Dan Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and is also a visiting professor at MIT’s Program in Media Arts and Sciences. He is a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. A behavioral economist, he spends his time researching how people make rational decisions in everyday life. In all of his work he presents strong opinions about how individuals consistently and predictably make the wrong decisions. He supports these opinions with research that he claims can help to change some of our decision making habits. Using a witty sense of humor and examples drawn from common sense, his arguments are easy to believe!
One particular presentation featured on TED.com in 2009, “Are we in control of our own decisions?” addresses the topic of irrational behavior and challenges listeners to consider whether or not we are even the smallest bit in control of any of our own decisions. This topic is similar to other speakers we have spotlighted in the past, (such as Barry Schwartz’s “paradox of choice,”) but with a variety of amusing, and sometimes alarming examples, Ariely takes you on a journey through decision making illusions described as both visual and cognitive.
Visual illusions refer to decision making based on what we see, or what we think we see. We’ve all gotten those optical illusion e-mails where objects appear to be moving, but really aren’t; or shades of gray appear to be different when they are, in fact, the same, Ariely argues that more often than not decisions are based on what we perceive to be the right decision, based on the manner in which it is presented to us. He questions whether or not a decision really was the right decision or simply our intuition fooling our capacity to make any decision at all. These visual illusions are predictable, occur frequently and often result in a decision-making mistake. Illustrating the point of visual illusion is easier to do than demonstrating a cognitive one, simply because any limitations are understood and adaptable.
With cognitive illusions, it is much more difficult to demonstrate the decision making mistakes people make. His position is that there comes a point within the mental decision making process where it is hard to accept the idea that we actually have the illusion of making a decision rather than actually making a decision. He claims that it can become so complex, that we have no idea what to do, and so we just choose whatever we believe is supposed to be the right choice (or what is already chosen for us as the right decision). The examples he uses in supporting his case are comical and light-hearted, but do a good job of demonstrating his point – which ultimately is this: we don’t actually know what our preferences are at all. We think you’ll enjoy this one!