Between the Lines: May-June 2008

June 1, 2008

Thanks to electronic communications, the world, potentially, has become an extended classroom.

At Duke, one boundary-pusher is Dan Ariely Ph.D. '98, a behavioral economist profiled in this issue. Ariely's website engagingly pushes his new book, Predictably Irrational. And now he has introduced an online advice column: Dear Irrational. Every week, he picks a question from those submitted on anything that fits within the broad definition of his burgeoning discipline.

In early April, Ariely made his first pick. The question came from a concerned parent whose daughter, a recent college graduate, is "interested in too many things" and is therefore directionless. She resists the notion of pursuing a job vigorously for fear that she'll make the wrong decision. What to do?

The first thing to do, Ariely responded, is to recognize that as options and opportunities endlessly increase, we all face similar situations. In his view, we are paralyzed by a surplus of choices. By keeping all her options open, the stay-at-home graduate ends up spending her time searching but never committing to start a career.

Ariely's advice was for her to take "a relatively unpleasant temp job." That gets her out of the house and into the habit of working. And it makes the act of delaying the job decision personally painful.

One reader posting suggested a better way to induce a change in behavior: charging her full room and board at home. Another embellished that advice with the benefit of behavioral experience: "It's exactly how we got our son off his backside and off our books, too, [because] his job required him to move to a new area!"

Dear Irrational can look forward to encountering instant and public skepticism, rational or not. That's a change from the days of Dear Abby-and from the old-school economist steeped in supply-and-demand curves.