Asking Dan Ariely: Does self-interest really motivate people?

Does self-interest guides our decisions or can we reason objectively? Dr. Dan Ariely, author of Photo: Dr. Dan Ariely

FLORIDA, November 11, 2012 — In order to act in a rational manner, one must view any given situation objectively. The question is, are humans really capable of such thinking?

History can tell us a great deal about not only the past but our present and future as well. More than a few of time’s greatest lessons seem to indicate that most human actions take place on the basis of perceived self-interest. Is that actually the case?

In this second part of a detailed discussion, Dan Areily explains. In addition to being a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, he is the author of “Predictably Irrational,” “The Upside of Irrationality,” and “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.”

He also tells us about what has inspired his life’s work.

Joseph F. Cotto: In order to act in a rational manner, one must view any given situation objectively. From your perspective, are humans capable of such a thing?

Dr. Dan Ariely: Of course not. As any sports fan will tell you, when you see a sports game and the referee makes a call against your team, you think the referee is evil, vicious, stupid, blind — something like that, and there’s no other way to look at the referee.

We are just designed to see the game from the perspective that we want to see it, from the perspective that is good for us. Of course, the same thing happens with dishonesty and politics and ideology and all kinds of other things.

Cotto: Looking at history, it would seem that most human actions take place on the basis of perceived self-interest. Do you find this to be the case? 

Dr. Ariely: This is a complex issue. I think there’s lots of self-interest involved, but it’s actually much more complex than that because it’s a way of questioning “How do you want to define self-interest?”

For example, there are lots of human decisions that are based on rage or revenge, and revenge is not exactly self-interest. If you hurt my sister, and  even though I know that you will never hurt her again, nevertheless I would feel revengeful. I would want to act against you.

If you think about the violation of religious symbols, if you think about what’s happening in the world recently in terms of Muslim signs, or if you think about the Crusades, and the way this has created war and hatred and so on, it’s very hard to say this is about self-interest.

I think it’s a question of “What do we define as part of the self?” If I’m Christian, is Christ a part of the self? If I’m Muslim, is Muhammad a part of the self? If I’m Jewish, is the Temple a part of the self? So I think the question really is “What do we define as self?” The moment you define the self as being very broad and all encompassing, it loses some of its definition.

So, you can either say that everything is about self-interest, but then the definition of the self has to include lots and lots of things, or you say it is not about self-interest. I personally prefer to keep the self as kind of the rational agent; the selfish model of somebody who cares just about their salary and payment and returns and so on. Then I would say that no, most decisions are not driven by self-interest. 

Cotto: Now that our discussion is at its conclusion, most readers are probably wondering about how you came to be such a noted academic. Tell us a bit about your life and career.

Dr. Ariely: As I write about in my first two books, I was badly injured when I was eighteen and I was in the hospital for many, many years. Hospitals are terrible places. They’re places to observe irrational behaviors and lots of ways in which we don’t live in a magical, rational way. In fact, it’s the underbelly of society, when things are ugly and difficult and strange and illogical.

I had lots and lots of problems in hospitals with the way that the hospitals were treating me and the other patients. The thing that troubled me the most everyday was the question of “How do you remove bandages from burn patients?” — whether you rip them off quickly and minimize time at the expense of very high intensity or remove them slowly, taking a long time, a long duration, but not as painful every second.

The nurses believed in the ripping approach, and I thought that this was a bad approach, but they kept on doing what they thought was good. Years later, when I left the hospital, I started doing experiments on this and discovered that indeed the nurses were wrong, that it’s better to prolong the time and have the intensity lower.

That actually led me not just to do research on pain, it led me to do research on all kinds of areas of human behavior where we have intuition about one thing. We think, for example, the quick ripping approach would be better, but in fact it is not better. It is worse. I have this practical approach to life because the way I was treated in the hospital. 

I want to look at all kinds of institutions where we as human beings are just not doing the right thing. We think we are doing something that is good for our clients, community, company, employer, and so on, but in reality our decisions are misguided. I think it’s everywhere. It’s not just nurses. It’s in banking, it’s in policy-making, it’s in education. And my goal is to try and identify these mistakes and then try to think about how we can fix them.

From that perspective, I think of myself a little bit as an engineer at heart, just kind of looking at the design of human systems, and saying “How is this system constructed right now? What are the places they are not working as we would have liked them to, and how can we improve them?”

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Joseph Cotto

Joseph F. Cotto is a social journalist by trade and student of history by lifestyle choice. He hails from central Florida, writing about political, economic, and social issues of the day. In the past, he was a contributor to Blogcritics Magazine, among other publications. He is currently at work on a book about American society.

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