JERUSALEM – What do an expert on decision making, a senior adviser to U.S. presidents, a Nobel Prize laureate in economics and Sharon Stone talk about when they get together?
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No, this is not the set up for a joke, but rather the question that arose when a rather surreal panel gathered Thursday afternoon in Jerusalem, as part of the Presidential Conference, to address a packed hall on the subject of – well, on any subject the panelists chose to address, on condition it was not their main area of expertise.
“The speakers at this plenary are the leading experts in their fields,” said the event’s moderator, opening the discussion, “… and their expertise gives them fascinating insights into fields that are supposedly not their own.”
And so, what do they talk about? Well, internet dating, for one. And this too, is no joke, but rather the topic that acclaimed author Dan Ariely, professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, chose to tackle when it came to his turn on the “It’s not really my field, but…” panel.
The participants, besides Ariely and Hollywood actress Stone, included 2002 Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs who specializes in the psychology of judgment and decision, and David Axelrod, who served as a senior adviser to both Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, as well as Obama’s strategist for his re-election campaign in 2012.
Ariely, the panelist who took the biggest, also possibly most random, leap out of his field, presented the audience with some fascinating insights into the world of online dating.
For example, what attributes make for a successful online dater?
Studies show, said Ariely, that height is key for most women. A man, for example, who is 5'9'', is less attractive, online dating wise, than a six-foot tall guy. But there is hope for shorties: Money, not surprisingly, is also an attractive trait to women. This eventually leads to the question of how much more does a 5'9'' guy have to make to be as attractive as the 6-foot tall man? The answer, stemming from much research, is $40,000, said Ariely, who went on to suggest ways to improve the whole online dating industry and make it more efficient.
As it stands today, on average, he said, for every six hours of searching, reading and responding on internet dating sites, “…one gets about one coffee date – which may or may not work out.” That is, Ariely concluded, rather depressingly, like driving to Eilat and back for a latte and a (probably) disappointing chat.
Kahneman used his time to talk about an equally important and equally depressing subject– peace in the Middle East “What does psychology say about peace?” he began by asking, using his knowledge of behavior patterns in asymmetrical power relationships to try and explain why Israelis, who have a comfortable and stable existence, by and large, are so reluctant to reach out to peace with the Palestinians.
“In order to achieve peace with the Palestinians, Israelis will have to make concessions, immediately, and painfully – in exchange for gains which are both delayed and uncertain, in this case,” explained the professor. “Even if gains are immediate they are less compelling than losses, psychologically. Uncertain gains are certainly less compelling than certain losses,” he said.
As such, Kahneman said, there is no good psychological reason to be hopeful that the Israeli population “would be eager or excited at the prospect of making peace.”
“So where is the hope?” he asked, as bleakness settled on the auditorium. Luckily, there is some: “We should not expect change to arise from individuals or mass politics. The change will occur, if and when, because of leadership,” he said. “Leaders can convince people that risks are worth taking and that the distant future is worth fighting for despite cause of immediate pain."
Axelrod, who possibly did not closely read the memo on what the panel was meant to be about, spoke on a topic which is exactly his field – that is, leadership – but this served as a good follow up to Kahneman’s message.
“Success in winning elections is not a sign of leadership,” he said. “You have to win in order to govern, but if winning and then the preservation of office are your goals then you become risk adverse, and satisfied to take the path of least resistance. That is not leadership.”
Asked later if he believed Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu was a good leader, Axelrod responded that: “Since I spent a lifetime in politics I am going to navigate my way around that question.” He added, however, that in U.S. President John F. Kennedy’s book "Profiles in Courage," there are only eight entries, “…because courage is not the norm. The kind of steps necessary to make peace take courage.”
Finally, Oscar nominee Stone, an activist and humanitarian who has appeared in over 50 films and is the recipient of Golden Globe and Emmy awards -- definitely did not read the panel memo. Looking stunning, her presentation was slightly less so, as she weaved in and out of various fields, and into several of the fields raised by the earlier speakers.
“We want someone in our lives who stands by us when we stand up for doing the right thing,” she said. “For, inside every human heart is a loving baby. When we look at a baby: A Palestinian baby, an Egyptian one, or a Darfurian…when we look at that little ear, and chubby leg, we think… that’s a delicious little baby.”
To a combination of applause and whispers of “What is she talking about?” Stone continued to talk about motherhood, early education, the political status quo in Israel, the human desire for love, and “going for peace.”
“Sometimes we can just stay in possibility in gratitude,” she concluded. “That’s the way to move forward in the now.”