Dan Ariely on One of the Hardest Problems in Social Science

Despite our intentions, why do we so often fail to act in our own best interest? Why do we promise to skip the chocolate cake, only to find ourselves drooling our way into temptation when the dessert tray rolls around? Why do we overvalue things that we’ve worked to put together? What are the forces that influence our behavior?

Dan Ariely, James B. Duke Professor of Psychology & Behavioral Economics at Duke University, is dedicated to answering these questions and others in order to help people live more sensible -if not rational– lives. His interests span a wide range of behaviors, and his sometimes unusual experiments are consistently interesting, amusing and informative, demonstrating profound ideas that fly in the face of common wisdom.

In addition to appointments at the Fuqua School of Business, the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, the Department of Economics, and the School of Medicine at Duke University, Dan is also a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, and the author of the New York Times bestsellers Predictably Irrational, The Upside of Irrationality, and The Honest Truth About Dishonesty.

So Dan, in 2010 a dozen “big thinkers” shared their thoughts on the hardest problems in social science at a Harvard Symposium. We still think it’s really weird you weren’t invited (or didn’t it fit your schedule?), but we do like the scope of the symposium.

A problem that didn’t get discussed at the Symposium but in our opinion is crucial in social science and we would really want your opinion on:

Why is it that socks always get lost in the laundry?

Why do socks get lost in the laundry? That’s a deep and important question and I actually looked at it. It turns out that one of the things that seems to be at work, some of them mysterious, but one of the things that is important here is that people overcount missing socks.

So here is what happens, you have many socks, you see one of them and you don’t know where it’s partner is and you say to yourself “Ah this sock is being lost”. And later one you see the other sock, but you don’t remember this is the other sock to the first sock and you say again “Where is it’s partner?”. So it turns out that people don’t remember which socks they think got lost, they overcount those things.

So this is not to say that there is not a real mystery behind the missing socks. But at least some of it is due to bad memory have and overcounting missing socks.

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Originally published at www.sciencerockstars.com.