CIO as a ‘decision architect’ – one psychologist’s view

ORLANDO — You’re guilty and Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioural economics at Duke University, knows it.

You’re guilty of cheating on your diet. You’re guilty of not exercising enough. You’re guilty of not washing your hands every time you leave the washroom. You’re guilty of texting while driving.

We all know this is true. But do we know why?

Dan Ariely - speaker
Author Dan Ariely says people tend towards the path of least resistance. Photo courtesy of Gartner.

“We never get to live in the future,” Ariely says. “We live in the present and in the present we are tempted time after time after time… when our phone vibrates we become different people.”

Ariely’s Sunday evening keynote at Gartner Symposium ended day one of this week long conference sees the consultant firm bring together an international crowd of CIOs with a mix of other senior-level IT workers and line-of-business professionals. If you had to sum up his lighthearted, yet poignant keynote in one sentence, it might be  that CIOs should be aware that people, in general, are lazy and irrational.

Or put another way by Ariely, CIOs should think of themselves as “choice architects.” In this role, they ponder what type of environment they are designing for their employees and for their customers. Given that people tend towards the path of least resistance, is the design put in place helping them accomplish a productive goal?

Ariely outlined his point with three different anecdotes involving experiments that he’s run.

The right rewards aren’t obvious

One such experiment happened to be at Intel Corp., which was exploring ways to motivate its manufacturing staff. The way the shifts worked in the factory was that workers would be on the job for four long days in a row, then off for four days straight. To encourage workers on their first day back after the break, Intel rewarded them with an additional $30 if they made a certain threshold of chips.

When Ariely and his research team came in, they wondered if this was effective at motivating workers. To find out, they set up four different groups of workers: those who got paid the $30 for hitting the quota, those who got nothing, a group that received pizza vouchers, and a group that got a nice text message from the boss.

Ariely’s results showed the control group (nothing) was the least amount of motivation boost, but the money was the second worst. Workers were more motivated by pizza or a compliment from the boss. Even more surprising, the workers who got more money showed a decline in performance on the next day. The other groups had less of a drop-off.

“Money doesn’t increase our motivation, it decreases it,” he says. “It would take all your good will that you feel towards another human being and eliminate it. Now you just work for money.”

People hate doing anything

After a company that sent prescription drugs to paying customers read one of Ariely’s earlier books, its executives thought they could achieve a corporate goal by offering a free incentive. The problem the company wanted to solve is that its customers were mostly using brand-name drugs instead of cheaper no-name alternatives. Consumers could save money by switching, because the company would also be saving money from buying the no-name drugs. But when the company mailed its customers offering to give them a free co-pay on non-branded drugs, hardly anyone made the switch.


“It’s possible that people hate generic medication,” Ariely says. “It’s also possible that people hate doing anything.”

Because an action was required to move to generic, people just didn’t bother doing it. So with Ariely’s help the company took a new approach: customers had to choose between either getting branded drugs at a higher price or generic drugs at a lower price. If they didn’t’ respond, they’d get no drugs at all.

Almost everyone mailed back, asking for the generic and lower cost plan.

Everyone lies

People are likely to lie if they think they can get away with it. They’re even more likely to lie and cheat if they see someone else in a position of authority set the example. That’s what Ariely discovered from a set of experiments involving a die-rolling game where participants could win money.

In this experiment, the participant rolls a six-sided die. They will receive money for the number shown on the die, or the number on the bottom of the die, depending on the choice they make before rolling it. The hook is that the participant doesn’t have to tell anyone else whether they choose “top” or “bottom” before they roll. So the temptation to just choose whatever leads to more money exists.

“When we run this experiment we find that people are incredibly lucky,” Ariely says.

In another version of the experiment, participants are told they have an option to get into a verion of the game that will lead to winning more money. But in order to get there, the experimenter demands a small bribe to place them in that group.

Not only did almost everyone agree to the bribe, they then proceeded to cheat even more often during the experiment.

In the end, Ariely left the crowd with a message about trusting data versus intuition.

“What if we assumed we were wrong more frequently?” he asked. “Experiment more. Intuition is not data.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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Brian Jackson
Brian Jackson
Former editorial director of IT World Canada. Current research director at Info-Tech

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