Dan Ariely Highlights the Science of Self Control at Café Event

February 19, 2013

by Akeem Favor 

On February 6, 2013, FABBS Foundation hosted its ninth science café, “The Science of Self Control and How We Can Use It to Our Advantage,” in the Yale Club of New York City.

The featured speaker for the event was Dr. Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University and author of New York Times bestsellers Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality

Ariely began his talk with an auction for a hundred dollar bill. The rules were simple: bidders could only go up on a bid ten dollars at a time, there could be no collusion between bidders, and the second-largest bidder was required to pay his or her last bid even though the bidder would receive nothing in return. 

Bidding quickly escalated until audience participation began to taper off near fifty dollars. As the bid ever so slowly crept up, participants began to realize that they would either end up paying more than the bill was worth, or worse still, pay a large sum of money for nothing at all.

What originally seemed like a good deal in the short-term was revealed to be a bad one in the long-term. In only a few short moments, Ariely focused in on the main topic of the night: why do we engage in such activities and how can we control ourselves? 

The answer is that we are apt to be swayed by short-term temptation without consideration or appreciation for long-term benefits or disadvantages. To fight that temptation we must make use of self-control, which in turn, will limit the influence that temptation has upon us.

“In the present, we get tempted and misbehave time after time,” said Ariely.

“We are really getting fantastic in developing things that tempt us. But this temptation is really very counterproductive to our long-term success and well-being and the quest is how we are going to fight it; how we are going to fight it as individuals, as companies, and government.” 

Audience members were armed with an arsenal of methods to effectively fight temptation and examples of how these methods can be, and have been, incorporated into everyday life. 

The first weapon people have at their disposal is reward-substitution. Using reward substitution an individual can substitute short-term rewards for long-term ones. The principle works on the belief that people value short-term rewards more, in comparison to long-term rewards. 

Another method to maintain self-control is to make use of the Ulysses contract, a freely-made decision that binds someone to an action further down the road.

Members of the audience offered their own examples of how they make use of the Ulysses contract in their own lives. One example that many seemed to understand well was the act of pre-paying for training at the gym.

“I think that’s an excellent example,” Ariely stated. 

”You’re saying my future self would not want to go. My future self would want to cancel. But if I get into a system in which I can’t cancel, my future self would go.” 

In another interactive exploration with the audience into why we think and act the way we do, Ariely posed this question to the audience: would you rather be two minutes late for a flight or two hours?

Most audience members preferred the latter and chose to miss their flight by two hours. As Ariely explained, the reasoning behind the decision was simple. 

“Happiness is driven not by where we are, but where we could be,” said Ariely. “Since you can imagine the alternate reality, it seems more real."

If one is late for a flight by two minutes, that individual can envision the alternative to their current situation and is more upset than the individual who has difficulty imagining the alternative with a two hour time difference. 

Citing an example of how the envisioning of an alternative future can play a part in the level of happiness we currently feel, Ariely discussed a study that measured the smiles of medal-winning Olympic athletes soon after being presented with their medals.

The study found that those athletes who were awarded bronze medals were happier than those who received silver. Ariely stated that this was because winners of the silver medal can see themselves as having obtained the gold and are displeased by the better future that they missed. In comparison, winners of the bronze are able to imagine the future in which they do not place at all and are thus happier in their current situation. 

The event ended with an enlightening Q&A session during which the speaker elaborated on the ideas presented during his presentation and provided background on the field of behavioral economics. Worth Publishers sponsored the event in collaboration with FABBS Foundation and was represented during the event by Kevin Feyen.

“The more time I spend with FABBS Foundation, the clearer its importance becomes to me,” said Feyen.

The mission of FABBS Foundation is to advance the public’s understanding of the sciences of mind, brain, and behavior with the belief that the research of these sciences can contribute to the well-being of individuals and society. 

With the event drawing in over a hundred and thirty people from all walks of life including professors, teachers, students, financial planners, government employees, and other members of the general public, FABBS Foundation is one step closer to its goal.

Learn more about this event »