Opening Day PopTech 2010; Dan Ariely

A slightly imperfect, quite ambitious, creaking and low-tech Rube Goldberg machine constructed by Heather Knight and Syyn Labs used a combination of gravity and human intervention to kick off PopTech 2010’s opening day. PopTech curator Andrew Zolli took the stage amidst the machine’s finale of falling red balloons, which attendees popped to find little surprises hidden inside. The brief cacophony led Zolli to joke that this was the perfect way to kick off a conference where the theme is “Brilliant Accidents, Necessary Failures and Improbable Breakthroughs.”

Zolli framed the conversation for the next few days during the conference by giving an example of a solution gone awry: a project where 500,000 wells dug in Bangladesh intended to provide clean water later found to contain arsenic, which created a new set of problems. He asked the audience to think about, over the next few days, what do brilliant accidents reveal about the nature of discovery and innovation? What happens when we don’t let failure happen? What is the right thing to die and how do we kill it?

Zolli then welcomed to the stage Duke University professor Dan Ariely as the first speaker of the day, for the first session entitled “Doing Things Wrong”. Last year, Ariely spoke to the PopTech audience about the role of emotions in the workplace. This year he explored adaptation, or how we “get used to stuff”. He recounted the story of the frog and boiling water: how, the tale goes, a frog immersed in hot water will jump immediately out, but in gradually heated water, it will stay in the water indefinitely, content even as its fate is being delivered one degree at a time. Although he notes that the example is not actually true, it is founded on a basic principle.

Ariely, who was badly burned in an explosion several years ago, spoke about how he met a fellow patient, a double-amputee, while he was recovering at the hospital. The two of them begin discussing pain and found they shared an interest in testing various pain thresholds, specifically as they relate to experience. They tested at an Army country club by asking people to put their arms in hot water and to keep them there as long as they could. Using the test subject’s medical histories, they determined that people who had been seriously injured had a higher threshold for pain. Experience, he concluded, immunizes you from pain. Surprisingly, people with chronic pain had the lowest pain threshold. Ariely attributes this to the fact that generally pain is associated with healing (physical therapy, operations, etc.) People living with chronic pain do not have the same association. Thus, there are two aspects to pain: the signal we are getting and how we interpret it.

Ariely framed the next example in the context of his own physical scars. He spoke of about social adaptation, how people tend to mate with people on their own level of attractiveness, a theory which he tested in part by studying the site Am I Hot of Not, which allows viewers to rate the attractiveness of someone on a scale of 1-10, then displays their average. Before he got injured, Ariely says, he felt he had a sense of where he fell on the scale, giving himself a “7”. But after the accident, he rated himself more as a “4”. What would happen, as his scars healed and he wanted to begin dating? Would he have to lower his expectations and settle for someone he found less desirable? His expectations had not changed but his market value had essentially decreased.

In examining his own situation, he tested three theories of adaptation: don’t adapt; change our perceptions of aesthetics (the sour grapes theory); or re-ordering the importance of attributes, i.e. choosing kind or funny over attractiveness. What he found in his research was that although everyone recognizes the same level of physical attractiveness from an aesthetic point of view, they also know more or less where they fall on that scale. So very attractive people tend to select other attractive people, while less attractive folks value other attributes. This is a sensible survival mechanism, says Ariely, but it doesn’t always work.

He closes his talk by revealing that, even these years later, Ariely never gets used to the way that people look at him. Every time he meets a new person or shakes someone’s hand, he says, is a reminder that he is different. So people can indeed adapt to bad things, it’s a matter of deciding what we pursue or don’t pursue.

photo credit: Kris Krug

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