the hospital, after my injury, I had another one of those episodes I checked myself into a hospital and they told me I had hepatitis C. And the good news was that the FDA was running a clinical trial to figure out whether interferon, a medication that was originally approved for hairy cell leukemia was going to be successful for treating hepatitis C.

So I said, “What would happen if I don’t join this trial?” They said, “Well, you have a good chance of dying of a liver cirrhosis and it’s not a good thing.”

So, I took the medication. And these injections were kind of the essence of self-control. I had to get myself three injections a week for a year and a half. And if I did it for a year and a half, there was a chance that I might not have liver cirrhosis 30 years down the road. But if I took the medication, for sure I will be sick for about the next 16 hours, think something like headache, vomiting, shaking, stuff like that. Not really terrible compared to liver cirrhosis, but unpleasant and immediate. And the fact is that when we are facing those decisions between something that is immediate and unpleasant versus something that is good, really good but in the long-term future, we often over-focus on the present and sacrifice the future.

So, anyway, this is, of course, not a new problem. We all face this. This is the problem of Adam and Eve. You can say, “Who in the right mind will ever give an apple for eternity in the garden of Eden?” What a crazy trade-off. But there’s a modern version of this you can say, “Who in the right mind will ever do this?”

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How many people here ever texted while driving? I mean, it’s an incredible thing, right? And you say it’s not the case that you said to yourself, “How much do I enjoy living?” “How much do I not want to kill other people?” “How important is this text message right now?” And you said, “Yes, let me do this.” No, instead what happened is that the impulse to answer this vibrating phone or to answer the ring overtakes us and we do lots of bad things as a consequence.

So think about it the following way. Imagine I gave you a choice between half a box of chocolate right now or a full box of chocolate in a week. And I took this fantastic Lindt chocolate and I passed it around and you could see it and smell it and you could choose between a half box of chocolate now or a full box of chocolate in a week. How many people under those conditions would delay the choice, say, I’ll wait another week for another half a box of chocolate? Wave a few hands and I’m willing to bet that if we actually had the chocolate passing around there would be few of those. But most people say, “Give me the chocolate now, I’ll take less chocolate now than more later.”

Imagine I pushed the choice to the future and I said, “What would you rather have: a half of box of chocolate in a year or a full box of chocolate in a year and a week?” Now realize it’s the same choice. It’s asking, whether you’d be willing to wait a week for another half of box of chocolate, but in this case, when both choices are in the future. How many people would wait another week for a full box of chocolate? Everybody, right? Because in the future we are wonderful people. We will be patient, we will not procrastinate, we’ll take our medication on time, we will exercise, we will eat. The problem is that we never get to live in that future. We always live in the present and in the present we’re not exactly that wonderful people. So that’s a problem with how we treat present and future.

So going back to my case, I took this medication, the trial was here when I was a student at Duke. When I finished — they told me the good news: I got rid of my liver disease, that was fantastic news. The second news was that I was the only person in this FDA protocol who always took their medication on time. The question is: How? Do I have more patience and self-control? Do I care more about my future? And the answer is no. But the answer is that I developed a little trick for myself. And my trick is that I love movies. If I had time, I would watch lots and lots of movies. But I don’t have much time and I don’t watch that many movies.

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But on Monday, Wednesday and Friday — which were the injection days — on the way to school I would stop in the video store, I would rent a few videos I wanted to watch, I would carry them in my backpack the whole day anticipating watching them, I would get home, I would inject myself and I would put a movie in, I would get the bucket and the blanket for the side effects, but I took the injection immediately, I didn’t wait for the side-effects to start, I connected something good with something bad and this together with a fact that I don’t have a particularly good memory — so I could watch the same movies over and over, sustained me through this long time.

Now let’s think about this. If we just thought of what is important in life, we would say that livers are really important. Nobody could question that. We would also say that side-effects of medication are not that important, relatively speaking. And this difference in importance should have motivated me and every other patient in the protocol to take our medication on time. But the problem is that this is not how we view life. There’s also a time domain. And the liver is not affecting us right now, it will be long term in the future. And because of that, it is vastly discounted. And the injections are now, which becomes much more focal, and central, and take more control over our lives.

Now, what was my trick? Did my trick get me to start caring about my liver? No, in fact, I substituted it with videos. It’s kind of crazy because videos are even less important than side-effects. We call this reward-substitution. And the idea is that there are many things in life, particularly, delayed rewards that we’re just not designed to care about. So can we get people to get excited about them? Very unlikely. Think about something like global warming. Can we ever get people to wake up in the morning and feel really excited about solving global warming today? Very unlikely aside from a few [school of sentence]. I mean it’s just not going to happen. Now, actually it’s worse than that. Because if you thought the other way, and you said, let me create a problem that people would not care about, that would maximize human apathy, you would come up with global warming.