Christopher X J. Jensen
Associate Professor, Pratt Institute

Dan Ariely’s “Arming the Donkeys” podcast

Posted 15 Feb 2016 / 0

2016-02-15aToday I have had to work on a really tedious, mindless task for hours on end, so I have tried to take advantage of this time by catching up on some podcasts. I am a big fan of Dan Ariely, both of his science and his efforts to make that science accessible to the public, so I was excited to discover that he had a little podcast entitled Arming the Donkeys. Featuring short interviews with researchers (most of whom all appear to share Ariely’s Duke home campus), Arming the Donkeys provides some nice little pictures of work done in the areas of human decision-making, rationality versus irrationality, and human morality. None of these get super far into the subject matter, and each is based solely on the conversation between Ariely and his guest, but Ariely’s funny and broad-minded enquiries squeeze the most out of this simple format. So far I listened to the episode entitled The Evolution of CooperationCan You Be Too Good?, and Chimps and Choices.

My favorite of the three featured an interview with a philosopher (Jesse Summers) rather than a scientist. Summers and Ariely discuss “scrupulousity“, a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder that causes a small minority of people to think constantly about the morality of their actions. Interestingly, this is a very self-directed condition, as those suffering from scrupulosity do not obsess about the morality of the actions of others. Instead, they mostly seem focused on assuaging their own anxiety about transgressing moral boundaries, even when the resulting behavior is actually not all that pro-social. The way that scrupulosity plays out as a form of obsessive-compulsive disorder suggests that we all have some component of our brains that is constantly considering whether we have run afoul of some sort of social norm; folks with this disorder — like other OCD sufferers — just have a pathologically over-active impulse to consider such potential transgressions. The somewhat selfish (or at least self-directed) nature of this disorder provides some clues as to the evolution of our moral instincts: apparently, it has been adaptive for a long time for us to monitor our own behaviors in relation to social norms, presumably because direct punishment or other sanctions were a constant social threat faced by our ancestors.

The other two episodes focused on the behaviors of bonobos and chimps. Just about every form of media has to have a section on The Evolution of Cooperation and Ariely’s was about specific experiments performed by Jingzhi Tan. Tan showed that bonobos were willing to provide help to an unknown partner despite having to expend serious effort (climbing high up a complex structure) to provide that help. In fact, bonobos are more likely to help another bonobo they don’t know than to help a bonobo who is familiar. Tan suggested that this may have evolved due to bonobo’s unique social dispersal and hierarchy structures: because females are both the dispersing sex and occupy the top of bonobo group dominance hierarchies, it may have been evolutionary advantageous to aim altruism at newcomers. In this regard bonobos are even more generous to strangers than humans. This all sounds interesting and feasible, but I always wonder whether captive animals who are well-fed and pretty bored perceive “costs” in any meaningful way. Sure, these helper bonobos climbed up a complex structure to release food for their partner… but perhaps they perceived and experienced no real cost in doing so.

The Chimps and Choices episode made me wonder — not for the first time — about the morality of a lot of advertising. Using an ingenious but simple experimental design, Chris Krupenye showed that both chimps and bonobos prefer a reward when the best- rather than worst-case scenario sits as a proxy for making a particular choice. Participant members of the Pan genus could choose between peanuts and fruit in a scheme that had previously been shown to be a 50-50 decision toss-up. What was varied between experiments was how each choice was represented: whereas the actual number of peanuts to be earned was fixed, the fruit pay-off was probabilistic. On average choosing fruit netted 1.5 pieces, but 50% of the time that payoff was one piece and 50% of the time that payoff was two pieces. While the chimps and bonobos had all previously experienced this probabilistic nature of fruit payoff, the choice in this experiment was represented in one of two ways: as the best-case scenario of two pieces of fruit or as the worst-case scenario of one piece of fruit. As it turned out, how the choice was framed affected their choices, with two pieces of fruit generating more preference for fruit over peanuts. Like us, the chimps and bonobos seem to make decisions based not only on what we understand of the available choices but also how those choices are framed. The study made me think about some of the ethical dimensions of advertising that tries to capitalize on this framing bias: in particular, lottery ads that ask their audience to imagine what they will do with their winnings (a particularly unlikely best-case scenario).

Image of Dan Ariely courtesy of Thatcher Hullerman Cook via Wikimedia Commons
A Minor Post, Altruism, Behavior, Cognitive Bias, Communication, Ethics, Human Uniqueness, Partner Choice, Psychological Adaptation, Psychology, Public Outreach, Radio & Podcasts, Reciprocity, Social Norms

Leave a Reply