Dan Ariely on our buggy moral code (TED Talk)

Dan Ariely

So, what have we learned from this about cheating? We’ve learned that a lot of people can cheat. They cheat just by a little bit. When we remind people about their morality, they cheat less. When we get bigger distance from cheating, from the object of money, for example, people cheat more. And when we see cheating around us, particularly if it’s a part of our in-group, cheating goes up.

More generally, I want to tell you something about behavioral economics. We have many intuitions in our life, and the point is that many of these intuitions are wrong. The question is, are we going to test those intuitions? We can think about how we’re going to test this intuition in our private life, in our business life, and most particularly when it goes to policy, when we think about things like No Child Left Behind, when you create new stock markets, when you create other policies — taxation, health care and so on.

And the difficulty of testing our intuition was the big lesson I learned when I went back to the nurses to talk to them.  If you think about all of your intuitions, it’s very hard to believe that your intuition is wrong. — she thought her intuition was right — it was very difficult for her to accept doing a difficult experiment to try and check whether she was wrong. But in fact, this is the situation we’re all in all the time. We have very strong intuitions about all kinds of things — our own ability, how the economy works, how we should pay school teachers. But unless we start testing those intuitions, we’re not going to do better. And just think about how better my life would have been if these nurses would have been willing to check their intuition, and how everything would have been better if we just start doing more systematic experimentation of our intuitions.

The intuitions that I’m thinking of right now are our intuition to maintain our normal sense of individuality, freedom, and control. This comes up when we need to, or we could really do well to, follow the guidance or wisdom of a person or a tradition. Following seems to entail trusting, relying on, having faith in, obeying. And not only is it about following something, but it’s about a situation that is challenging in some way and we can’t just ease through it. The situation is about the unknown, the uncomfortable, the indeterminate (i.e., no guaranteed, formulaic result, good or bad), the very situation that doesn’t come up much or that we have avoided and unwittingly remained unskilled at dealing with, the situation that is about growth, doing something better or differently.

Our intuition against understanding why we are the way we are or think the way we do. We wish to maintain our sense of normalcy, of common sense, of “that’s just the way it is”. Of course many things don’t necessarily make sense, are irrational, are arbitrary, we’ve just been told that it’s so, we’ve been socialized to perceive things in certain ways, and things are out of our control so why think about them, we’ll just know more acutely how powerless we are? Accordingly, regarding such matters we get the feeling that it is too much trouble, unnecessary, inconvenient, a waste of time. The potential benefits, though, from considering our sense of normalcy are from discovering the ways in which we are bound and hold ourselves back even though we don’t need to be. We might also find that the experience of trying “other”, not-normal ways is not as strange, nonsensical, uncomfortable, scary, etc. than we thought.

Our intuition to prefer the choices that seem easier, more convenient, more socially agreeable. Instinctively we tend toward the more convenient ways. Convenience can be due to the fact that the costs of doing something aren’t immediately apparent. We don’t notice any immediate negative consequences from eating poorly, using the air-conditioning in the car all the time, etc. Convenience can also mean things are mentally easier on us because the people around us are okay with something, no one gives you a funny look, you don’t get teased or ostracized by doing it, you get treated as “one of the guys” and stay blended in. Convenience can be due to habit and familiarity; it always feels like it takes more effort to do something that is unfamiliar and foreign, no matter how much more efficient or rational it is. Doing something according to habit and familiarity means we can do it without thinking much or at all.

Our intuition to rationalize, to come up with reasons supporting why we don’t like those things that seem disagreeable. Those things we are familiar with and have accepted into our hearts, minds, lifestyle, and identity – we maintain a harmonious status quo by “knowing” that all those things are good, natural, and make sense. Humans are clever beings and can think up reasons for something they’ve always been doing even though they’ve been doing it without any reason up until now. The same goes, even more so, regarding those things we regard as “other” or as disagreeable, strange, odd, etc. We instinctively regard the unfamiliar with caution and wariness, but as clever humans, we also come up with reasons for why we feel the way we do. It’s important for use humans to remember that we have the unique capacity to choose not to act in accordance with our instinct. Even though something may feel right, easy, etc. we have the capacity to and thus the opportunity to choose to do what we know to be otherwise. We have the capacity to explore and consider various possibilities i.e., we have the ability to wonder if something is really bad or just feels bad. We have the ability to notice our own thought process, such as becoming aware that we are thinking various bad thoughts about that guy we don’t like, but this is due to our not liking him. Although our instinct and intuition may make it natural to do certain things, include think and rationalize, we can only improve, do better, become freer, etc. by accepting other possibilities.


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