Dan Ariely discusses self-control in Groningen

By Anna Portella


How many of you have exercised less than desired during the last month? The world is very good at tempting us and we are very good at failing. Or do you think that Dunkin Donut’s goal is to make you a healthy person in 30 years? Self-control, then, “is a huge problem,” as Dan Ariely, one of the most influential behavioral economist of the moment, says. 

On his way from Kenya to Rotterdam, Ariely, a professor of Psychology and Behavioural Economics at Duke University, stopped by Groningen’s Aletta Jacobs Hall to give a conference on “The problem of self-control”, on November 6.

Self-control “is a problem of now versus later,” Ariely explained. “What is tempting us now is not good for us in the long term,” he added, “it is the modern version of Adam and Eve.” The problem is that more often than desired we prefer these short-term immediate pleasures.

There are reasons for optimism, though. The economist proposed two ways of fighting temptations. The first one is called Reward Substitution, which is ideal to defeat procrastination.

Humans are not designed to think about the future. That is why we constantly fail at taking on unmotivating actions, although we know they would grant us a good reward in the long term. The trick, then, consists of substituting delayed rewards for immediate ones or for a punishment.

He asked the audience to propose policies to counter global warming, which is an issue that “has all elements for human apathy: long term future, we don’t see in the present people suffering,” etc., he explained as the public laughed.

Another self-control booster is the Ulysses Contract. He challenged the public to “imagine you go to a restaurant and you vowed to be on a diet.” To avoid chocolate dessert’s temptations, one solution would be paying a dollar to the waiter for not showing you the dessert tray. In other words, by doing something in the present we can eliminate temptations from our path.

Dan Ariely’s conference was one in a series of events to celebrate the Studium Generale Groningen’s 70th anniversary.

This afternoon the economist participates in a seminar at the Rotterdam School of Management, which tomorrow will award him with an honorary doctorate at the Erasmus University Rotterdam’s 103rd anniversary.

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