Psychologist and author Dan Ariely understands the appeal of rational economics: If people can be expected to behave rationally, life is simple. You can predict their behavior and devise systems that inexorably lead to positive outcomes. Unfortunately, this would also mean that we’re already doing all the right things and that this world, with all its problems, is the best we can do. Ariely prefers behavioral economics — in which we’re irrational and do lots of things wrong — because it allows room to improve. In his Big Think+ video, “Embrace Irrational You,” Ariely talks about two irrational tendencies in particular that have to be overcome to get us there.
Who is making your choices
The first thing Ariely discusses is our assumption that we’re in control of the choices we make as individuals. The process has a lot more to do with what he calls “choice architecture” than one might think.
Ariely asserts that the environment in which we’re asked to choose has a more significant impact on our eventual decisions than we may understand. Using the example of a restaurant salad bar, he sets the scene: “If you have a fruit bowl where the fruit is over the edge of the bowl rather than inside the bowl, or if there’s a light that puts it in a nice color,” you’ll be more likely to somehow get the idea that you want some.
“We don’t see it coming,” Ariely says. “You see, we have this idea that we’re in the driver’s seat, that we make decisions. That we are active in the world.” In reality, he suggests, we’re often passively following the path of least resistance without even realizing it.
Of course, that may leave us puzzled over why we made this or that choice. Which leads to our second irrational go-to.
We are great storytellers
Where Ariely sees us putting our capacious brain power to work in decision-making is — oops — after the fact. We love stories, and we’re most comfortable operating within a sensible narrative structure, so we retroactively find a place in our story for decisions we’ve made. “We’re creative, and we’re thoughtful, and we’re able to come up with wonderful reasons after the fact.” What prevents us from making better calls going forward is that it “hides from us the fact that those are not the real reasons.”
The upshot, according to Ariely, is that to improve the quality of our choices means stepping back from each choice architecture as it arises, and putting our big brains to work where they could really do some good. Multiply that by several billion people, and who knows what we could achieve?