Dan Ariely
Sarina Finkelstein (photo illustration); Stephen Voss/Redux

Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely Is Addicted to Kickstarter

Dec 09, 2015

From his first book Predictably Irrational to his latest one Irrationally Yours (a collection drawn from his Wall Street Journal advice column), Duke professor Dan Ariely has regularly translated academic behavioral economics research to the mainstream. A Kickstarter campaign for a documentary drawing on his work, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies, raised $137,000, and another to fund an irrationality card game raised $283,000. Most recently, Duke and MetLife announced the CommonCents Lab, where he’ll play a lead role exploring new ways to help Americans to improve their money habits.

Kickstarter seems like an amazing context for considering behavior and money. Did you learn anything from using it?

The two campaigns were very different. Producing a documentary is very, very expensive, and we didn’t think the Kickstarter campaign would have a chance to cover all of it. What we wanted was to kind of gauge general interest — get participation, and get people interested in the movie, to talk about it.

What’s so interesting to me is that the same people who would probably download movies illegally are willing to contribute to them.

Why is that? I think it’s because when it hasn’t been created yet, you understand your contribution. Even if the campaign has reached the goal, you’re saying to yourself, “I’m helping them make a better movie.” But if it’s been created — even if the movie makers took out a loan to do it – now you say: “They’ve made it already, my contribution isn’t changing anything. Nobody is suffering if I take it.”

How was the card campaign different?

We felt, look, we want these cards, even for ourselves. The fixed cost of doing it isn’t too bad. But we don’t really know how to do this. So can we involve people in the design process?

It was fantastic. We got a lot of backers who really love card games, and they asked us all kinds of questions. They said: Trivia games, once you know the answers, become less interesting. So now, even if you know the answer, we added another challenge: How do you do something good in the world once you know it? Other players vote on your answer. That’s a wonderful idea that one of the backers came up with.

Have you contributed to Kickstarter campaigns?

Oh yeah. A few before — and then a lot after we started. In fact, my secretary told me I need an intervention. The interesting thing is when they promise specific things, and they’re late by a year or so. (Chuckles.)

What’s your reaction to that?

I just remember the planning fallacy [roughly: a core behavioral economics finding that people tend to underestimate the time and difficulty involved in completing any task]. It’s so interesting to read the progress reports – it’s really clear they were shocked by all kinds of obstacles. I guess I’m in the same category with the cards: We have backers in Europe and South Asia, which creates challenges we didn’t anticipate.

That’s a very rational response. Do you have any lingering irrational money habits?

Of course. For example, I travel a lot. I was in Europe last week, and I know I’ll be back in a few months. So if I have Euros left, it’s not like I’ll never have anything to do with them. But I always end up buying things that I wouldn’t have bought in the duty free shop.

To “use up” your Euros?

Right, it feels like the money belongs to this other country. I also buy too many gadgets. I get enamored with the creativity of technology. I enjoy them for a little bit and then – often I say, “Oh, not such a great deal.” But I don’t seem to be learning.

In our research on online dating, we found people would build up this great anticipation for the person they’re meeting – because in their mind, the person is so wonderful. And they’re disappointed, time after time after time.

Maybe like those Kickstarter backers who get upset when a project takes longer than expect?

People don’t always seem to learn from disappointment. And sometimes, I’m doing the same thing.

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