When it comes down to it, I’m a very practical person. I could never take a philosophy class unless it was applied philosophy, or practical applications for philosophy. I certainly like discussing human behavior, but I want to know what to do about it. So perhaps I’m missing the point of philosophy. Oh well.
Tonight my book club discussed a series of lectures (given as TED talks) by psychologist Dan Ariely. One of Ariely’s investigations into behavioral economics involved looking at when people cheat or steal and why they think it’s ok sometimes. I find this fascinating. I am a serious rule follower. I get really irritated when people break the rules. And I know people who love to break rules, just because they can, so sometimes these people make me very uncomfortable.
But hearing Ariely’s examples of the seemingly harmless ways that people cheat or steal made me realize that I do these things too. I imagine everyone does something that’s not quite completely right or completely legal, but they figure it doesn’t hurt anyone so it’s ok. This morning I ran into Starbucks without putting money in the meter. Doesn’t matter, right. And I didn’t get a ticket. But it would have been reprehensible if I parked in a handicapped spot instead, right? Sometimes I check out a cd from the library and copy it onto my computer. Am I stealing money from the artist? Would I otherwise buy that cd? Maybe, but probably not. Usually I get things from the library that I’ve never heard of or don’t know well so I can try them out. I wouldn’t buy them if I didn’t know them. As often as not, after I check it out from the library I will then download more of that artist from iTunes, buy a cd as a gift, get tickets to a concert (where I will almost certainly buy a t-shirt). So ultimately my copying of the cd has resulted in much more revenue for the artist.
Ariely also discusses our irrational decision making, and how we don’t know ourselves or what we want as well as we think, and how we do things that don’t always make logical sense. I didn’t need him to tell me this. But I was interested in some of his experiments about how people’s choices changed when they are given additional options that seem slightly worse than the first option, so that influences their decision making. His results were fascinating, but I’m not sure what to do with them. Am I supposed to gain insight into my own behavior? Perhaps I can wait for the next time I am given a choice to make and try to analyze the options more carefully to make a more rational choice. What I really want to know is how to use this information in my work, in my parenting, and in my interactions with people. Some of my book club friends suggested doing that would be manipulating others and would be unethical. But is it always manipulating to give people the choices you want to offer? Or is manipulation necessarily bad?
So what I didn’t learn from Ariely, yet, but which makes me want to read his book (should I buy it or get it from the library? hmmm) is how to apply his studies into behavioral economics into my own life. But I did learn from his Irrationality Quotient quiz on his website that I am a mostly rational person (I scored 18) and he cleverly suggests that, as a result, I would be interested in particular chapters of his books. He’s probably right.