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Renown behavioral economist Dan Ariely explain why humans are biologically wired to make irrational decisions when money is involved. It’s a case of our evolutionary wiring interfering with the decisions we face in a modern world very different from the one our ancestors adapted to.
For instance, he explains how one of the easiest phenomena to create in a lab are valuation “bubbles”. Our vestigial herding instinct encourages us to imitate the actions of those around us (e.g. bidding for a particular asset), which then strengthens that signal for others (leading to even higher bidding), resulting in behavior not justified by the underlying fundamentals of reality (asset prices destined to crash).
In this podcast, Chris and Dan explore the human cognitive triggers that have led us to our third major bubble in 15 years (tech stocks, housing, credit) and why our natural programming often works against our best interests. In certain cases, like the banking sector, bad decision-making has become so ingrained in our institutions that Ariely thinks the “clean slate” approach is our best option should we have the courage to deploy it:
In very general brushstrokes I think that most bankers are in fact inherently decent people. We just put them in situation in which their conflict of interest is tremendously high and their social norms are incredibly dysfunctional.
When you hear bankers talking about their customers as Muppets, for example, they are forgetting who they are serving. They are hired by the rest of us to do a particular job; and they forget this. And then they have terrible conflicts of interest.
Imagine that I give you a world in which, if you can adopt a particular perspective on life, you could get $5 Million as a bonus. Wouldn’t you start believing that world? And then everybody around you is doing the same thing, and you have some justification for it by talking about financial market theory and so on. All of a sudden you could see how you could take good people and you could put them in this distorted way — in the same way that we talked about how global warming is probably the perfect storm for inaction — I think Wall Street is the perfect storm for allowing people to rationalize their own selfish motivations as if they are serving other people.
It is really, really terrible because we have not done anything to change the way we pay bankers. And we have not changed anything in terms of the code of ethics and morality.
On the consumer side, there is a tremendous loss of faith. We have been screwed and we know that we have been screwed. And we know that we are not trusting other people. And I think loss of trust is a central issue for this financial crisis and sadly nobody is trying to do anything about that. Human beings are incredibly forgiving, but nobody has really stood up and said, “I am really sorry. I made all of these terrible mistakes. I want this particular bank to start fresh and caring about people,” right? Nobody has admitted anything. So we as consumers feel that there are these other people on the other side who have behaved terribly, which is true, and that are smug about it, and that nothing is different. And why should we trust them? And we do not.
I don’t think it is a generational thing. I think there is a tremendous feeling of lack of control, agency, and helplessness. And the sad realization — this is one of the things that came out of financial crisis — is that it is much harder to start a new bank now. So young people are actually quite idealistic and I think people would have started new banks where they behaved very, very differently. But what happened is that it is really, really tough to open a new bank now. But I am still hopeful: I think that this anger and frustration just needs to be channeled in a better way.
I am not a religious person but the story from the Bible is that God made the people of Israel walk around the desert for 40 years until the old generation that worshipped the golden calf passed away. I do think that we need a new generation of bankers. I think you cannot take the old generation of bankers and rehabilitate them.
Recent history is not showing us that this is something we should hope for. But there is a real question of, How do we create a new generation of bankers that are going to think of themselves as the caretakers of society, rather than the rapists?
Click the play button below to listen to Chris’ interview with Dan Ariely (42m:54s):
Chris Martenson: Welcome to this Peak Prosperity podcast. I am your host, Chris Martenson. Traditionally economics assumes much. It assumes that resources from the natural world are a function of demand and capital. Perhaps most bizarrely, considering the evidence, it assumes that people are rational and make rational decisions based on cold logic and calculated self-interest. But are they really? And if not, what does it mean that the major core assumptions of the models that drive monetary and economic policy are irretrievably flawed? And beyond economics, speaking very widely here, what motivates people and even entire cultures to accept one set of beliefs while rejecting others even when cold hard facts would strongly encourage the adoption of new beliefs and associated behaviors?
Fortunately there is an entire new branch of inquiry that has been opened up that assumes nothing about how people make choices and decisions, and uses scientific inquiry and the resulting data to develop a view on what actually drives human behavior. And today, to help us explore these ideas, we have back on the program one of the leading researchers of behavioral economics. Dan Ariely is a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University, my alma mater, and is the founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. Dr. Ariely’s talks on TED have been watched nearly five million times. He is the author of Predictably Irrational, which I have recommended heartily before, and The Upside of Irrationality, both best sellers.
Dan publishes widely in leading scholarly journals in economics, psychology, and business. His work has been featured pretty much everywhere: New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Scientific American, you name it. Dan, I am really excited to have you back on the program today.
Dan Ariely: I will try to keep you excited throughout and not just in the beginning.
Chris Martenson: Excellent. Well, as a starting point for this conversation I would like to talk about bubbles, specifically the idea that once upon a time a financial bubble happened, at most, maybe once a generation because the painful memories literally had to die away before the mistakes could be repeated. But in the US we went from a stock bubble in the ’90s, a housing bubble in the 2000s, and today I think we might have something of a faith bubble, if I can call it that, in the ability of the Fed to get things right this time even though there is nothing in the historical data to support that view, quite the opposite in fact. So what is it in the human psyche that allows selective amnesia to arise?
Dan Ariely: So a couple of things are actually interesting. So first of all the creation of bubbles turns out to be one of the easiest things to do in a lab setting. So you put people in the lab and you kind of create an experiment in which they all trade some fictitious product and the most common behavior that you observe are bubbles. Because if you think about it the natural inclination is to see what other people are doing and to try and follow other people. In psychology this is what is called “social proof.” It is about our herding instinct. It is about the fact that you see lots of people waiting in the line to a restaurant and you think to yourself this must be a great restaurant; let me stand in line as well.
Chris Martenson: Yes.
Dan Ariely: So it is almost instinctual that we look at the behavior of others and infer something about the value of the different options. And then of course it keeps on and on and on until there is not enough power to sustain it and then there is drop. And then you see the opposite result, which is people get very depressed and frightened when things go down and they sell at the worst possible time. So bubbles, sadly, are just a part of human nature. And it is all about the ability to see what other people are doing, right? The moment we can see what other people are doing we succumb to bubbles. And in this world today visibility is just much better. If you think about the internet, you think about amount of information out there, if you think about the news—so the temptation for bubbles is just much, much higher. So that is on one side.
On the other side the question is: What causes this amnesia? And I don’t think—of course lack of memory is part of it, but I think the other part of it is that when we live in a particular reality, we come up with stories that explain this reality. And these stories for our own sanity are not stories about randomness and they are not stories about bubbles. They are stories about this time it is real value. When somebody comes to our face and tells us something, we have a very hard time disbelieving it. Our initial instinct is to believe in what they are saying. And we are experiencing the reality that we are experiencing. And we have a sense that this time everything is going to be different. We have a feeling that this time whatever we are experiencing is much more real.
So there is this disassociation between what we know about history and the intensity and realism of our current experience. And because of that we just do not think that those are relevant cases.
Chris Martenson: So this is a case of herding then, and this is normal human behavior. I assume the Federal Reserve must be aware of this sort of material or do you think—does traditional economics completely ignore—it just sounds like a feedback loop and one that is pretty well understood, I guess, at this point. Is that correct?
Dan Ariely: So behavior economists understand very much bubbles and we understand people’s belief about the world in all kinds of ways. By the way, one of the nicest experiments ever was about our need to find reason and logic and structure even in random things. So you show people patterns of clouds in the sky, right, and initially, immediately, somebody says “Oh this dog was chasing somebody here.” You show people shapes on computers and they immediately tell stories about it. You show people random fluctuation in the stock market and they immediately come up with a theory about what is really going on. We really have a very deep need to have a story that describes what it is that we are seeing.
And the stories that we like are stories about causal relationship. This is causing that. And like a lot of things in behavior economics, these things have good things and bad things. So think about how quickly we learn causal relationship. You turn a switch when you come to a room and you learn that it’s a causal relationship to the light coming up. So we are basically looking for those relationships everywhere around us. And the experiment I was referring to was an experiment in which they gave people a machine, a ball machine, that would basically they would press on all kinds of buttons and balls would come out at different speeds and different rates. And then they asked people to what extent have they figured out how to control the machine. What levels would get more balls out and less balls out and so on.
And people thought that they had quite good control aside from the fact that the ball machine was perfectly random. So we have a sense of that. And what kind of people do you think had the best understanding that in fact they did not have much control over the machine? These were depressed people. And the question that arised from this in psychology was whether depressed people are depressed because they understand that they do not have much control over the world, or is the lack of control causes them to be depressed? And we do not have an answer for that.
Chris Martenson: So we do not know cause or effect on that one?
Dan Ariely: No we do not. But if you go back and say, “Does the Fed understand all of these effects?” I do not think so. I do not think when they think about policy those are the things that are driving them. I think it is really very, very sad. But I think that when people think about the behavior of masses, even when people understand irrational behavior, they still go with the standard models way too frequently.
Chris Martenson: It is interesting this part about where the Fed is getting their decision from or even anybody in any policy position. I am thinking about your machine with the random balls coming out. I was really taken by a piece of work, a study in a book that came out, called The Origin of Wealth, by this guy Eric Beinhocker. And he very convincingly proved that the economy is a complex system. And because it is complex it inherently is unpredictable. And we cannot—all sorts of complex systems defy us, earthquake fault zones are complex systems. All we can do is sort of categorize what the risks are: If this fault has not given way, and it is supposed to give way, we might predict an earthquake would come sooner and it might be larger. But that is as close as we can get.
And so the critique he has of economics is that it is still based on the idea that it is a deterministic model: You pull lever A, you get result B. And so I can imagine the Fed, if they have flawed models and they are pulling on lever A and the balls come out randomly, sometimes unemployment does what it wants it to do. I can see them falling into the same trap as well, they are humans, right? So what do we do with this idea that if the world is essentially random in some important respects, what is it in your work that tells us how we might improve our ability to navigate in such a world?
Dan Ariely: Yes, so again you can think about these questions about the need for simple models, a little bit similar to the people who need to feel that they can predict the world. And I think economics in some sense, the reason that standard economics is so tempting is because it gives people the illusion that they understand the world, right? So here is a two-period, two-player model of how the world would react and you basically—it is an oversimplification, and you know it is an oversimplification, but you have a temptation to think of it as a model for the world because it gives you a sense that you understand the world.
And I think the challenge of really understanding stochastic, large scale, complex systems—it is not just about understanding them. It is also about being willing to give decision control to a model that we do not understand very well. And that is really the challenge. So imagine I gave you a big equation and I said this equation should predict how much money you should save for retirement, right? I mean, the question of how much money you should save for retirement is really, really very tough to figure out. Here is a model; we do not understand it exactly. It has been calibrated on lots of other people, and so on. Would you trust it, right? And it is very, very tough.
Again, in economic language, you see all these people on TV at the end of each day telling you what happened today in the stock market and telling you a story about why this is the rational thing to do. But of course they explain it to you backwards: What happened today. And we are just suckers for simple stories. And when the stories are not so simple it is very hard to believe them. And it is very hard to give them power over our decisions.
Chris Martenson: So let me talk about something that came up before that relates to that. You mentioned beliefs, this idea that we are all holding beliefs, and I know that I do. And when I do I have noticed something. My belief systems, they really are very good at adroitly selecting some data for inclusion, I will accept this piece of data I see but I will reject competing data that is unsupportive. This data selectivity, is this something that you see often and contest in the lab?
Dan Ariely: Yes, there is no question about it. We see it in the lab. We see it in life.
Chris Martenson: Yes.
Dan Ariely: It is really quite incredible. Now, there is a vicious cycle in which if you have a particular belief now, you can choose to listen to a news channel that would just give you the beliefs that you believe in, right? So, it would be one thing if we all listen to the same news show, all Americans with all particular opinions and then we had to rationalize our behavior and justify some decisions. But now the people who watch Fox News and the people who listen to NPR are very different people and they basically choose to get exposed only to their opinions, which actually makes the problem much, much higher.
For me this was the toughest, but more interesting case. Together with Mike Norton, we wrote a paper on trying to figure out what is the wealth inequality that Americans would like? So if you remember the philosopher John Rawls he basically had the very nice definition of a just society. And he said a just society is a society that if you knew everything about it you would be willing to enter it in a random place. And if you think about it is a very beautiful definition because it means if you are very rich you do not just think about your own state you think about all possible states. And if you are very poor you do not just think about where you are you think about all possible states.
So we asked tens of thousands of Americans to basically tell us what they think is the wealth distribution that they would be willing to join a society like this in a random place. And if you think about it the way we did it was, we asked people to imagine the top 20% of Americans, the next, the third, the fourth, the fifth bucket. And we said how much money—how much of the wealth do you want to be owned by each of these buckets? And that will create the Gini coefficient or the rate of inequality. And there were two main results that emerged. First of all, it turns out that Americans want a much more equitable society than what we have right now. But most interesting, there was no differences between Republicans and Democrats, almost no differences.
So for example, in one question we showed them a distribution of wealth that was slightly more equal than Sweden and a distribution of wealth based in the US, and 92% of Americans on average chose the Swedish distribution. But for Democrats it was 93%, for Republicans it was 91%. So, different but not that different. So we showed this result and we said basically, when you think about wealth and equality in abstract under the veil of ignorance, kind of Rawls’ definition, the reality is that all sides of politics seem to be very similar. We do not have that many differences. And we thought it is a great result basically showing that we are not as different as we think we are. And perhaps politicians are making us think we are more different than what we really are.
The amount of hate mail we got over this [laughter] piece of research was amazing. What happened was, I mean, there is lots of flavors of it. But the one that was the most interesting was a guy who told me that we have not calculated wealth correctly because the wealthy people, their wealth could be taken away by the government at any moment to pay for more social programs. So he basically said that we have not taken the liability of the wealthy people correctly into our model. And I saw lots of those things where people basically were trying very hard—rather than focusing on the result that we are actually much more similar than we think, people were just looking for all kinds of ways to discount the results. And I am perfectly happy with discounting the results. But the thing I was trying to tell these people, I said, even if we overestimated or underestimated by three times, by a factor of four, wouldn’t the results still suggest that we have a more inequitable society than what we want? And wouldn’t we still have the result that we are much more similar to each other than we think?
But I have not been able to convince them. So it was a very interesting, kind of personal case, about the power of desire to see reality in a certain way.
Chris Martenson: Well, it is fascinating because what you are describing is that there is a cultural narrative that we have, something about how we are a free and fair and just society and that when you ask people about that narrative in the abstract they come up with a set of results that are out of comportment with the actual reality of the world they live in. Is that not the definition of cognitive dissonance?
Dan Ariely: So, first of all, when we asked this question, of course the issue is—when we asked the question in the abstract, the question is: “Which answer is correct?” And I actually like the Rawls version of it because—think about tasting wine. When you taste wine you are influenced by the price, you are influenced by the label, you are influenced by your preconceived notions. But when you are doing the Rawls constraint and you say, what society would I like to join, in principle? All of a sudden you are not married to your own position. You are not thinking about your own particular issue and how much you want to pay taxes and do not want to pay taxes. So I think that the correct version is the abstract Rawls version. I think that when we vote on politics we should vote thinking about abstract, long-term ideas rather than what will happen next year.
Now in terms of cognitive dissonance, there are lots of versions of what people refer to as “cognitive dissonance.” But the general approach is a difference between a behavior and a belief. So Festinger’s original experiments—he would get people to the lab and he would get them to do something really boring for a long time. And some people he paid a lot and some people he paid very little. And then he asked them to recommend how much they enjoyed the task and would they recommend it to a friend and so on. Now the people who worked on this task and got paid a lot had no dissonance. They basically said, “This was a boring task. I got paid a lot, okay that is fine.” The people who did not get paid a lot, they got paid a dollar, they had a dissonance. They basically said, “Oh, I worked on this for a long time, I got paid very little, how does this work?”
And the way they resolved that, they could not have said to themselves, “Oh it must mean that I am stingy or something else.” They basically said, “It must been that I actually enjoyed that task more,” and then they recommended it more to others. So the idea is that when behavior is one way and our belief is another way, it is very hard to change our behavior. We remember what we did, so we change our belief to coincide with that. That is why, for example, it is really good to play hard to get in romantic adventures. Because somebody would say, “Oh I worked so hard to get this person. Why did I do that? It must mean I really love them.” Or another romantic example is why big weddings are actually useful. You could say to yourself, “Why did I spend so much money on this wedding? It must mean that I really love this person.”
So cognitive dissonance, this idea that we can get people to act and once we get them to act in a certain way we can get them to adjust their beliefs to fit with that, is a very important, powerful notion.
Chris Martenson: So I want to get back to that in just a minute because that is exactly where I wanted to go with this conversation. But right before then there is a step and it is this—and this is one of the most burning questions we have on our site, and it goes like this: Suppose that someone had some really important information. It has been vetted. It is data. It is as good as they can get. And they want to share this with friends, families, colleagues, maybe even strangers. But that information runs counter to the narrative or the belief structure that that person is holding individually or it runs counter to maybe the collective narrative. What can behavioral economics tell us about how to go about that process of sharing, knowing that the subtext of this is people find this to be an incredibly frustrating position to be in?
Dan Ariely: So this is really about my life as a teacher, right. [laughter] That is what I do all the time. And I will tell you what I do is, I start by showing people visual illusions. And visual illusions are something that people just get wrong, it is easy to show people that they are getting wrong this visual illusion. It is not threatening. It is clear that everybody is doing it and it just clear that it is something very basic about being human. So I start with that as a starting point and I basically said, “Let us agree that there are some things that we are all going to be wrong about. It is not about being smart. It is not about knowing anything. This is just how we function.” So that is kind of step one, and I try to get people prepared for that.
And then as step two, I do not talk to people about themselves because that would immediately increase their defense system, right?
Chris Martenson: Yes.
Dan Ariely: So talking about other people is always good. I have an amazing mother-in-law but if I did not I think that would be a good category to try. But you basically try to tell about other people. And another thing that I try and do is, I do not try to say that anything is definitive—which is always the case, right? We just have this big data. And I say, “Look, this is what we have right now; it is truly kind of an amazing data. And rather than trying to push it down, let us think, what if this was correct, what would it tell us?” So that is when they kind of – okay, so let us think about what does that mean, which changes people’s perspective, hopefully, from attacking to thinking about the implications. And then at the end, I tell people, “Look, if you saw a piece of data that contradicts your set of beliefs, I do not think you should abandon your set of beliefs immediately, right? No data should be used to change you completely.”
“But you should take it into account to some degree,” right? This is what we call “Bayesian Updating.” Think about it, right? So here is what you thought before, here is what you know now; what should you potentially do differently? And then finally I encourage people to do experiments. Because I think that once people understand data with their own hands, with their own clients, with their own workplace and so on, their belief changes quite dramatically. So in my case here is an effect, let us say it is the context effect where you add another very expensive item to a list and all of a sudden people buy something differently. I said, “Try it on your colleagues, try it on your customers, see what happens.” And the first time people do an experiment and see the results for themselves, it is a very different process.
Chris Martenson: So this is kind of a go-gently approach, right? So you start out with a visual thing, “Hey look, we are all subject to having—being human, which means we can interpret things in a variety of ways, some of which may be correct or not.” And then secondarily saying, “If this were the case, then what might the implication of this actually be?” Which sort of abstracts it a little bit, gets people to think about it. But fundamentally we are talking about belief structures and positions people might hold as defended fortifications that you are saying it would be better to be a sort of, come in gently, more like a spy than a battalion.
Dan Ariely: Yes and I think it is a combination of going gently and also trying to make it their own. So the moment that people kind of think about the data as their own, say, “Okay, here is a hypothesis, test it out,” those things are very hard to do about macroeconomics questions, right? Like levels of inequality and so on. But in my little world this is actually possible and relatively easy to do. So I think that it is a combination of go gently, try it for yourself, consider the possibility, and then kind of try to own that.
Chris Martenson: Yes. You really shifted my views a number of years ago when I was thinking about climate change and that climate change is a difficult motivating topic because it lacks some features. It lacks a face, or worse, the face that we might associate with it is staring at us in the mirror. It is abstract. It is distant. It is not near and immediate. That there are a variety of things around that story that would require transforming it out of just the strict statistical data into a more human accessible compelling sort of an argument. And what I am wondering then is to get back to this idea is, what are the best ways of motivating people towards taking new actions? That is the work I care about, but marketers would care about it the same or doctors. We could be talking about—we want to try and motivate somebody towards maybe weight loss or saving more money for retirement, reducing excessive consumption, whatever that new action is. What does behavioral economics tell us about the best ways of motivating people to new actions?
Dan Ariely: So a couple of things. First of all what you said about global warming is absolutely the case. In fact if you kind of search the whole globe for the one problem that would maximize human apathy you would come up with global warming, right? It is, as you said, it is long in the future, it will happen to other people first, we do not see it progressing, it does not have a face. And anything we would do is a drop in the bucket, right. And you could contrast it with, what happens when one guy gets on one plane with a small bomb in his shoe, right? It is clearly terrible, but since then we all take our shoes off every time we go on a flight, right? Clearly taking an action. Global warming, if you believe the science, is a much bigger risk than one person going on the plane with a small bomb in his shoe, but we do not react to it. It does not have the same emotional reaction.
And the issue there really is that, knowing, even the people who are environmentalists, right, so people who are environmentalists are trying to convince the non-environmentalists. But even the people who are environmentalists are not behaving that well. So the issue really is, and this is a deep problem, is that we think that we are motivated by goals and by high order aspirations, and so on. The reality is that we are not. And one of the saddest results I think ever in social science is a recent paper by John Lynch and his colleagues. And in this paper they looked at all the literature of financial education, financial literacy and tried to estimate how much can we hope that financial literacy would help people do better. So how much is knowing something about financial literacy can help people achieve better outcomes?
And the result is that the best we can hope for is an improvement of about 6%. And even that is lower for people from lower economic status, and it goes down over time. So in the history of mankind we have tried lots and lots of things. We have not yet been able to show any success on teaching about financial literacy and have that impact people. And the reason is actually quite easy to understand when you think about it. So here is a situation: You need to think about something, you need to learn about it, and then every time you walk in the street you have to think about that. Every time you buy coffee, every time you go to pay rent, every time you go to do something, you have to think about that piece of knowledge. Really, really hard to do, right? I mean, everybody knows that texting and driving is dangerous and stupid. Does it change our daily behavior? Not so much. You find lots of cases in which this general knowledge just does not penetrate your daily behavior.
So the notion from behavioral economics kind of boils down to this notion of choice architecture, which is the idea that our decisions are partly a function of what we know, they are partly a function of our preferences, but to a large degree they are a function of the environment in which we are in. If I came to your office every morning and layered your desk with donuts, fresh donuts, what are the odds that at the end of the year you would not weigh more? Right, very, very low. Now, no matter what you know about donuts and health and so on, this temptation every morning would just be too much. Now I am not saying you will eat all of them but you will eat enough to make your life worse off. So the question that we want to ask is, “What kind of world do we want to create?” Right? If you think that people are an outcome of the world that they are being given, the question is, “What world do we create?”
And the world right now is all about tempting us to do things that are in the world’s short interest and not in our long term interest. So Dunkin’ Donuts, what are they trying to optimize? They want you to buy another donut today. It is not about your health in thirty years from now. What is Facebook trying to optimize? For you to check Facebook one more time today, not your productivity thirty years from now. What are banks trying to get you to do? Use your credit card a couple of more times today. If you think about it, we are in a world where all of the other players are determining our environment, and all of the other players want us to do something now that is good for them. And, what are the forces that are focusing on long term? You would hope it would be the government, but with elections every two years that is very hard to imagine. You would hope it would be your significant other and your family members, and maybe that is the case, maybe religion to some degree, if we had preventative health that might be it as well.
But really our environment is one that just wants to take, take, take from us all the time and we have to fight with this ongoing temptation in a very, very tough way.
Chris Martenson: Well, this idea of choice architecture then, one of the more vexing aspects of our current environment for a lot of people at my site and elsewhere obviously is the choice architecture that our leaders both monetary and fiscal have set up around this whole banking disaster. So what you are talking about, if you put those donuts on my desk top, that is my personal hazard. But this idea of moral hazard that exists when bad decisions get bailed out, when individual losses at the big banks get spread across a larger society, that creates an environment that is very different for the bankers than for everybody else—I will put myself in the “everybody else” bucket. I look at that and I get demotivated by it because I say, “These are people, they behaved badly, they did not suffer any consequences for their actions. In fact I am the one who is going to shoulder this at some point either now or in the future with a dilution of money. And there seems to be no corrective behavior.”
The environment—people respond very quickly to incentives, don’t they? And if they do, how do you read everything that has transpired in, sort of, the macro lack of—in the macro environment — lack of, what shall I call it, accountability or any sort of responses?
Dan Ariely: So, in very general brushstrokes I think that most bankers are in fact inherently decent people. We just put them in situation in which their conflict of interest is tremendously high and their social norms are incredibly dysfunctional, right? When you hear bankers talking about their customers as Muppets, for example.
Chris Martenson: Right.
Dan Ariely: So, they forget who they are serving, right? That they are basically—they are hired by the rest of us to do a particular job. And so they forget this. And then they have terrible conflicts of interest. So, I wrote a lot about conflicts of interest. It is a topic that I worry a lot about. But imagine again this rationalization story that we talked about throughout this discussion. Imagine that I give you a world in which if you can adopt a particular perspective on life you could get $5 Million as a bonus. Wouldn’t you start believing that world? And then everybody around you is doing the same thing and you have some justification for it by talking about the financial market theory and so on. All of a sudden you could see how you could take good people and you could put them in this distorted way, in the same way that we talked about how global warming is probably the perfect storm for inaction, I think Wall Street is the perfect storm for allowing people to rationalize their own selfish motivations as if they are serving other people.
And so I think that is terrible on that side and it is really, really terrible because we have not done anything to change the way we pay bankers. And we have not changed anything in terms of the code of ethics and morality. On the consumer side I think the issue that you describe is absolutely correct. I think there is a tremendous loss of faith. So we have been screwed and we know that we have been screwed. And we know that we are not trusting other people. And I think loss of trust is a central issue for this financial crisis and sadly nobody is trying to do anything about that. Human beings are incredibly forgiving, but nobody has really stood up and said, “I am really sorry. I made all of these terrible mistakes. I want this particular bank to start fresh and caring about people,” right? Nobody has admitted anything. So we as consumers feel that there are these other people on the other side who have behaved terribly, which is true, and that are smug about it, and that nothing is different. And why should we trust them? And we do not.
And it has been really sad because lots of people have basically taken their money out of the market. They are putting it aside. And now they will never be able to retire. And I saw some report on this yesterday that shows that young people do not want to put money in the stock market.
Chris Martenson: Well, I talk with a lot of young people, millennials and whatnot, and the conversation for those who are really paying attention, it comes down to this idea that occupy Wall Street was sort of a signature moment for some of them. And they felt the way that the system responded to them was to take relatively peaceful, in fact entirely peaceful people in most respects, and surround them with the arms of the state. I mean, I was at Zuccotti Park and it was absolutely surrounded with the latest DHS hardware. There was obvious weird cameras going on all over the place. There were riot police literally ringing the entire place. So their sense of agency, that sense of control that you found lacking in the global warming story, I think the young people feel that loss of—they feel they do not have a voice and they do not have a way of remedying that lack of voice.
And so that sense of—that is maybe the opposite of conflict of interest or related topic is that sense of, How do we feel that we have a sense of control or a narrative that has us as part of the storyline? That is something, when I talk with young people, they are not just opting out of the stock market. Many of them are opting out of much of what they see around them. And maybe that is a typical generational thing to happen. I do not know.
Dan Ariely: I do not think it is a generational thing. I think there is a tremendous feeling of lack of control, agency, and helplessness. And the sad realization, and this is one of the things that came out of financial crisis, is that it is much harder to start a new bank now. So young people are actually quite idealistic and I think people would have started new banks where they behaved very, very differently. But what happened is that it is really, really tough to open now a new bank. So that is making it less likely. But I am still hopeful. I think that this anger and frustration just need to be channeled in a better way. And I think that eventually there will be some—I am not a religious person but the story from the Bible is that God made the people of Israel walk around the desert for 40 years until the old generation that worshipped the golden calf passed away. I do think that we need a new generation of bankers. I think you cannot take the old generation of bankers and rehabilitate them.
Recent history is not showing us that this is something we should hope for. But there is a real question of,How do we create a new generation of bankers that are going to be—think of themselves as the caretakers of society rather than the rapists.
Chris Martenson: Yes. And it is that idea of bringing that idealism and having that coalesce into a vision that people can believe in. You have seen the studies. Most—a large majority of people, I think 68% last study I saw, or poll, said that the country is on the wrong track. And so, to have a sense of what the right track is you need a leadership that is willing to articulate what is clearly a new and different vision. Not just the bankers are lacking that. It seems to be lacking at a number of levels. But I think it is out of that vacuum that, obviously, that people will step into those roles and start to articulate a vision. And so maybe that is the interregnum we are in is, we are kind of between visions. We have the ’50s and ’60s that sort of morphed into ’80s and ’90s and now we are sort of wondering what comes next, and by my judgment I do not see a good articulation of that yet.
So with that, I really want to thank you for your time and most importantly your work. I think your work is just fantastic. It has changed how I think about the world. And it is just fantastic. So Dan, how can people follow your work more closely if they are inspired?
Dan Ariely: So, I have a website. It is DanAriely.com. D-A-N-A-R-I-E-L-Y. And actually, in the middle of March, we are starting a free online course on behavioral economics.
Chris Martenson: Great!
Dan Ariely: This would be on the website called Coursera, coursera.org. And our website is called A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior. I will also post information on my website. But it is going to be a time consuming class. So, every week there will be video lectures and discussion groups and some readings. But if people want to, kind of, delve a bit more seriously about behavior economics that is, I think, one good way to do it.
Chris Martenson: Oh that will be fantastic. I am sure we will have people signing up for that. We will put links right below this podcast so people can follow all of that nice and easily. And I am looking forward to it. So again Dan, thank you so much for your time.
Dan Ariely: My pleasure, and nice talking to you again and looking forward to next time.
Chris Martenson: Fantastic.