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‘We’re all in the same boat’: Dan Ariely studies behavior during the pandemic

<p>Dan Ariely is known for his TED talks and for founding the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke.</p>

Dan Ariely is known for his TED talks and for founding the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke.

Dan Ariely, renowned for his work in behavioral economics, has turned his attention to the coronavirus.

In a live webinar on Friday, Ariely, James B. Duke professor of psychology and behavioral economics and a founder of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, discussed the research he and his team are currently doing in Israel to answer behavioral questions related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While Ariely’s current research in Israel focuses on a broad range of issues, including combating an uptick in domestic violence and determining how best to help improve education systems facing changes because of COVID-19, he also spoke about the importance of assessing the current health crisis from a social science perspective. 

Coming from that social science background, Ariely has dived into research on how best to give coronavirus-related instructions to make sure people consistently follow them 

“It’s true that this is mostly about biology,” Ariely said. “But at the end of the day, we are people and people have to change behavior, and we have to take that into account in the models that we do.”

Ariely has adopted this perspective in the research he is conducting in Israel, where he has been stationed for the last few weeks. He emphasized the importance of being specific when giving directions by telling people what not to do as well as what to do. 

“If we say to people don’t leave home, that’s not going to be likely,” he said.

Ariely also used examples from psychology to explore the path to the current situation, citing people's flawed mental models of viruses and the theory behind small-probability events as causal factors for what many experts now believe to be a very delayed response to the crisis.

“Every time we experience something and don’t encounter a negative outcome, we get the wrong impression that it's safer than we thought it was,” Ariely said. 

This faulty logic may help explain why some people continue to engage in dangerous behaviors despite the global pandemic. 

Additionally, mental models of what viruses are capable of help explain our lack of action, he said. Because people do not perceive viruses to have high mortality rates, they wrongly conflate the coronavirus with other viruses they have experienced and think of it as less dangerous than it really is.

Ariely did point out a bright side of the crisis: clear evidence of our interconnectedness.

“We’re all in the same boat. We’re all in it together from different countries and within a country,” he said. “It’s important proof of how connected we are. If we don’t take care of everybody, we’re all going to pay the price for that.”

Alongside this research, Ariely’s team studied elements of educational environments, including class materials and  technology, that made learning better or worse during the pandemic, with the intent to identify “sweet spots.” They hope to release their findings soon.

After learning that domestic violence against both women and children is currently on the rise in the short term, Ariely’s team began work on two strategies to combat the problem. In one intervention, adults are made to recognize pressure and stressors in an effort to control their stress. In another, kids interact with a chatbot that is designed to detect verbal or physical violence.

Despite these successes, Ariely said he still feels that the virus poses obstacles to both his research and people’s wellbeing.

“The magnitude of the problem is tremendous and the barriers that are standing in our way are amazing. This is going to be a very tough period,” he said.

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