You might know the name Dan Ariely. Maybe you’ve watched one of his very popular TED talks, or read one of his best-selling books about how and why we behave irrationally. Or maybe you’ve already heard us say on the Only Human podcast that we’re partnering with him on a new project: a study that aims to help all of us stick with our New Year’s resolutions to get more exercise.
The story of how Ariely became a behavioral economist begins dramatically and terribly. Ariely was a teenager in Israel, just finishing up high school, when an explosion left him with burns covering 70 percent of his body, and hospitalized him for close to three years. One particular part of his treatment — the painful daily removal and replacement of the bandages covering his wounds — led him to question the intuition of his nurses, who insisted that ripping off the bandaging quickly hurt less than carefully peeling them off.
For Ariely, it was an epiphany. “If you think about it, how many times even in a single day we work best on our gut intuition,” Ariely says. “And if our gut intuitions are wrong, maybe there’s another approach to do things that is actually better.”
In this episode, Mary talks to Ariely about why so many New Year’s resolutions don’t lead to healthier habits, but to mid-January guilt — because even when we know better, we make bad decisions.
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MARY HARRIS: I used to have these neighbors, Ernest and Rita. They were a couple, older than me, around retirement age. And every morning, as I was getting the paper and making coffee, I’d see them. They’d be on their way back from a *five mile* run.
MH: So how did you guys start running?
Ernest: Well, I had been running all along. And Rita had been running all along, too.
MH: This is Ernest. He says he and Rita actually met while running. This was way back -- more than 30 years ago. They were both living in Brooklyn. And he’d see her headed out for her run every morning when he was headed back. One day, he had a chance to talk to her.
Ernest: And I said ‘Well you know I run real early in the morning if you need somebody to run with -- I’d be more than happy to run with you in the morning. I get out at 5:30.’ She said ‘That would be great.’ And since then we’ve been doing just that. (laughs)
MH: They’ve been running seven days a week for decades. Which to me is kind of mind-blowing. Because they’re a regular couple, busy just like me and my husband. Both of them work. They’ve raised two kids. They don’t wear fancy work-out clothes. They’re not obsessive about times or personal records. They’re running because they know it’s good for them.
MH: How many marathons have you guys run?
Ernest: I’d say countless - can’t remember the number - but I can remember I first started running the New York City marathon back in 1979
MH: He guesses. Maybe they’ve run 7 or 8?
Ernest: you know you stop counting, --
MH: You say you stop counting - I’d be counting every single one, I’d be marking it off on the wall - another one down! (Laughs)
MH: I am kind of in awe of this. Not the marathon running, but the fact
that somehow -- apparently pretty naturally -- they made running a habit. Most of us look at the overwhelming evidence that regular exercise will give us longer, better lives… and we just don’t act on it.
Ernest was on vacation when I called him the other day. But...
MH: Did you go running this morning?
MH: I hear the way Ernest says that -- like, obviously I ran. And I want to know: how can *I* do that? That’s what today’s show is about. We’re going to help all of us make exercise a habit. And it’s the start of the year -- so we’re going to focus on your New Year’s resolutions to exercise.
I’m Mary Harris, and this is Only Human. This episode, we team up with behavioral scientist Dan Ariely. He’s a best-selling author and TED talk star who studies why we make bad decisions … and how we can train ourselves to make better ones. And he’s starting a project to help you and me … be more like Ernest and Rita.
But before we get to that ... a little bit about Dan Ariely. Because the story of how he wound up studying why we do what we do is unexpected. It begins years ago, with a terrible accident.
DAN ARIELY: At some point something just exploded.
MH: This is how Dan Ariely remembers the moment that left him with burns covering most of his body.
DA: And then I had to run through the fire to get out of there. And actually it’s kind of shocking I could run because after that I couldn’t walk for a very long time.
MH: He was a teenager in Israel, and he was just starting his military service.
DA: So I was in 12th grade, and in Israel there is a particular version of a military service that you start early, and you go to high school, but you belong to a kibbutz...
MH: That first year of service was ending. And to mark it, there was supposed to be a big celebration with a kind of bonfire. Ariely was helping with set-up. His commanders had gotten some magnesium flares, which were used by the military to light up battlefields at night. And magnesium burns bright and hot, so the idea was to break the flares apart and use the magnesium to make the fire more spectacular.
DA: They tasked me with creating these little magnesium sparkles (hm)...
MH: But instead -- suddenly -- the magnesium exploded...
DA: Here I was with a tremendous amt of magnesium burning -- it’s a very very bright intense fire.
MH: Ariely was burned all over his body: his face. His hands. He would spend almost three years in the hospital.
MH: What was your life like during that time?
DA: So there were a few periods? The first period was basically emergency room. The first few months, there’s no skin on 70 percent of my body. And of course I have some very painful treatments.
MH: The treatment he had to deal with most often in that early stage was bandage removal, when nurses would come to remove and replace the bandages that covered his burns.
DA: Every day they would take me to a bath, they would lower me into this bath with some iodine water t o sterilize the wounds. And then they would take the bandages off. But of course because there is no skin, the bandages adhere to the flesh. And they had to tear them off.
MH: Every day?
DA: Yeah, every day. And then putting the bandages back on top, and then to repeat it the next day. The only days I got a reprieve were days that I had surgery.
MH: That process of bandage removal is the thing that set Dan Ariely on a course of questioning the way we make decisions. See, the nurses preferred to rip the bandages off quickly, causing sharp pain. Ariely really didn’t like that method, and he begged them to go more slowly. But the nurses were sure they were right. They believed that getting through it faster was better for him -- and ultimately less painful.
A few years later, when Ariely was finally out of the hospital, he kept thinking about the experience. And he decided to study how we perceive pain. He found that the nurses’ instincts … had been wrong! Taking the bandages off more slowly would have hurt him less.
DA: This actually for me was a really big lesson. If you think about it, how many times even in a single day we work based on our gut intuition. We feel, “Oh, this is the right thing and this is the right thing,” when we actually don’t know. It’s just gut intuition. And if our gut intuitions are wrong, maybe there’s another approach to do things that is actually better.
MH: For Ariely, the big point of his study was that we’re fallible. We don’t always know what’s best. Not just those nurses -- but all of us.
DA: When you think about it as a mistake of the nurses, you say, “Are the nurses the only people wrong, and are there many other ways that all of us might be wrong?” And then you start looking at the world, and you say, “My goodness! We make lots of mistakes!”
MH: We make mistakes. And sometimes we make bad decisions even when we know better. This right here is the root of the New Year’s resolution problem. Like, it’s so clear that we should exercise regularly, but we don’t.
There’s some research Ariely likes to reference, done by a colleague of his, Ralph Keeney. Keeney studied how our own inability to resist self-destructive behavior can be deadly. He asked this question:
DA: What is the percentage of human mortality that is either caused by or aided by bad decisions, right? How many times do we accelerate our death because we make bad decisions. And when you estimate this for about 100 years ago, it’s less than 10 percent. Think about 100 years ago, how could you make a bad decision that would kill you? You can do it, but not as easy. But now, it’s more than 44 percent.
MH: Almost half of us die simply because of bad decision making.
DA: How come as we invent new technologies we also invent ways to kill ourselves, right? And of course clear examples are smoking and diabetes and obesity and texting and driving and all of those things. And many of them, like obesity and diabetes, are not things that we make one decision that kills us. But it’s a long sequence of decisions that basically every one of them creates just a small effect but together they become very, very big. And this is actually a terrible -- a terrible realization, because if you think about it, these are all failures of self-control. Texting and driving. Right, we all know that it’s not a good idea. Nobody says, “You know what, I thought about this texting and driving thing. I think it’s a good idea. I weighed the cost of how much I don’t want to die and how much I don’t want to kill other people, and how important these text message are, and yep, it’s a good choice.” Nobody thinks this way. Everyone knows it’s a stupid thing to do.
MH: You’re basically saying that now we have the luxury of making more decisions, but that means we have more opportunities to get it wrong.
DA: We have lots of things that are tempting us as well, and we have more luxuries of making decisions. So think about something like the donut. Imagine donut 2.0. The next generation of the donut. Do you think it will be more tempting or less tempting?
DA: Certainly, right? The next generation of the iPhone. Will it be more tempting or less tempting? It has to be more tempting. The next version of Facebook will be more tempting. The world around us basically wants our time, money, attention right now. And because of that -- we’re flooded with these requests and decisions to do things that are good for other entities and not always good for us. And because of that we fail and fail a lot. So the challenges of self-control are really, really tough.
MH: So what do we do when the world around us is constantly conspiring to steer us wrong? Can we learn how to resist?
Coming up: Dan Ariely’s tricks for self-control. And how you can use your smartphone to stick with your exercise resolution -- right now.
This is Only Human.
MH: Hey - in a minute I’m going to continue my conversation with Dan, and he’ll reveal how our resolution project is going to work. But if you can’t wait -- or if you’re a procrastinator like me, and you’re worried you’ll put it off -- you can go to our website now and sign up while you listen. Just head over to onlyhuman.org/sticktoit. And thanks.
MH: This is Only Human, I’m Mary Harris. Before the break, behavioral economist Dan Ariely was talking about how much damage we do to ourselves by making bad decisions.
Ariely hasn’t only thought about what makes us terrible decision-makers. He’s also thought about how we can train ourselves to be better at it. And he tries his techniques out on himself.
MH: You study our fallibility as decision-makers. How does that affect the way you live your own life?
DA: Yes. First of all, I’m not fallible, so that’s …
DA: So I think there are kind of three types of decisions. There are big decisions -- buying a house, getting married, having kids. And those decisions are decision we have time to think about. And I think that knowing something about fallibility helps me with those. You move to a new house, you move to a new city and say “Where do I want to live?” Well, I know that people don’t take commuting into account. Commuting is a grinding thing on people’s happiness. So knowing that, I pick to live very close to the office. That ’s an example for big decisions. Then there are small decisions. Buying coffee. Buying things that are called on discount. Signing up for something that looks like it’s free. All kinds of small things. And those things, knowing a lot about decision-making doesn’t help, because these are not thoughtful decisions. But there’s another category which are things called habits. And habits are really about small decisions, but because those small decisions happen many, many times, they’re actually significant and important.
MH: And good habits -- you can’t create them on your own. The world around you is really important.
DA: What is the environment that we’re going to set up such that it supports good decisions? So you can think about not having cookies at home, which is what I do. You could say, “Oh you know I’ll buy cookies and have one every fourth day.” Not going to work out. So you can say, let me just not have cookies.
MH: You’re crushing my dreams.
DA: Sorry about that. You could say let’s not just have fresh fruit, but it’s clean already. So all you need to do is take a bite, reducing the friction of doing that. But my rules are actually more detailed.
MH: Like his rules when it comes to exercise. A couple of years ago he and a friend got to talking. They both wanted to be in better shape, and they both knew they'd have a hard time keeping themselves accountable. So they wrote up a pact.
DA: We created a very detailed contract. And our contract was that we have to exercise three times a week. We also had a rule that we eat dessert only on the weekend, not during the week. And, if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, there’s a punishment on a weekly basis.
MH: What are the punishments?
DA: So, as my punishments, the two big ones I got was one time I had to have a pilates class.
MH: Not into the pilates I guess.
DA: No, no. And then I also had to do some green juice, also painful.
MH: What strikes me is that you are a person of great self-control. You’ve gotten through three years of hospitalization, an incredible amount of pain. Even you need these structures.
DA: I actually think I need it a bit more that most people (laughs)
MH: That’s because he travels so much. Dan tells a story about landing in Hong Kong after a long flight. It was early in the morning, a completely reasonable time to crawl in to bed and get a little sleep. But he hadn’t met his exercise quota yet. So he laced up his tennis shoes and went to the hotel gym instead.
Remember Ernest and Rita, from the top of the story? Well, just like their pact to run together, that contract Dan Ariely has with his friend… has power.
MH: Maybe you’ve made a promise like this to yourself for the new year. But you’re worried that in a few weeks, you’ll find yourself asking: Why did I fail at that simple resolution?
MH: Why do we fail at them all the time?
DA: We don’t fail all the time. The first two days work really well. So we fail for multiple reasons. One is it’s really tough. Another one is that we optimistically set resolutions that are too difficult. Another thing is something called the “what the hell” effect. The what-the-hell effect is the idea that once you fail, you basically are so disappointed that you failed, you think of yourself as a failure, and you say “What the hell, I might as well go the whole way.” Imagine you’re a dieter. You wake up in the morning, you have a very strict diet, and for some reason you eat a muffin. You say, “Ah, I’m not a dieter today, let me have a burger and fries and a shake tonight. I’ll start tomorrow.”
MH: This time, it’s going to be different. Dan has created a new experiment… designed to help you stick to that New Year’s Resolution.
MH: And we’re focusing on exercise. Why?
DA: Well, exercise is to a large degree unpleasant for a long time. Some people tell me that after a while, if you exercise for long enough, you start enjoying it. I haven’t got to that point myself yet. But look, life has lots of things in it. It has donuts and soup and TV and work. And exercise is good in principle, but it’s almost never the case that it’s the best thing you could do right now. So because of that we procrastinate. And we don’t -- we don’t end up doing the things that we actually want to do. And that’s actually the goal of the project. The goal of the project is not to tell people, “You need to do x,y and z” but to ask people, “What are you trying to get to? And let’s try and help you get to that level.”
MH: Here’s how it’s going to work: If you’re making a resolution to exercise more, go to our website ... only human dot org ... and sign-up for the Stick to It project.
You’ll download an app to your smartphone that will connect you directly with Dan Ariely’s lab. Type in when and how you want to exercise, and answer a few questions about yourself. And ... until the end of February ... the app will give you strategies to stay on-track.
So, you tell us your exercise goals, we’ll help you meet them.
DA: The goal is to get people who are interested in general in improving their health and exercise and try to create suggestions and recommendations and alerts and reminders to see whether by entering into those little details of life and getting into people’s mindset and memory, we can actually get people to not just pick a New Year resolution but to stick with it.
MH: So there are a lot of details we can’t give about this, right? Like we can’t tell you what all the groups are going to do.
DA: That’s right. This is like a secret mission.
MH: It’s a secret, because this is science! This study will randomly assign you different ways to stick with your resolution. In the end, that will help us figure out which tactic worked the best.
In two months, Dan Ariely will come back on the show, and reveal the winning strategy.
Go to onlyhuman.org now and sign up to be part of our experiment. When you download one of the apps for this study, you’ll have the chance to win an Only Human water bottle -- a little thank you from us for participating.
One more thing -- we’re organizing a private online event at the end of the study -- just for the folks who participated -- you’ll be able to ask Dan Ariely all your questions about what worked and what didn’t.
Only Human is a production of WNYC Studios. This episode was produced and edited by Elaine Chen and Molly Messick. Our team includes Amanda Aronczyk, Paige Cowett, Kenny Malone, Fred Mogul and Kathryn Tam. Our technical director is Michael Raphael. Our executive producer is Leital Molad. Jim Schachter is the Vice President for news at WNYC.
I’m Mary Harris. And I’ll be back with more next week.