Are we in control of our decisions? | Dan Ariely

I’ll tell you a little bit
about irrational behavior. Not yours, of course — other people’s. (Laughter) So after being at MIT for a few years, I realized that writing academic papers
is not that exciting. You know, I don’t know
how many of those you read, but it’s not fun to read
and often not fun to write — even worse to write. So I decided to try and write
something more fun. And I came up with an idea
that I would write a cookbook. And the title for my cookbook
was going to be, “Dining Without Crumbs:
The Art of Eating Over the Sink.” (Laughter) And it was going to be a look
at life through the kitchen. I was quite excited about this. I was going to talk
a little bit about research, a little bit about the kitchen. We do so much in the kitchen,
I thought this would be interesting. I wrote a couple of chapters,
and took it to MIT Press and they said, “Cute, but not for us.
Go and find somebody else.” I tried other people,
and everybody said the same thing, “Cute. Not for us.” Until somebody said, “Look, if you’re serious about this, you have to write about your research
first; you have to publish something, then you’ll get the opportunity
to write something else. If you really want to do it,
you have to do it.” I said, “I don’t want to write
about my research. I do it all day long, I want to write something
a bit more free, less constrained.” And this person
was very forceful and said, “Look, that’s the only way
you’ll ever do it.” So I said, “Okay, if I have to do it –” I had a sabbatical. I said, “I’ll write about my research,
if there’s no other way. And then I’ll get to do my cookbook.” So, I wrote a book on my research. And it turned out to be
quite fun in two ways. First of all, I enjoyed writing. But the more interesting thing
was that I started learning from people. It’s a fantastic time to write, because there’s so much feedback
you can get from people. People write to me
about their personal experience, and about their examples,
and where they disagree, and their nuances. And even being here —
I mean, the last few days, I’ve known heights of obsessive behavior I never thought about. (Laughter) Which I think is just fascinating. I will tell you a little bit
about irrational behavior, and I want to start by giving you
some examples of visual illusion as a metaphor for rationality. So think about these two tables. And you must have seen this illusion. If I asked you what’s longer, the vertical
line on the table on the left, or the horizontal line
on the table on the right, which one seems longer? Can anybody see anything
but the left one being longer? No, right? It’s impossible. But the nice thing about visual illusion
is we can easily demonstrate mistakes. So I can put some lines
on; it doesn’t help. I can animate the lines. And to the extent you believe
I didn’t shrink the lines, which I didn’t, I’ve proven to you
that your eyes were deceiving you. Now, the interesting thing about this
is when I take the lines away, it’s as if you haven’t learned
anything in the last minute. (Laughter) You can’t look at this and say,
“Now I see reality as it is.” Right? It’s impossible to overcome
this sense that this is indeed longer. Our intuition is really fooling us in a repeatable,
predictable, consistent way. and there is almost nothing
we can do about it, aside from taking a ruler
and starting to measure it. Here’s another one.
It’s one of my favorite illusions. What color is the top arrow pointing to? Audience: Brown.
Dan Ariely: Brown. Thank you. The bottom one? Yellow. Turns out they’re identical. Can anybody see them as identical? Very, very hard. I can cover the rest of the cube up. If I cover the rest of the cube,
you can see that they are identical. If you don’t believe me,
you can get the slide later and do some arts and crafts
and see that they’re identical. But again, it’s the same story,
that if we take the background away, the illusion comes back. There is no way for us not
to see this illusion. I guess maybe if you’re colorblind,
I don’t think you can see that. I want you to think
about illusion as a metaphor. Vision is one of the best things we do. We have a huge part of our brain
dedicated to vision — bigger than dedicated to anything else. We use our vision more hours
of the day than anything else. We’re evolutionarily
designed to use vision. And if we have these predictable
repeatable mistakes in vision, which we’re so good at, what are the chances we won’t make
even more mistakes in something we’re not as good at,
for example, financial decision-making. (Laughter) Something we don’t have
an evolutionary reason to do, we don’t have a specialized
part of the brain for, and we don’t do that many
hours of the day. The argument is in those cases, it might be that we actually
make many more mistakes. And worse — not having
an easy way to see them, because in visual illusions, we can
easily demonstrate the mistakes; in cognitive illusion
it’s much, much harder to demonstrate the mistakes to people. So I want to show you
some cognitive illusions, or decision-making illusions,
in the same way. And this is one of my favorite
plots in social sciences. It’s from a paper
by Johnson and Goldstein. It basically shows the percentage
of people who indicated they would be interested
in donating their organs. These are different countries in Europe. You basically see two types of countries: countries on the right,
that seem to be giving a lot; and countries on the left
that seem to giving very little, or much less. The question is, why? Why do some countries give a lot
and some countries give a little? When you ask people this question, they usually think that it has
to be about culture. How much do you care about people? Giving organs to somebody else is probably about how much you care
about society, how linked you are. Or maybe it’s about religion. But if you look at this plot, you can see that countries
that we think about as very similar, actually exhibit very different behavior. For example, Sweden
is all the way on the right, and Denmark, which we think
is culturally very similar, is all the way on the left. Germany is on the left,
and Austria is on the right. The Netherlands is on the left,
and Belgium is on the right. And finally, depending
on your particular version of European similarity, you can think about the U.K. and France
as either similar culturally or not, but it turns out that with organ
donation, they are very different. By the way, the Netherlands
is an interesting story. You see, the Netherlands is kind
of the biggest of the small group. It turns out that they got to 28 percent after mailing every household
in the country a letter, begging people to join
this organ donation program. You know the expression,
“Begging only gets you so far.” It’s 28 percent in organ donation. (Laughter) But whatever the countries
on the right are doing, they’re doing a much
better job than begging. So what are they doing? Turns out the secret has to do
with a form at the DMV. And here is the story. The countries on the left
have a form at the DMV that looks something like this. “Check the box below if you want to
participate in the organ donor program.” And what happens? People don’t check, and they don’t join. The countries on the right,
the ones that give a lot, have a slightly different form. It says, “Check the box below
if you don’t want to participate …” Interestingly enough,
when people get this, they again don’t check, but now they join. (Laughter) Now, think about what this means. You know, we wake up in the morning
and we feel we make decisions. We wake up in the morning
and we open the closet; we feel that we decide what to wear. we open the refrigerator and we feel
that we decide what to eat. What this is actually saying, is that many of these decisions
are not residing within us. They are residing in the person
who is designing that form. When you walk into the DMV, the person who designed the form
will have a huge influence on what you’ll end up doing. Now, it’s also very hard
to intuit these results. Think about it for yourself. How many of you believe that if you went to renew
your license tomorrow, and you went to the DMV, and you encountered one of these forms, that it would actually
change your own behavior? Very hard to think
that it would influence us. We can say, “Oh, these funny Europeans,
of course it would influence them.” But when it comes to us, we have such a feeling
that we’re in the driver’s seat, such a feeling that we’re in control
and we are making the decision, that it’s very hard
to even accept the idea that we actually have an illusion
of making a decision, rather than an actual decision. Now, you might say, “These are decisions we don’t care about.” In fact, by definition,
these are decisions about something that will happen
to us after we die. How could we care about something less than about something
that happens after we die? So a standard economist,
somebody who believes in rationality, would say, “You know what? The cost of lifting the pencil
and marking a “V” is higher than the possible benefit of the decision, so that’s why we get this effect.” (Laughter) But, in fact, it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not because it’s trivial.
It’s not because we don’t care. It’s the opposite. It’s because we care. It’s difficult and it’s complex. And it’s so complex
that we don’t know what to do. And because we have no idea what to do, we just pick whatever it was
that was chosen for us. I’ll give you one more example. This is from a paper
by Redelmeier and Shafir. And they said, “Would this
effect also happens to experts? People who are well-paid,
experts in their decisions, and who make a lot of them?” And they took a group of physicians. They presented to them
a case study of a patient. They said, “Here is a patient.
He is a 67-year-old farmer. He’s been suffering from
right hip pain for a while.” And then, they said to the physicians, “You decided a few weeks ago that nothing is working for this patient. All these medications,
nothing seems to be working. So you refer the patient
for hip replacement therapy. Hip replacement. Okay?” So the patient is on a path
to have his hip replaced. Then they said to half of the physicians, “Yesterday, you reviewed
the patient’s case, and you realized that you forgot
to try one medication. You did not try ibuprofen. What do you do? Do you pull
the patient back and try ibuprofen? Or do you let him go
and have hip replacement?” Well, the good news is
that most physicians in this case decided to pull the patient
and try ibuprofen. Very good for the physicians. To the other group
of physicians, they said, “Yesterday when you reviewed the case,
you discovered there were two medications you didn’t try out yet —
ibuprofen and piroxicam.” You have two medications
you didn’t try out yet. What do you do? You let him go,
or you pull him back? And if you pull him back, do you try
ibuprofen or piroxicam? Which one?” Now, think of it: This decision makes it as easy to let
the patient continue with hip replacement, but pulling him back, all of the sudden
it becomes more complex. There is one more decision. What happens now? The majority of the physicians
now choose to let the patient go for a hip replacement. I hope this worries you, by the way — (Laughter) when you go to see your physician. The thing is that
no physician would ever say, “Piroxicam, ibuprofen, hip replacement.
Let’s go for hip replacement.” But the moment you set this
as the default, it has a huge power over whatever
people end up doing. I’ll give you a couple of more examples
on irrational decision-making. Imagine I give you a choice: Do you want to go for a weekend to Rome,
all expenses paid — hotel, transportation, food,
a continental breakfast, everything — or a weekend in Paris? Now, weekend in Paris, weekend
in Rome — these are different things. They have different food,
different culture, different art. Imagine I added a choice to the set
that nobody wanted. Imagine I said, “A weekend in Rome, a weekend in Paris, or having your car stolen?” (Laughter) It’s a funny idea, because why
would having your car stolen, in this set, influence anything? (Laughter) But what if the option to have your car
stolen was not exactly like this? What if it was a trip to Rome,
all expenses paid, transportation, breakfast, but it doesn’t include
coffee in the morning? If you want coffee, you have to pay
for it yourself, it’s two euros 50. (Laughter) Now in some ways, given that you can have Rome with coffee, why would you possibly
want Rome without coffee? It’s like having your car stolen.
It’s an inferior option. But guess what happened? The moment you add Rome without coffee, Rome with coffee becomes more popular,
and people choose it. The fact that you have Rome without coffee makes Rome with coffee look superior, and not just to Rome without coffee —
even superior to Paris. (Laughter) Here are two examples of this principle. This was an ad in The Economist
a few years ago that gave us three choices: an online subscription for 59 dollars, a print subscription for 125 dollars, or you could get both for 125. (Laughter) Now I looked at this,
and I called up The Economist, and I tried to figure out
what they were thinking. And they passed me from one person
to another to another, until eventually I got to the person
who was in charge of the website, and I called them up, and they went
to check what was going on. The next thing I know,
the ad is gone, no explanation. So I decided to do the experiment that I would have loved
The Economist to do with me. I took this and I gave it
to 100 MIT students. I said, “What would you choose?” These are the market shares —
most people wanted the combo deal. Thankfully, nobody wanted
the dominant option. That means our students can read. (Laughter) But now, if you have an option
that nobody wants, you can take it off, right? So I printed another version of this, where I eliminated the middle option. I gave it to another 100 students.
Here is what happened: Now the most popular option
became the least popular, and the least popular
became the most popular. What was happening
was the option that was useless, in the middle, was useless
in the sense that nobody wanted it. But it wasn’t useless in the sense
that it helped people figure out what they wanted. In fact, relative
to the option in the middle, which was get only the print for 125, the print and web for 125
looked like a fantastic deal. And as a consequence, people chose it. The general idea here, by the way, is that we actually don’t know
our preferences that well. And because we don’t know
our preferences that well, we’re susceptible to all of these
influences from the external forces: the defaults, the particular options
that are presented to us, and so on. One more example of this. People believe that when we deal
with physical attraction, we see somebody, and we know immediately
whether we like them or not, if we’re attracted or not. This is why we have
these four-minute dates. So I decided to do
this experiment with people. I’ll show you images here, no real people,
but the experiment was with people. I showed some people a picture
of Tom, and a picture of Jerry. and I said, “Who do you want to date? Tom or Jerry?” But for half the people,
I added an ugly version of Jerry. I took Photoshop and I made
Jerry slightly less attractive. (Laughter) For the other people, I added
an ugly version of Tom. And the question was,
will ugly Jerry and ugly Tom help their respective,
more attractive brothers? The answer was absolutely yes. When ugly Jerry was around,
Jerry was popular. When ugly Tom was around, Tom was popular. (Laughter) This of course has two
very clear implications for life in general. If you ever go bar-hopping,
who do you want to take with you? (Laughter) You want a slightly uglier
version of yourself. (Laughter) Similar, but slightly uglier. (Laughter) The second point, or course, is that
if somebody invites you to bar hop, you know what they think about you. (Laughter) Now you get it. What is the general point? The general point is that, when we think about economics, we have
this beautiful view of human nature. “What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason!” We have this view of ourselves, of others. The behavioral economics perspective
is slightly less “generous” to people; in fact, in medical terms, that’s our view. (Laughter) But there is a silver lining. The silver lining is, I think, kind of the reason that behavioral
economics is interesting and exciting. Are we Superman, or are we Homer Simpson? When it comes to building
the physical world, we kind of understand our limitations. We build steps. And we build these things
that not everybody can use, obviously. (Laughter) We understand our limitations, and we build around them. But for some reason, when it comes
to the mental world, when we design things like healthcare
and retirement and stock markets, we somehow forget the idea
that we are limited. I think that if we understood
our cognitive limitations in the same way we understand
our physical limitations, even though they don’t stare us
in the face the same way, we could design a better world,
and that, I think, is the hope of this thing. Thank you very much. (Applause)

Comments 100

  • Don’t check the box if you like this talk 🔲

  • culo caca pedorra

  • Good

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  • Greatest Video on YT to this day!!!

  • Read the Grand Inquisitor chapter in Dostoevsky's The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan wonders: "God doesn't understand human beings since the most irresponsible thing he could have done was give human beings free will since it's perhaps the most burdensome and unsustainable thing to us." One of the greatest books from the greatest author who ever lived.

  • I did like his stage presence and the way he moved logically and confidently though the lecture. Not his first time.

    He ends this with "If we could understand our cognitive limitations in the same way we understand our physical limitations… we could design a better world."
    Well this ending is a big bowl of (insert food you dislike here).

  • 2:50 Dan said that to the extent we believe him he didn't shrink the lines. I actually don't need to believe him because this matters enough to me that I measured the boxes and the lines with a pair of high Precision digital calipers and guess what the table on the right is actually longer than the table on the left. I was able to verify this for myself by measuring my screen.

  • we have will that is free from us

  • We should be humbler about our physical and cognitive limitations…………..indeed. Important lesson.

  • didn't watch but no. free will is an illusion.

  • Use your free will to quit video, pfft.

  • explains the 2016 elections

  • The matrix

  • 8:00 he implies forms change our behavior, when it's just the opposite – the behavior is not to check check-boxes.

  • I do believe stock market was designed with that limitations in minds of the designers.

  • My god this man has seen war

  • We make choice out of choices, on which we have no choice

  • Great wisdom ,perception could be great illusion. We need to be careful of our decisions and thought.

  • BE and NL are 2 completely different countries.

  • facetious but pertinent question: does his undoubtedly very well executed talk deserve a standing ovation? or does the fact that he is focused on meritorious concepts that he has dedicated himself to in the face of clearly horrific personal injury deserve a standing ovation?

  • " We are predictable in a consistent way, and we can do nothing about it. " brilliant. Should be the Ars Poetica of humanity.

  • Why does everyone laugh there was nothing funny about what he said and some don't even laugh int till others start laughing how LAME!!!

  • No, we’re not, and if you think we are, you are taking credit for something entirely out of your control, just like Trump claiming he made billions on his own.

  • Has anyone studied whether it may be, or way also be that people are becoming less prone to read forms completely and carefully, given the ubiquity of mobile phones that can be used while waiting to have their paperwork processed?, and thus it was easy to "register" more people as organ donors.

  • 3:45 the bottom cube changes color from yellow to brown ….

  • This is the best TEDx Ive ever seen and Ive watched about 100 or more. It was equally entertaining and informative. Very sophisticated humour with bizarre but easily understood truths about the human mind.

  • Yes, get over yourself.

  • Great Talk!!

  • I read few chapters of your book. They were awesome. I hope, I read the rest of them sometime… Thank you for sharing your knowledge

  • Wait is this Rocky

  • In summary, it's human nature to avoid decisions and decisions are easier made relative to local alternatives.

  • Incredible speech, definitely stands out.. should point out that he was headed in the wrong direction with his argument about visual illusions at the start. He mentioned how we have 'repeatable, predictable mistakes in vision' using our inability to spot visual illusions as evidence. But the two illusions which he used as evidence do not evidence that we have mistakes in our vision. Both the cube and the two tables look a bit 'off'. Because they are, because they don't exist in nature as such; the 'two tables' illustration has what is known as forced perspective, things simply do not look that way, and even if they did, your mind would be able to comprehend the dimensions by using background information; but there is no background in that image, so clearly it is not our vision which is faulty, it is the input image which is lacking in crucial information needed for our minds to understand the image. The rubik's cube, similarly, is an example of something outside of the realm of reality, the lighting on the cube is clearly manipulated using software, so as to make the two brown colors the same. In reality, the two colours may be the same, but if there is more light on one of them, it is simply impossible for us to perceive them as the same colours. Therefore, the two examples he used are bad examples to illustrate limits in visual ability in humans. On the contrary, they prove that our eyesight is developed evolutionarily via interaction with the environment, and the environment from which we have derived our perception of reality does not encompass the two images he showed of the rubik's cube and the two tables.

  • max tegmark recovered very well

  • Actually, the organ donor form did not cause any difference in behavior. Just in an outcome. The fact that no behavior change is needed to accomplish outcome differences is very interesting to me in business.

  • Looks like rocky well into the final round

  • Is debate between Traditional theism and Possibilianism possible?

  • I can't decide. What do you think?

  • Did anyone notice that he chose the names Tom & Jerry for the dating experiment?

  • TED speakers don't need to be funny

  • With the forms, I wonder how much has it to do with the authoritative decision/agreed approach. Kind of this is what has been decided but there is an opt-in option no matter what the option was.

  • very cool, my second video with Dan Ariely and i think he's turning into my favorite speaker

  • this guy gets it

  • Which option would you choose if you had only one more year to live. Try that one if you are stuck 🙂

  • Fela kutima babi

  • perfect delivery……fantastic speaker

  • I saw this a couple of months ago. Still brilliant.. watched it to the end again.

  • That's one amazing talk

  • 6:52 very important

  • I was listening to this while working and I flipped over and looked at the video and got such a fright. What is happening with his face and skin?

  • Some scenario are very similar from the book thinking fast and slow by Daniel kahneman. Great talk enjoy it very much!!!

  • There's no free will.

  • Behavioalist speaker is being controlled the TEDx Company, [ it as all a script] . Do not follow or lose "free will".

  • You should definitely read (or listen as audiobook like I did) his book predictably irrational. I don't usually recommend things, because I hate everything, but not that, it's quite a great thing. It is essential for understanding the defects of the human brain, as well as part of your arsenal for your foundation of logic itself.

  • 1) We were "fabricated" by our mother. We are randomly constituted of organs, functionalities, and knowledge that we do not control.

    2) Responsibility is an absurd invention. What exists is not responsible for existing.

    3) Free will is a technical impossibility. No one has ever determined himself by something fabricated by another.

  • This is what happens when you put Stallone and a Picasso in a blender.

  • some dont want to donate their organs because they are concerned they wont be saved because their organs are needed, do you save one life or several?. thats quite a rational reason to me

  • One thing about the last statement: there are people who do understand our limitations. They frequently have jobs to exploit them to manipulate us (usually get our money). They’re very talented and all of the biggest, successful companies hire them to do exactly that. And any company who tried to be honest and fair does so at their peril. Just ask JC Penny’s.

  • The subscription example was on point. Imma start using it

  • The thing is this can be abused so people abstain from it. For example if u can be saved what's to stop them from still deciding to take your organs and letting you die?

  • My old boss was always on default mode lol. Guess I might be too!

  • Faith and Reason
    Ligonier National Conference | Orlando

  • Amazing…

  • Dan Ariely is absolutely charming.

  • so funny whilst giving very good info

  • Fantastic!

  • "Are we in control of our decisions?" Apparently not, that's why I'm suing somebody else because I'm too fat, too sick,and just too stupid to do what's right with each choice that I do have…….

  • that was pretty awesome

  • this is why i never get sick, it's not a lack of faith in medicine, it's a lack of faith in human nature, i'll probably end up worse off because: "probably" is they way these things get decided.

  • Poor guy, look like he got burned by fire before from the look of his arm and neck area.

  • Brilliant material and brilliant delivery from a brilliant individual.

  • That,s why I never get invited any where.

  • The table on the left is fukn' longer! 😠 You gotta measure both center lines (which fukn' bisect the tables), not one center line and one diagonal from the center of the width to one corner! WTF are u fukn' kidding me!

  • What do you mean Frenchie yous took Princess Diana's innards.

  • The deceptive power of words. The vertical table looks longer because in 3D it is, and our vision has made the transformation. But when you take a measurement on the flat 2D representation, they are the same. We are tricked because he has not told us he is switching from 3D to 2D.
    Similarly, the statement that our vision is the product of evolutionary design is a con. The two words evolution and design are from different spheres. Design is the action of intelligence. Evolution is just whatever is left over after a random sequence, and cannot produce order out of chaos. But those promoting evolution always use the language of implied design to make the impossible sound plausible. That is the con.

  • the two tables are a bad example because they are not two representations of the same object, they are two dierente tables

  • Jeg synes det er meget spændende hvor stor en indflydelse, det med at lave et tredje dårligt valg har på os.

  • I took his excellent online course about irrationality and dishonesty. Dr Ariely studied with Daniel Kahnamann, Nobel prize winner economics.

  • This guy is a weird combo of Al Pacino and Sylvester Stallone

  • 6:45 super important difference. I heard an opinion of someone I respect (can’t remember who atm)) on YouTube saying the opt out opt in wouldn’t make a change. They need to see this…

  • Their laughter is mocking , childish … Sad .

  • how do you choose between devil and deep blue sea, put a ugly version of devil and you jump into the ocean and …

  • Ted talk, really?
    Is it just me who gets a negative vibe from politically correct platform of ted talk? Not talking about this particular video but I actually don't learn any valuable lesson or wisdom from this platform. I could be wrong but just saying.

  • Was he burned by fire? It looks like it

  • Wow 17 min went by so fast – so the Economist is not actually that stupid then – good job of making people choose the higher priced option


  • If you're an atheist scientist, then the atheist brainwashing is in control.

  • EVERYTHING in and out of our lives are illusions..

  • Experts are more easily fooled because they think they are above being fooled, they are smarter then us plus they have superior DNA. Ya right.


  • It's been proven that if you are an organ donor you are influencing your doctor's behavior and actions… Doctors are prone to giving up much sooner to bring you back from the brink of death if you are a donor. Subconsciously they want your organs, this encourages them to give you bare minimum efforts during your trama. For example, he may only shock your chest (in this hypothetical situation) 3 times compared to 5 or 8 times, before he calls the time of your death.

  • Pure brilliance! What an eloquent man!

  • One of the best Ted talks

  • This should be mandatory viewing in school, together with Pinker’s video on the data of our age. Suddenly, things will seem so less certain than we think they are. And that’s a great place to begin.

  • I'm left dumbfounded.

  • Ariely like this talk

  • It's scary how manipulable we humans are…

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