Temptation. It’s everywhere, and it’s only going to get stronger. So how do we fight it, as individuals and as a society, to make our lives healthier or more productive?
That question was at the heart of internationally renowned behavioral scientist and best-selling author Dan Ariely’s engaging talk at Duke Kunshan University, which he delivered to a packed auditorium on Jan. 21.
Themed “Using Social Science to Design a Better World,” he spoke on what interventions can be used to change behaviors, with applications ranging from simply helping students concentrate to encouraging hospital patients with serious conditions to stick with “miserable” treatment regimens.
Ariely, the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and co-creator of the documentary “(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies,” pointed out that, despite good intentions, people often fail to act in their best interests.
For example, looking long term, someone may choose a healthy bowl of steamed vegetables over french fries and chocolate cake, but as mealtime approaches, the unhealthier option – and arguably more tasty option – grows more appealing.
And who hasn’t sat watching Netflix when they know a big deadline is looming?
“Long term we have a very different view, and as things become closer and closer, we get tempted,” Ariely said. “And you might think this is a small problem of us living individually, but no; it’s a big problem of society. Why? Because the world around us is designed to tempt us.”
Mobile phones in particular are a battlefield for our attention.
“We need a way to fight it [temptation] … as individuals – we want to study, we want to have time, and we want to control our lives, we don’t want to be controlled by social media and Netflix and other places. And also on a society level, we’re paying a tremendous price for not controlling our lives.”
Stress and misery create break points, he said, which is when we’re at our weakest and most likely to fold in the face of temptation. More stress, more break points.
So how can we stop temptation taking over?
Ariely, a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, has been testing various interventions to find ways that products, programs and experiences could be redesigned to create a better world.
One key ingredient is reward.
To explain, he shared a personal experience in which a bad blood transfusion resulted in him having to inject medication three times a week for more than a year to prevent developing liver disease in the future. Each injection induced fever and vomiting.
“I love movies … so I made a deal with myself: Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday I would watch movies,” he said, explaining that he would press play as he took the injection. This habit of short-term reward enabled Ariely to finish the treatment and prevent liver disease, his long-term goal.
Studies have also seen patients on anti-stroke medication given internet-connected pillboxes, to measure how regularly they dose, with incentives such as paying those who took the medication on time, and taking money off those who didn’t.
The next step is adding regret to the mix, he said.
“Regret is an interesting contrast from where we are and where we could have been. If we’re in a worse place than we could have been, then we’re miserable. And if we’re in a better place than we could have imagined, we’re happy. … Often our happiness is not about where we are, it’s about comparison.”
For example, he said, a drug trial introduced regret by including test subjects in a lottery, always informing them when they won but only paying out if they had taken their medication that day. The method increased the adherence rate from around 65 percent to 98 percent.
Ariely said his lab has also tested a mobile phone app for heart patients in which a digital turtle responds to how regularly they take their medication, exercise and eat well. If they fail to follow doctor’s orders, the turtle will delete other apps from their phone, starting with the ones they use most.
This is an example of a Ulysses contract, a decision someone makes freely to guarantee they can’t misbehave later.
“The world is tempting, and it’s only going to be more tempting. What’s at stake is our time, money, attention and health. And the question is, what kind of world are we going to design? … How do we fight this?”
The good news is that there are lots of things to do, he said.
“We can add some money, we can add some points, we can add regret, add a lottery, we create apps. … We just need to understand it and take some actions.”
About the speaker: Dan Ariely is dedicated to helping people live more sensible – if not rational – lives. In addition to being James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University, he is a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, co-creator of the film documentary “(Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies,” and a three-time New York Times best-selling author. His books include “Predictably Irrational”, “The Upside of Irrationality,” “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty,” and “Irrationally Yours.”