Buckley Report: Why can’t people change?

Buckley Report

Humans think of themselves as rational being. Dan Ariely is here to tell you we’re not.

Ariely is a professor at Duke University who specializes in human behavior and why it is often so irrational. Maybe that’s why his lab at Duke is so brilliantly called the Center for Advanced Hindsight.

He says this irrational behavior is on display every day in the pandemic.

“Imagine you wake up tomorrow, and you have a fever and cough,” Ariely said. “What should you do? You’re sick, already. Should you stay home and suffer the consequences. Maybe infect your family members? Maybe be bored? Maybe not make money? Or should you go out to the world, make money, escape your family members for a little bit and have the risk of infecting other people. If you care about other people, you would stay home. If you don’t, you would not. And it’s a case where social cohesion can be incredibly powerful, and if we don’t have it, it can be incredibly damaging.”

The problem, Ariely says, is the punishment for bad choices is too often far removed from the behavior, itself. Take the idea of wearing a mask to prevent COVID infection.

“You think to yourself wearing a mask is a good precaution. It reduces the risk by a substantial amount,” Ariely said.  “And one day, you forgot your mask and nothing bad happened. The probability is not 100%. It’s very low probability that something bad happened. You say to yourself ‘Maybe it’s not needed.’  So the experience of doing the wrong thing and not getting punished. By the way, texting and driving: imagine I sat next to you and every time you texted and drove, I took $10 out. You would stop immediately if it was a certain punishment. But having a $1000 punishment with a small probability or having a small probability of dying and killing somebody else is not enough. So we work very well when the punishment or reward are deterministic…and when they are delayed…we don’t do so well.”

But our irrationality goes behind punishment and reward. 

Ariely has looked into why some voters might support a candidate when they know that candidate isn’t telling the truth, and it’s something he says both sides of the political spectrum are very good at.

“Why did they want somebody who lies? They had other things that were more important to them,” Ariely said. “So imagine you say to yourself ‘Obamacare is such a terrible thing, I want it abolished, and I want a leader who would be willing to lie to abolish it.’ Or if you’re on the other side of the map, you think global warming is so awful you are willing to support someone who you know is lying about how bad things are.”

See more from Dan Ariely in this edition of the Buckley Report.

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