“My accident happened more than 30 years ago, and if any good came out of it, maybe it is this: I like to believe that the disaster and its aftereffects made me better able to understand myself and others.”
– Duke University professor Dan Ariely
If you read The Wall Street Journal, you know Dan Ariely as the newspaper’s pithy version of Dear Abby, but with a twist. Ariely looks at human behavior through the eyes of an accomplished if bemused behavioral economist.
Not quite what you expect from an icon of capitalism, perhaps, but then the Journal isn’t the staid newspaper that it once was. And Ariely isn’t quite the purse-lipped James B. Duke professor of economics you might imagine.
Journal readers know the Israeli-born Ariely’s take on life through his weekly column, “Ask Ariely.” But until earlier this month, few knew him as the survivor of a horrific teenage accident that scorched 70 percent of his body and left him with permanently damaged hands.
Burns of that magnitude and intensity can leave a survivor with psychological as well as physical scars, not to mention much painful surgery.
Ariely still lives with a high level of pain. Yet he maintains the productivity of two academics. He uses hunt-and-peck for typing and teaches at Duke’s Fuqua School of Business and its counterpart at UNC. He writes best-sellers such as “The Honest Truth about Dishonesty.” He is in demand as a speaker.
Try to reach him on the phone and you’ll likely be asked to leave your name and number because “I’m out having fun.” His energetic and immersive Web site will have you believing it.
I find Ariely interesting in another way. He is a superb example of someone who undergoes a trial that would crush the spirit of many another person, yet emerges as a reforged and more focused personality.
And with his wit intact, as this entry from “Ask Ariely” attests:
“Recently a friend told me that she wants to have my child. She meant it as a compliment, but I’m not sure I should take it as one. What do you think?” – Daniel
To which Ariely replied:
“It sounds excellent on first blush, but what she’s really telling you is that she likes your genetic makeup, which you have very little to do with ... give this particular compliment back to her, and ask for a different one.”
Whatever Daniel did, his decision was an example of psychology-cum-behaviorial economics. This subset of economic theory delves into rational and irrational behavior – the latter being the more fascinating of the two, because it seems to influence so many of our decisions. (For example, why are we willing, sometimes even eager, to pay more for a product that is no better than a cheaper one?)
Like any other science, the psychology in behavioral economics rests on careful observation. That’s how Ariely came into it: Through seemingly endless hospital treatment for his injuries, he began to observe the people around him. He saw irrationality in something as simple as removing bandages.
The nurses had been taught rip-and-remove, a method based on shortest exposure to pain – though that pain could be almost unbearable. Ariely saw that as irrational. Better, he reasoned, to remove the bandages slowly, going from the most painful area to the least.
Ah, well, as anyone seasoned by the medical establishment knows, rationality often has little in common with patient comfort.
No doubt that had something to do with Ariely’s status as a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. Perhaps we humans see better in the rear than in the front, or so his penchant for humor suggests.
There is, of course, a serious substrate to what Ariely does. Much of human behavior is not well understood to this day, and since behavior is a manifestation of decision-making, the more we know about this process, the better.
Dan Ariely is a survivor who plucked triumph out of the jaws of tragedy. Or as he might say, he’s just a guy who puts sugar in the lemonade.
Bob Wilson lives in southwest Durham.