Dan Ariely’s new mission: stomping out conflicts of interest

December 1, 2010

At the end of Chrystia’s interview with Dan Ariely yesterday, he revealed that his next research priority is to demonstrate how pernicious conflicts of interest really are:

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My personal mission is to think about conflicts of interest. So it turns out that if I pay you lots of money to see reality in a certain way, you too will be able to do it … It turns out conflicts of interest paint us. They paint our view of the world in deep ways that we don’t understand. So imagine I pay you $5 million a year to view mortgage-backed securities as a good product. Now, I’m sure you could pretend to like them, but the question is would you really start believing that they are better products than they really are? And that’s the case. We find that people actually can change their deeply held beliefs. They would invest their own money. If something is worthwhile for you to do financially, you would convince yourself that this is also good for you. And if it’s something that is difficult and complex, it turns out it’s even easier for us to do it. And if it’s something that is remote from money — for example, in our experiments when we get people to cheat for something that is not money but a step removed from money — stock, stock options — people find an easier time doing that. So my big issue right now is to try to eliminate conflicts of interests. When you have a situation with conflicts of interest and you put good people in those conditions, you should not expect anything but failure.

As Ariely tells Chrystia, this is a problem not just limited to finance. Doctors and politicians can lose their ability to objectively see reality through their contact with drug reps and lobbyists, he says. And while he’s not wide-eyed enough to believe he could eradicate them completely, Ariely does think conflicts of interest can be dramatically reduced.

You can watch the entire interview here.

Posted by Peter Rudegeair.

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