What it feels like to know what we're all thinking
In his Duke University residence, the Ramat Hasharon-raised Prof. Dan Ariely pauses to talk about behavioral economics, the serious accident he suffered as a teenager and how he's found the key to human nature.
Prof. Dan Ariely is surprised when I ask for his iPhone in order to see the famous names in his contacts list. “Is that important?” Yes. “OK. Let’s see ... Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon. Is that good?” I nod. “I also have the CEO of Procter & Gamble, American Express, McDonald’s − but he left, actually. The founder of Wikipedia − is that interesting? [Documentarian] Morgan Spurlock is a celebrity, no? We have just received funding to do a program together for National Geographic, a program on experiments.”
You have a lot of connections.
“Seems so. Generally, people give me a card and I usually don’t have a card. I am also really not someone who does that kind of networking. I don’t have time.”
So who called you today?
“Today I got a call from a company that wanted me to come to Turkey for a certain project, and I also had a call from Switzerland − I don’t remember what about, exactly. Also from the Bill Gates Foundation. They give large grants to all kinds of organizations that foment change, especially in developing countries, and they want me to help them because they don’t understand people’s behavior.”
Can you give us an example?
“For example, they are creating better netting against malaria, but people aren’t using it. So the question now is how to overcome these setbacks. They started to talk to me about what they want me to do and how many days a month it will take. It’s certainly very nice and interesting, and very good for the world − an organization that gives millions of dollars to developing countries − and it would be wonderful if I could help. On the other hand, I hardly get any sleep as it is, so something would have to move from my schedule, and it’s not clear what exactly that might be. These things happen to me all the time.”
Everyone wants a piece of Dan Ariely. His talks on the TED website have been watched 2.8 million times. His first two books, “Predictably Irrational” and “The Upside of Irrationality,” made The New York Times best-seller list. There is also an official website, podcasts, a YouTube channel and apps.
Leaders and governments seek his advice. Corporations, companies and organizations around the world knock on his door. How did an Israeli professor of psychology and behavioral economics become such a celebrity? The secret apparently lies in the way Ariely succeeded in transforming a semi-dull academic field into pop culture. People want to hear him explain why we are incapable of making do with one visit to a buffet, what accounts for Ikea’s charm and why giving big bonuses to managers may spoil their performance.
The man has a master key to human nature, with all its weaknesses and foibles. And knowledge is worth money. In his case, a lot of money. He knows exactly what you need to do in order to shed those five kilos. He knows exactly what Barack Obama needs to do in order to raise more funds. The feeling, in fact, is that he knows everything.
You’re a mega-mind with a suitcase, always on the road.
“I travel a great deal. One of the problems is that it’s hard for me to say no. Last semester, let’s say, I taught on Monday and Thursday. There was one Monday when I taught a class, left the classroom, flew to Brazil, landed, delivered a talk, left, got home on Wednesday night, taught a class Thursday morning and then went back to the airport. Or, the last time I went to England: I flew via New Orleans, the next day to Arizona for a two-day conference, from there to New York for one day of meetings, and from New York to London. I arrived at 6 A.M., had a meeting from 8 until 12, gave a talk to the British government from 2 until 3:30 P.M., and at 3:30 I had more meetings.”
Excuse me, but those weren’t just “more meetings.” People in your lab told me you were at Buckingham Palace.
“Yes, while I was in New Orleans I received an e-mail from Prince Andrew. He saw that I would be in London and asked if I would have time for a meeting. I told him I would gladly do it, so he invited me for tea at the palace at 5:30.”
What did you wear?
“That’s it, that’s the problem. I asked someone who works for him what I should come in. She said that Prince Andrew would be wearing a suit, but I could wear just a jacket and tie. My assistant sent me a tie and shoes by FedEx. When I arrived at the palace, his assistant explained how to address the prince. You have to say ‘Your royal highness,’ and after you’ve addressed him like that once you can say ‘sir.’
“I couldn’t say it. I could not, as an Israeli, come to someone and say ‘Your royal highness.’ So I didn’t call him anything. I said ‘Hi’ and shook his hand. I didn’t use any titles. Later, I told him I don’t like to wear ties. He said the next time I come I should let him know in advance, and he would let me in the back way. Without a tie. That’s it. It was nice to have tea at Buckingham Palace and eat small sandwiches without the crust.”
Were there cucumber sandwiches?
“No. There was roast beef and salmon.”
You work with a lot of governments, right?
“When a government calls me, I am happy to do what they want for free, because I think it’s important. The British government has a special office for behavioral economics, and I work with them. At the moment we are focusing particularly on taxes − trying to get people to be persuaded to pay taxes − and on education. In the United States I work mostly with the Department of Energy. On Friday I was at Berkeley for a conference of the Defense Department, as it happened, and they talked about how to try to persuade Americans to use less fuel.”
They can try the Israeli model – the tax on fuel is so high that people have to choose between gas and food.
“Ah, yes? They aren’t quite ready to do that here at the moment, but the truth is that it’s definitely a possibility.”
What about politicians?
“I am part of a group of people from the social sciences who are proposing solutions for the Democratic Party. When President Obama was trying to raise funds, I suggested to him that instead of a big dinner where everyone pays $500, each guest should pay more but also get more personal attention. Obama took that idea, but Hillary [Clinton] didn’t want to. He’s overdoing it, in my opinion, but it’s working very well.”
Did the Israeli government ever approach you?
“On the contrary. A few years ago, I had an idea to help the government of Israel in the negotiations with the Palestinians. I got hold of Prof. Janet Yellen, who was the chair of [President Bill] Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, and Prof. George A. Akerlof, a Nobel laureate in economics.
“I put together a group of 10 experts, each of them tops in his field, and I went to people in the Israeli government − whoever agreed to talk to me − and told them, ‘Listen, we have a group of people who know something about negotiating. Each of us has an ideology, but we are willing to forget about ideology. Tell us what you want to achieve and we will try to help you think.’”
Think about how to achieve it?
“Precisely. We will not tell you what needs to be achieved − you will say that. I didn’t manage to talk to anyone who was interested. Only ... I’ve forgotten who. Uzi something? Uri Aran?”
“Yes, yes. Uzi Arad.”
There was a very big affair with him not long ago.
He had a fight with Bibi. It’s actually a very funny story. But long. Google it later. [Netanyahu recently accused Arad, his former national security adviser, of leaking information to journalists, a charge Arad denies.]
“Anyway, he was one of the people I met with. They all said ‘No, not interested. We sent our people to take a course in negotiating at Harvard.’ Strange. People who teach there are ready to come. Uzi Arad wanted us to do a conference. He wanted to make political capital out of it. But the thing is, if you do it with spotlights and a conference, no one will listen to anything. My feeling was that all they wanted was public relations. So I dropped it. It was quite depressing.”
Very well: with the exception of the government of Israel, everyone wants a piece of Dan Ariely. Me too. That means, as I learned quite quickly, that I have to fight for the crumbs. And even for that you need really sharp elbows. True, I had come especially from Israel to the sleepy town of Durham, North Carolina, with its flowering elms − but not even Ariely has a solution for the rigid constraints of time and space. Or for the small amount of Dan Ariely in relation to the incomprehensible quantity of people who are trying to get his attention at any given moment.
On top of that, it turns out that I am allergic to the flowering of the accursed elms. I steal an hour and a half for myself every morning, until his iPhone is just melting with the number of unanswered calls. I come to the lab at midnight, only to find that everyone is still there. “You got an hour and a half?!” Alon, an Israeli programmer who works with Ariely, exclaims in astonishment when I grumble to him. “Say thank you! We did my job interview in his car, on the way to the laundry.”
No to cigarettes
Dan Ariely, 44, who is married to Sumi and is the father of Amit, 9, and Neta, 5, was born in New York. When he was three, the family returned to Israel. He grew up in Ramat Hasharon and started his academic career in the Department of Psychology at Tel Aviv University. He completed two doctoral degrees − in cognitive psychology and business administration − at the University of North Carolina and Duke University, respectively.
“I owe a lot to Danny,” he says, referring to Prof. Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel economic sciences laureate from Israel. “He was the one who pushed me to take business administration. Pushing is hardly the word − he absolutely shouted at me.” Ariely chose to focus on behavioral economics, a discipline that sprang from psychology and deals with the tragic gap between the way we perceive ourselves and our behavior, and the way we behave in actuality.
“Actually,” he explains, “I am trying to understand which decisions people make in a way that is not ideal and how it is possible to improve that. The belief in conventional economics is that people are good and smart and rational. But I look at the world, and the idea that this world is a function of billions of rational people − which is what we have arrived at − is pretty shocking. So, we in behavioral economics are a little less optimistic about human nature. We think that the world is a function of confused, emotional people, and that if we help them, things could be a lot better.”
You do your research for scientific reasons, but commercial companies use your findings and discoveries to manipulate people.
“That really is very complicated. First of all, I decided not to do consultation. Consultation entails a very strong conflict of interest, both in terms of screwing other people and because of the concern that I will not be objective. There are also companies I will not go to, as a matter of principle. For example, I had calls from people in very big cigarette companies who wanted to meet with me and offered a great deal of money. I called the anticancer organization and asked them, ‘Do you want me to do this and give you the money?’ They said, ‘Sure, go to them and send us the money.’ In the end I decided not to do it, because I thought that the people in the [charity] weren’t aware of the levels of damage I could inflict on them. Of how much these tricks can change consumption.”
How are you affected by the knowledge that our behavior is an open book to you?
“I think it makes daily interactions a little more difficult. I know all kinds of methods to persuade people to do things that I want them to do.”
And do you make use of those methods?
“I try not to. But it’s really hard. It’s very tempting to use them. On the other hand, it seems very wrong to me.”
And money? You could probably choose to devote your time to getting very rich, instead of what you are doing now.
“That’s so. I could certainly be richer. Some of the companies that give us money donate it to research, because I ask them to do that, but they would be ready to give it to me as a salary. Academe is pretty interesting from the economic standpoint. We have tenure, which is a lifelong salary, so I don’t really have to worry. I haven’t really changed my way of life all that much since I have had more money. And I remember that when I received the advance on the first book I sat down with Sumi, my wife, and we thought about what we would like to do more of now. We didn’t really find anything.”
You are about to publish a new book, though it won’t be out in Israel until next year.
“Yes, in June. It’s a book that deals with cheating. It turns out that a great many people can cheat and feel good about it. For example, I am very disturbed by the number of corrupt politicians there are in the world. I think that the lack of understanding about where something begins and ends makes them completely haywire, and we have to help them. In cases of bribery, people know they are breaking the law. But in most cases, the bribery is not direct. I don’t think there is a politician who got a discount on an apartment and feels that he would take an envelope just as easily. As long as there are stories we can tell ourselves, it helps.”
But are people differentiated from one another by their ability to tell themselves these stories or by their moral flexibility?
“One of the things we find is that creative people are better at it. They tell better stories, and more easily.”
You conducted these experiments in Israel, too. Did Israelis cheat more than Americans?
Ariely’s laboratory, the Center of Advanced Hindsight, at Duke University, looks to me like a miniature, wacky Douglas Adams universe. “Research into What Might Have Been − or What Definitely, Most Likely Will Be,” is the motto on the lab’s website. Among the subjects of research: the psychology of money; decision making by doctors and patients; cheating; and social justice. There is something very exciting about the attempt to deconstruct and recode the laws of human (ir)rationality with the aid of a machine that measures heartbeat, skin temperature and level of perspiration in the palm of the hand. Pepperoni pizza, a large rubber dildo and robots made of Lego are legitimate research aids here. The role of the rats is played by, well, us. Bring a towel.
What’s the story with the pizza?
“With the pizza we examined a phenomenon known as ‘The pain of paying.’ The idea is that when we pay at the same time that we consume, it’s harder for us. Think, for example, if I had a restaurant and I would price a meal according to each bite. I would stand at the side and record every bite you took. The thought of having to pay 50 cents for each time would make you very angry and the whole experience would be ruined. In other words, the way we pay makes more of a difference than the money itself. We are dealing with questions of how to create a digital wallet if I wanted people to spend more money, or the opposite: to waste less.”
Are you disappointed when you conduct an experiment and lead people into a trap and see how easily they are tempted to lie for half a dollar?
“No. I think that’s human nature. That’s how we are.”
Do you like people? Are you a people person?
“I like people very much.”
I ask because I wonder whether observing people in this way doesn’t distance you somewhat from the human race.
“A little. I think that’s true.
How do you understand that? Can you explain what you feel?
“There is something called metacognition. It’s like thinking and thinking about the thinking. I think that often, when I am in a conversation with someone, part of me is analyzing the conversation, thinking about what it is we are actually talking about and how it is possible to think about it.”
Did you do that with me, too?
And that can happen in other situations as well? More intimate situations?
“It happens with everything. It’s not something that stops. It really becomes nature.”
Are you capable of turning it off?
“I don’t know if I even try to turn it off. I think it is already a part of who I am. But it certainly has an influence. It interrupts being in the experience itself.”
Do you think that the ability to examine things in this way, from the outside, is related to your injury? In the book you write that you are an outsider.
“Yes, it’s a combination of the two. I feel both that I am on the outside − I don’t belong in any case − and I have also become used to thinking that way, because it’s beneficial for me professionally.”
I got an e-mail from you in which you wrote, “Chances are that you won’t hear back from me. But please don’t take it personally. It’s just that my hands don’t work very well and typing causes a great amount of pain.” You broke my heart when you sent me that message.
“I wasn’t the one who sent it. It’s an automatic response. But I’m sorry.”
There’s no need to be sorry. I felt very sad but I also thought that the choice was interesting: you could just as easily have written something very laconic, but you chose not to.
“Look, it’s very hard for me to write. If I write more than a page and a half or two in a day, it hurts me. Every day I have to think how much I will write and how much it will hurt me at night and hurt the next day. I receive a great many e-mails that are sincere and revealing − and real − and I can’t respond in kind. For example, I received a letter from a woman who wrote that she had just been diagnosed with brain cancer and wanted to know whether to tell her children straight out or do it gradually, over time. I called all the doctors I know here in the area and asked them whether they know how best to make such news known, but it turns out that doctors don’t know how to do those things. I called the woman. We met in New York, had a coffee and tried to think together about what to do. In the end, by the way, we decided that it would be better to tell it straight out.”
You have much empathy for human suffering. That is very moving and is obviously related to your personal story. Let’s talk about that a little. You were a teenager at the time...
“I was in Hanoar Haoved [a youth movement] and we were preparing a ktovet esh, a fire inscription. We took Coke cans, put a light bulb inside, broke the glass, connected them, welded them together for lighting from a distance and then we put in a little gunpowder and other chemicals.”
An accident waiting to happen.
“We had been doing it for years. It’s totally unclear why it happened. I was in an apartment with one of the other members. I mixed the gunpowder and took out a little on a spoon and suddenly it all blew up.”
What do you remember from the instant when it caught fire?
“I remember the explosion, the very, very strong light opposite me. I ran to the back, with the whole room in front of me ablaze. My first thought was to jump out the window − we were on the fourth floor. I started to open the window, and then the other member shouted for me to come to him. I ran through the flames. If at first only my upper body was burned, when I ran through the fire my legs were also burned. He helped me douse myself. I sat there, and I remember that I looked at my hands. My hand was utterly white and looked unhurt, but of course all the skin was dead. And then the ambulances arrived."
And all this time you were conscious? What were your thoughts?
“I didn’t realize how serious it was. When I got to Beilinson [hospital in Petah Tikva], I was placed in a bath and they scraped my skin a little. The nurse wanted to remove the airway [helping him breathe] but I nodded to her with my head, ‘No no.’ She said, ‘I will remove it so you can tell me why not.’ She took it out and I said I was afraid that if I lost consciousness I would swallow my tongue. The whole time, part of me was examining what was going on.”
When did you understand that your life was about to be divided into before and after?
“It took a lot of time. One very difficult moment was when the occupational clinic decided to bring someone else who had been burned to visit me. They brought someone who had been burned 12 years earlier, in the same percentages on the hands and the face, in order to show me that it was all right. It was a shock for me. He was a very nice guy, an auto mechanic, and he was able to return to being an auto mechanic afterward, even though his hands weren’t good.”
But that was the last thing you wanted to see.
“Absolutely. The image I had in my head was not that the scars remain or the hands are gnarled.”
The illusion was shattered.
“Yes. It was very hard. The first time I left the hospital, in the summer, was very depressing. I got home and my dog jumped on me. But I couldn’t have her jumping on me. Then I took a bath and suddenly I couldn’t remember how to get out of the bathtub.”
There is something about a hospital that acts as a kind of transition space. Then you go back to the place in which you could once do anything you wanted.
“Yes. And in the hospital there were a great many things that did not show me how much I could not do those things. There was a stretcher, a wheelchair. I no longer remembered what normal life was like. The other thing that was very, very hard was the scar formation. I would sit, let’s say, two hours watching a movie, sitting statically, without noticing, and the skin would shrivel. Then it had to be stretched. And if I couldn’t do it, it meant another skin graft operation. Starting the whole thing from the beginning.”
How do you cope with that?
“At first there was only pain. When you are really in pain, there is nothing else. There were no thoughts about the future and things were relatively quite simple, psychologically. Afterward, I tried to think of it as a period: every day that passes is a day that passes, and I will get out of here. I had one period in which I decided that my body had gone and I was now going to be like the Dalai Lama and live in my spiritual world, and that helped me quite a bit.”
Can you understand how you managed to stay sane?
“The truth is that I don’t have a good answer. Maybe because a long time went by before I truly started to think. I think that if I had started from a situation in which I was capable of thinking, it could have been a lot worse. When I left the hospital I told myself that it wasn’t worth it, that if I had to start over again, I would prefer to die. And that if I were ever to have a child and something similar happened to him, I would not want them to let him live.”
Do you still think so?
“My life is very interesting, but the suffering was really so overwhelming and so long-lasting that life would have to be very, very good to justify it.”
Are there thoughts of “What if?”
“It’s very hard for me not to think about that a great deal, because I am still in pain. There are some things that I can’t do. But I don’t try to think about what would have happened otherwise.”
There is also the timing. Not that there is ever good timing for something like that, but in your senior year of high school...
“Yes, my friends came to visit and read to me, with me using a respiratory machine and not knowing if I was awake or not. Truly wonderful friends. But at some point I started to find the visits difficult. So we asked them to stop coming.”
Did you even dare to approach girls? You were at an age when external appearance is everything.
“Yes, it’s a very bad age. And I developed late, too. All the signs of sexual development started with me just before the accident and went on while I was in the hospital. At some point − it was, let’s say, two and a half years after the injury − I learned how to fly an ultralight plane at Dan Chamizer’s school.”
An ultralight? After all you’d been through? Were you off your rocker?
“I dreamed of it after I was hurt. It was a very important stage for me.”
A destination on the horizon.
“Danny Chamizer taught me how to fly. I had these balloons under the skin at the time, in order to inflate it for the grafts. I looked like a frog. But suddenly I had control. We flew at Tnuvot, near Netanya. And there was a girl I knew on a kibbutz in the area, and I fell quite in love with her. I used to visit her. I didn’t know what to say, until one day she told me she was in love with someone else. I suddenly realized that it had never even occurred to her that I could be an option. That was rough. I mean, the idea that she didn’t want me, that was all right; but the idea that she had never even given it a thought...”
But that’s a question, you know. Those are experiences that are natural at that age, even without an injury. It happened to me as well. So maybe that wasn’t necessarily the reason, but through your prism...
Naturally you couldn’t see it differently, but it could be.
“Do you think so? I don’t really know, if I hadn’t been injured, but I don’t know.”
Have you been able to restore your self-confidence, to enter a room without that entering ahead of you?
“Yes. I think it’s altogether a riddle why men think that women want them. I once investigated that. I was at a conference about decision making and there was a party in the evening. I asked some of them what they thought the chance was that the person they were dancing with would go with them to a room. The difference between the estimation of the men and the women was incredible. There is a very interesting bias involved, which needs to be studied. But because of my injury, I decided not to make assumptions. So I have many women friends and there is no fear that I will be mistaken in deciphering the situation.”
But when I ask you whether you were able to restore your self-confidence, you answer with a very decisive “No.” After everything you have done in life and the place you are in, does that still precede everything in your self-perception?
“Romantically and sexually, yes. Certainly. If I were not married, it would be very difficult for me to start up with women. I can talk about other things. I am definitely capable of creating a situation of friendship and interest, but to assume that someone is interested in me sexually, that not. For example, let’s say I wanted to try for a one-night stand − I don’t think I would succeed.”
That’s something, for example, that I too never dared try.
“There is a question of what you are capable of doing, and also whether the market would allow you to do it. If you wanted to, you would not have a problem.”
In my perception I am not there.
“So it’s possible to work on your perception. You’re wrong.”
Look, it’s a process. You experience rejections and you experience courtship and then the confidence takes shape. With you it snapped even before it began, so maybe you are still there – the place of adolescence rejection. I would prefer to go out with someone smart and interesting. And I don’t think I am an exception.
“I understand that there are other options. There are smart, interesting men who also look good. It’s not an ‘either or’ thing. It’s the same with me: if I could go out with someone burned or not burned, I would prefer not.”
A piece of advice. Should you ever be invited to hear Dan Ariely lecture at a conference, be sure to dress up. By the way − and I cannot emphasize this enough − please don’t be tempted to stop at a lemur farm on the way. Seriously.
And so, in jeans and with lemur fluff clinging to my hair, I came to the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art, the elegant Winston-Salem museum located on the even more elegant estate of the Hanes family, founders of the clothing empire. Of all the conferences in the world, this had to be the Futureware conference on innovation in fashion − code for intensive mingling of VIPs from the worlds of fashion, science, architecture and miscellaneous cool trends. Plus dinner. Plus waiters dressed in white. Plus I could just die.
“Hi,” an earnest fellow greeted me. “Nice to meet you. I’m Scott from development at North Face. And you?”
Hi, I’m just somebody the cat dragged in. How can I help you?
And then Ariely takes the stage. Or, at least, somebody who looks a lot like him. I’m not sure what the connection is between the shy and gentle professor I met and this stage animal. Suddenly he whips out a whole arsenal of rhetorical techniques and gimmicks, and holds the crowd in the palm of his hand.
“I’m going to give this bill to whoever offers me the most amount of money for it,” he announces, waving a $100 bill. “It’s like an auction, but there’s one condition: The second-highest bidder will also have to pay, but he won’t get the bill.” The crowd starts to toss out numbers. At the end, two bidders are left. One will pay $150 for the $100 bill. The other will pay $145 and feel like an idiot. Ariely pauses for a moment. “I think we’ve understood the point,” he says with a smile. The audience responds with raucous applause.
Something emerged from you on stage today that I hadn’t seen before. “What?” I saw that you’re a performer. That you’re very comfortable in front of people, that you have comic timing.
“To be honest, I would have kept going more, but it was late, so I had to hurry up a bit. With a crowd of people, in front of an audience, it’s me and them. I have my role and they have their role, it’s relatively easy, but when people come to speak to me one on one, it’s less good.”
I was surprised to see how much you enjoy it.
“Yes. Controlling an audience is a very interesting feeling. Enjoyable. Like skiing.”
I have an awful question. It’s totally tactless. You probably get paid a lot for a talk like that.
“Honestly, I don’t really remember.”
I believe you.
“I get paid sums that really shock me. It doesn’t seem right.”
Before the talk, you told me, “I don’t get excited anymore.” So when do you get excited?
“I gave a talk in New York and my father was in the audience. I was choking up, I had to hold back the tears. There was a talk I gave here and I asked Sumi not to come. I felt that I would think about her too much and about her reactions and I would look to see what she thought, if she was smiling or not.”
How long have you the two of you been together?
“In June it will be 14 years.”
Are you happily married?
“I think so. Very much so. I think that this life that I’ve ended up with, it’s not easy − for me or for Sumi.”
“Look, yesterday I didn’t get home until two in the morning. I’m not easy to live with. All the work and traveling would be hard on any marriage. I think that given how hard it is for me, Sumi is really amazing in her readiness to tolerate me with this whole thing.”
Let’s talk a little bit about Israeli politics. The general mood seems to be dissatisfaction with Bibi, but meanwhile the polls show that his position is very strong. How is this possible?
“Bibi appears on television all the time, in national and political roles − he’s the one that people most readily call to mind, and it will be very hard to break this association.”
What’s your take on all the talk in Israel these days about the Iranian threat?
“I think that for the Iranians, the Western world has made nuclear weapons a matter of honor. It was certainly a mistake to say to a nation, that is oppressed in many ways, that they can’t do what they want. It’s quite a shame that what they wanted was to have a nuclear weapon, but the West shouldn’t have prohibited them, but rather helped them do it in a safe and slow manner. I think that Bibi is currently using the Iranian threat as a political weapon. It’s just to make people afraid, because then they don’t think too much and they return to their most primitive and basic instincts. Everything is made simpler.”
Can you try to interpret Ahmadinejad’s behavior?
“There’s a phenomenon called React − that the more I try to limit you, the more you resist. I don’t know if he’s this personality type, but I think that he is using the psychology of ‘You’re narrowing my possibilities and I have to show sovereignty and control.’”
And what is Bibi doing?
“With Bibi it’s a lot harder for me to understand what exactly is happening there. In his attitude toward the Palestinian issue, or the social issues, aside from ignoring them, I don’t see any characteristic way of dealing with it. Do you see anything?”
No, the sense is that everything with him is random. Though I do see that he thinks that if he says something enough times, it will become truth.
“Yes, you can see that. And the truth is that he’s right. Not that it really makes it the truth. But we have a bias that’s called ‘source monitoring.’ In other words, we don’t remember where we heard a certain thing. Because of this, for example, we might tell somebody a joke that he originally told us. So when people only watch the news occasionally and don’t know what the truth is, they don’t remember where they heard something. They say, ‘I know something.’ What they don’t remember is Bibi is the one who said it. Ten times.”
You told me earlier that you owe much of your career to Daniel Kahneman. But in the same breath you said, “We don’t agree on a lot of things.”
“Danny is a very important figure in my life. No question. I count myself among the ‘children’ of Kahneman and [Abraham J.] Twerski. But Danny views academic economics with respect; he has friends with a Nobel Prize in economics. And I’m rather scornful of it. I think that economic theory has blinded the world and caused a lot of trouble. I don’t think economists are aware of how bad their models are.”
Do you think he’s disappointed in you?
“I feel a little like his son and he feels a little like my father. But I think he would have wanted me to be more of a successor to him, to continue more with his path. I am, to a degree, but I think he would have liked more.”
How are you at decision making?
“I actually like not to decide. Most of my life I’m making decisions, deciding for other people, and often I feel like not deciding. When I’m sitting in restaurants, I have a strategy of asking the waiter what’s the most interesting food on the menu.”
That’s not a good strategy.
Because you’re ignoring a very important bias − the kitchen is telling him, “Push the fish, it’s about to go bad.”
“I think that it’s very hard for people to be directly deceitful. I’m interested to know what the most unconventional dish is, and I’m willing to eat things that aren’t so tasty if that’s where this strategy leads.”
Do you think you’re capable of making decisions that are completely rational? What biases do you have?
“I think I have a terrible bias toward optimism. I always think that I can do both A and B, that I can manage to accomplish both this and that. Because of my expectation that interesting things will happen, I try a lot of things and, in the end, only a small percentage really proves itself. But a lot of it does turn out to be interesting. I also have, I think, a very, very strong bias about social contracts. One of my favorite chapters in the first book is the one about market norms versus social norms.”
That we’re always ready to do a favor for a friend, but if we were to be paid for it, we’d be offended.
“Exactly. And that’s one of the things that’s very prominent with me. And I associate this with my being Israeli − in that I think there is something about friendship that is very powerful. There are people who need an official contract and people who are satisfied with a handshake. I’m very much a handshake kind of person.”
Do you think you will ever return to Israel?
“Honestly, I went through a very big crisis over this. When I finished my doctorate I really wanted to return to Israel and I went to speak with faculty members at Tel Aviv University. One of them said to me: ‘Tell me, are your parents going to help you buy a car and an apartment?’ He said that even though he’d been on the faculty for 10 years, he still had to rely on his parents for help. It was very hard for me to see myself like that.
“My social life is a lot nicer in Israel, but academia there is very tough. There really is no funding for the kind of research I do. It’s hard for me to imagine how I would have forged a successful path had I stayed at Tel Aviv University. I have a sabbatical coming up in a year. So I’m trying to think about being in Israel and my dream is for Sumi and I to get to sit around in the cafes, to just enjoy life in Tel Aviv.” W
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