The Blog

Beginning at the End

Part of the CAH Startup Lab Experimenting in Business Series

By Rachael Meleney and Aline Holzwarth

Missteps in business are costly—they drain time, energy, and money. Of course, business leaders never start a project with the intention to fail—whether it’s implementing a new program, launching a new technology, or trying a new marketing campaign. Yet, new ventures are at risk of floundering if not properly approached—that is, making evidence-based decisions rather than relying on intuition.

Let’s say your company is in the business of connecting consumers to savings accounts, helping them save for retirement through your app. You need to decide how your product will achieve this. Let’s look at how an intuition-backed approach (Company A) compares to a research-backed approach (Company B) in this scenario:

Screen Shot 2017-06-17 at 11.43.54 AM

What if there was a way to more reliably ensure that business risks weren’t as prone to failure? As we see in the example above, the solution lies in well-planned experimentation.

If businesses can learn to identify concrete decisions needed to move new or existing projects forward, and set up experiments that directly inform those decisions, then much of the painful time, energy, and monetary costs of mistakes can be avoided. However, many business leaders and entrepreneurs are weary and unsure about how to leverage research to benefit their companies most effectively. Therefore, they rely (perhaps unknowingly) on riskier decision-making approaches.

As social scientists at Dan Ariely’s Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University, we’re in the business of human behavior and decision-making. We see in our research the effects that our biases and environments have on our ability to make optimal decisions. In the high-risk environment of building a company, founders aren’t well-served by calling shots based on gut feelings or reasoning plagued by cognitive biases. (Don’t feel bad! We’re only human!)

The better route? Rigorous experimentation. Asking well-formed research questions, designing tests with isolated variables and control groups, randomizing users to groups, and using data to inform business decisions.

Adapting the Process: Making Experimental Results Actionable

At the Center for Advanced Hindsight’s Startup Lab (our academic incubator for health and finance technologies), our mission is to equip startups with the tools to make business decisions firmly grounded in research.

But the research process has to be more accessible to businesses. Entrepreneurs often come to us excited about research, but with little to no idea of what it takes to execute a rigorous experiment. There’s a lot of anguish, confusion, and hesitation about where to even begin.

The Startup Lab makes experimentation more approachable to entrepreneurs who have the will, but often not the time and resources to run studies like our colleagues in academia.

There are specific considerations that businesses take into account when wading into the world of research. An important one is what makes investing in experimentation worthwhile? The driving purpose of running experiments, in most business contexts, is to uncover results that are clearly actionable.

So how do you ensure actionable results? You set up your process with this goal in mind from the start – not as an afterthought. The Startup Lab adapts Alan R. Andreasen’s concept of “backward market research”[1] to bring the process of planning and executing a research project to entrepreneurs.

The ‘Backward’ Approach: Beginning at the End

“Beginning at the end” means that you determine what decision you’ll make when you know the results of your research, first, and let that dictate what data you need to collect and what your results need to look like in order to make that decision.

This ‘backward’ planning is not how businesses usually approach research projects. The typical approach to research is to start with a problem. In business, this often leads to identifying a lot of vague unknowns—a “broad area of ignorance” as Andreasen calls it—and leaves a loosely defined goal of simply reducing ignorance. For example, startups often come to us with the goal of better understanding their customers. While we commend this noble goal, we ask, “to what end?”

What business decision will you make based on what your research uncovers?

The problem with the simple exploratory approach is that it sets you up for certain failure from the start. An unclear question produces an unclear answer. You’ll end up with data that you can’t possibly base a concrete decision on.

Let’s revisit the example of Company A (the intuition-based entrepreneurs) and Company B (their ‘backward market research’ counterparts). If you approach product development based on intuition like Company A, then you may be tempted to ask your customers about the challenges they have saving, or their ideal income at retirement – but this would be misguided if you don’t first determine what you will do with this information. If you find that your customers have trouble saving, you might conclude that you need to give them more information about the benefits of saving for retirement. If you create and implement this content into your app only to discover that it is completely ineffective at increasing savings, will you trash your product and start over? (Probably not. But if you set up your research in this way, then that may be the only logical conclusion.)

BMR image

But imagine that instead, like Company B, you plan a research project to collect data on your users’ saving behavior (instead of probing to reduce your ignorance on their stated savings challenges). You set up an experiment to test two different ways of encouraging users to save (your two treatment groups, reminders and social accountability) against the current version of your product (what we call a control group).

Now you’ve set up an experiment, but you can’t stop at designing your research.

The “backward market research” approach forces you to specify which decisions you will make based on the outcome.

If the social accountability version leads your users to save twice as much as they do when using your base product, will you implement this mechanism in your product strategy? How will you do so, and what might the implications be? Once you determine 1.) The decision you will make from every possible outcome of your research results and 2.) How each decision will be implemented, then your research is set up to lead to actionable insights that have the power to move your business forward.

P.S. You too can design and conduct experiments using the ‘backward market research’ method. Use our handy tool to guide you through the backward approach: ‘Beginning at the End’ Worksheet.

And remember, to orient your research toward actionable decisions, start with the end in mind.

[1] Andreasen, A. R. (1985). ‘Backward’Market Research. Harvard Business Review, 63(3), 176-182.

At the Center for Advanced Hindsight’s Startup Lab, our academic incubator for health and finance tech solutions, we aim to instill a commitment to research-backed business decisions in the companies we bring into our fold. We will be releasing more articles and tools like this as part of our Experimenting in Business Series on our blog. Leveraging research for smart business decisions is a powerful skill—we’re aiming to make rigorous experimenting less intimidating and more accessible to a broad range of businesses.

By the way—we’re also accepting applications for the Startup Lab’s upcoming program, which starts in October. We’re looking for startups that are eager to experiment, and demonstrate a passion for building research-backed solutions to health and finance challenges.


You only have until June 30th at 5pm EST.

Ask Ariely: On Surveillance Success, Relationship Recovery, and Taste Temptation

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to


Dear Dan,

I’m seeing many more surveillance cameras in shopping malls, restaurants, roads and even my workplace. I doubt that anyone is watching all these acres of footage, so why should anyone care about being recorded? Won’t the cameras’ ubiquity undermine their effectiveness?


Don’t be so sure. Even if no one is watching the cameras’ video in real time, authorities can still use it after a crime has occurred to figure out who did what to whom. So please don’t start behaving badly just because you’re seeing so many cameras around.

Moreover, from a psychological perspective, surveillance cameras also provide a good mechanism for reminding us about morality. One of the most powerful motivators of honest behavior is our own moral self-evaluations (known to experts as “self-concept maintenance”). When we have other people (or cameras) around, they remind us about the people we want to be, which spurs us to behave more nobly.

An early demonstration of this principle came from research in 1976 by Edward Diener and Mark Wallbom, published in the Journal of Research in Personality, who showed that mirrors reduced academic dishonesty in students by making them more self-aware. In their experiments, students who took an exam in a room decked out in mirrors were less likely to keep writing after the bell rang than those who took their tests in a normal classroom. Similarly, surveillance cameras—particularly if they’re clearly observable—should increase self-awareness and, with it, better behavior.


Dear Dan,

My closest friend since childhood recently betrayed me, after decades of trusting friendship. She has apologized sincerely, but all the confidence I had in her is still tainted. Is it rational (or helpful) to forgive people who have hurt us?


While it isn’t clear whether your friendship can fully recover from this incident, you clearly would be better off if you could forgive your friend. Research has shown that our health improves when we free up mental space from grudges and hate.

In a study published in 2003 in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, Kathleen A. Lawler and colleagues interviewed 108 college students about a time when a parent or friend had deeply hurt them and measured their blood pressure at several points during the conversation. Subjects who forgave their betrayers had lower levels of blood pressure than those who hadn’t been as lenient. Even more important, college students who had more forgiving personalities overall turned over to have lower blood-pressure levels and heart rates.

Of course, forgiveness isn’t easy, but if you can pull it off, it brings real benefits.


Dear Dan,

I go out to dinner with my husband once a week, and every time, we promise to order something healthy—but when we see the menu, we get tempted and order something less virtuous but tasty. Any advice on how to show more resolve?


You are describing a classical case of temptation. Before you get to the restaurant, you’ve settled on a certain idea of how you want to behave—then you get tempted, and afterward, you regret your indulgences. So how can you override temptation? Just order for each other. When we order for our significant other, we aren’t tempted by taste and can instead think about their health—which is also what our spouse would want a few hours later.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Build better health and finance tech products for humans. Join the Startup Lab.

We’re excited to announce that we’re searching for our next class of the Startup Lab, which begins October 2017. Applications are only open until June 30th at 5pm EST.

Apply to the Startup Lab now.

Our academic incubator supports problem-solvers by making behavioral economics findings accessible and applicable. See how behavioral researchers and entrepreneurs work together at the Center for Advanced Hindsight:

The Startup Lab provides:

  • Ability to explore behavioral economics and learn how to leverage findings for your startup
  • Opportunity to collaborate with world-renowned behavioral researchers
  • Guidance and resources to run rigorous experiments
  • Office space in downtown Durham, NC up to 9 months (October-June)
  • Investment up to $60k

Are you insatiably curious about what drives decisions, shapes motivation, and influences behavior? Does your startup’s success hinge on the ability to affect positive behavior change that helps people live happier, healthier, and wealthier lives?

We’re looking for startups that are eager to experiment, and demonstrate a passion for building research-backed solutions to health and finance challenges.


You only have until June 30th at 5pm EST.


To learn more, visit our FAQs (includes information on the Startup Lab investment structure and other logistics) or connect with us at




Ask Ariely: On Dreadful Driving, Levelheaded Loving, and Successful Standing

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to


Dear Dan,

My daily commute takes about 40 minutes each way—and it feels even longer because so many of my honking fellow drivers are selfish and aggressive. How can we get drivers to show more respect for those around them?


In a word: convertibles. If we all drove rag tops with the roof down and no windows to shield us from fellow drivers, we would be far more aware of social norms and more likely to behave with some consideration for others.

Driving often brings out the worst in us, and it can be shocking to see how myopic, self-centered and unaware we become behind the wheel—from driving recklessly to cutting into lines to picking our nose.

All of this is much worse than our typical behavior when we, say, walk down a crowded public street. Pedestrians aren’t always polite, but they certainly don’t exhibit the same type of risk-taking and selfishness. Being in proximity to other people makes us more aware of our own standards of decency, and we behave accordingly.

Noise-blocking (and often darkened) windows and the controlled environment of a car create an illusion of isolation, separating us from other drivers. It lets us feel that our actions are unobserved, which makes it easier for us to ignore our own standards.


Dear Dan,

How can I overcome my hot-and-cold attitudes toward my romantic partner? Sometimes I’m convinced that we aren’t compatible, but at other moments, I feel perfectly content with our relationship. Are these fluctuations normal?


All relationships oscillate between good and bad—it’s just part of the deal. The question for you is whether the downsides that you are experiencing are worth it for the upsides—and whether you can deal with the fluctuations.

What I can tell you is that you shouldn’t make big decisions about the future of your relationship when you’re experiencing its bad side. When we are in a particularly strong emotional state, we often find ourselves consumed by that emotion and incapable of seeing how we could feel differently.

But emotions are transitory, and they often change more quickly than we anticipate. So assess your relationship only when you are calm and content. You’re more likely to find the right answer when you’re thinking clearly, not emotionally. Good luck.


Dear Dan,

I recently bought an adjustable standing-or-sitting desk, but I find that I lack the motivation to consistently stand. Any suggestions to get me on my feet more?


When you work at a standing desk, you sometimes naturally feel the need to sit down—and once you do, of course, you’ll rarely feel the urge to stand back up. I suggest setting a timer that reminds you once an hour to put your desk back in standing position, then stand for as long as you want.

This way, you won’t sit forever. Those hourly reminders to get vertical again will probably make you more likely to stand periodically, even when you aren’t feeling the urge.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Passionate Presents, Curious Compulsions, and Happiness Hints

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to


Dear Dan,

Before we got married four years ago, my husband and I would give each other amazing, thoughtful birthday gifts. After we got married and set up a joint bank account, our birthday presents stopped being exciting or original—and recently, they stopped altogether. Now we just buy things we need and call them gifts. Is this deterioration because of the shared bank account, or is it just the story of marriage?


Some of it, of course, is how marriage changes us once we’ve settled down. But the shared bank account is also important here, and that part is simpler to change.

In giving a gift, our main motivation is to show that we know someone and care for them. When we use our own money to do this, we are making a sacrifice for the other’s benefit. When we use shared money, this most basic form of caring is eliminated. We are simply using common resources to buy the other person something for common use—which greatly mutes a gift’s capacity to communicate our caring.

The simplest step to restore some excitement to your gifts is to set up a small individual account for each of you for your own discretionary spending. The longer, harder discussion is how to get marriages to sustain passion longer.


Dear Dan,

I recently started investing in the stock market. I know that people who manage to outperform the market buy stocks and then don’t look at their performance for a very long time. But I can’t stop looking at my portfolio every couple of hours. How can I keep myself from peeking so often?


Curiosity is a powerful drive, and it can lead us to expend time and effort trying to find out things that we’re better off not knowing. Curiosity also can create a self-perpetuating feedback loop, which is what you are experiencing: You think about the value of your portfolio, you become curious, you get annoyed by not knowing the answer, and you check your investments to satisfy your curiosity. Doing this makes you think about your stocks even more, so you feel compelled to monitor them ever more frequently—and then you’re really caught.

The key to getting a handle on this habit is to eliminate your curiosity loop. You can start by trying to redirect your thinking: Every time your mind wanders to your portfolio, try to busy it with something else, like baseball or ice cream. Next, don’t let yourself immediately satisfy your curiosity. For the next six weeks, check your portfolio only at the end of the day—or, better, only on Friday, after the markets have closed.

All of this should let you train yourself to not be so curious—and not to act on the impulse as frequently. Over time, the curiosity loop will be broken.


Dear Dan,

Have you found any small tricks you can use to make yourself happier?


At some point, I managed to record my wife saying that I was correct. That doesn’t happen very often. I made this recording into a ringtone that plays whenever she calls my cellphone.

This not only made me happy when I was able to get the initial recording but also provides me with continuous happiness every time she calls.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Tempting Tomatoes, Genuine Gestures, and Optimistic Outcomes

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to


Dear Dan,

We grow lots of tomatoes in our backyard garden, and we eat or freeze all of them. Each year, our neighbors hint about wanting some share of the bounty. We like our neighbors and occasionally socialize with them, but we fear that sharing our tomatoes will create an expectation for subsequent years. We also worry that such a gift would suggest the tomatoes are free when they actually cost us dearly in time and effort. Are we right, or are we just stingy tomato-hoarders?


You’ve got a point. Just giving your neighbors the tomatoes that they covet will indeed encourage them to take for granted the work that goes into growing them. It will also create the expectation of future installments.

You could try to pre-empt the issue altogether by complaining demonstratively to your neighbors at the start of each growing season that you fear you won’t be able to grow enough to meet your own needs this year. But that would be dishonest.

Here’s a better approach: help your neighbors to experience firsthand the effort involved. This season, pick a weekend when you’ll be doing a lot of arduous garden work (maybe tilling the soil) and invite the folks next door to help out.

This will lessen your own workload and let them see how much sweat goes into gardening. You will then feel better about sharing some of the tomatoes that they will have helped to grow. Maybe your neighbors will learn to like gardening enough to start their own garden—and will share their own crops with you next year.


Dear Dan,

When I pay someone a compliment, they often say something along the lines of “Thank you, but your house is beautiful too” or “Thank you, but your children are also so accomplished.” This makes me feel that my compliments aren’t being taken as genuine expressions of esteem but instead are seen as a sign of my own low self-esteem or an attempt to fish for accolades myself. I find that I’ve stopped complimenting people altogether. Should I?


What’s happening here is best explained by the principle of reciprocity: When someone does something nice for us, we feel compelled to return the favor, often in a similar way. With compliments, the easiest way to reciprocate is to promptly return them.

This yearning for reciprocity is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. It has long helped to strengthen social bonds. So when people quickly compliment you back, it isn’t a response just to you; it’s human nature. They don’t think you need the emotional boost, but they do feel the need to reciprocate.

The upshot? Don’t take this personally, let alone badly. Even more important, don’t stop giving compliments. Praise is free, and it makes people happier, so offer it to others whenever you can and enjoy it when it comes your way.


Dear Dan,

I’ve heard that you just turned 50. Is there any good news about getting old?


Yes: Our eyesight deteriorates. Everything turns out to look better slightly blurry and without details, particularly other people’s faces.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: Helmet Hesitation, Contemporary Caring, and Bicycle Bummers

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to


Dear Dan,

A friend told me recently that wearing a bike helmet is actually more dangerous than not wearing one because those who wear a helmet take more risks, which outweighs the benefits of having their heads protected. Should I tell my kids to stop wearing helmets?


Definitely not, but the question is a complex and interesting one. The real issues here are: what kinds of injuries helmets can prevent, how wearing a helmet alters our behavior and how our risk-taking changes over time.

Let’s think for a minute about a related case: seatbelts. When drivers, pushed by legislation, began to wear seatbelts as a matter of course, they might have felt extra-safe at first, making them think that they could get away with driving more aggressively. But after a while, as wearing a seatbelt became fairly automatic, that sensation of cocooning safety subsided. The tendency to take extra risks subsided too. So the full benefits of seatbelt use only emerged after we got used to wearing them all the time.

The same can be said about helmets. When we initially put one on, we may feel overconfident and cut more corners with road safety. But once helmet-wearing becomes a habit, we should revert to more prudent behavior, which will let us realize the helmet’s full benefits. That’s especially important, of course, with children.


Dear Dan,

I’m finding dating tricky these days. I’d like to show some chivalry, but it isn’t clear how to do that. Try as I might to pay the bill for dinner as a sign of respect and care, the women I’ve been out with seem to want to split it. Any advice?


Acts of chivalry are acts of respect. They aren’t about practicality but about doing something kind for the other person. So I would suggest instead that you open the car door for your dates.

Decades ago, when car doors had to be unlocked manually, it was customary for the driver to open the door for the passenger. These days, when car locks release with a click and a beep from a keychain, doing so seems like a pointless gesture.

But that only makes it a stronger signal of chivalry: You don’t have to open your date’s door to let her in or out, but by choosing to do so, you offer a true act of consideration and caring. And it’s not only a nice gesture–it’s cheaper than picking up the tab.


Dear Dan,

Why don’t people bike more? Bicycles are amazing vehicles—fast, efficient, easy to park, good for our health and our planet. What’s holding us back? 


Simple: hills. Bicycles are fine things, and technology will no doubt continue to make them lighter, faster and safer. But all of these improvements aren’t likely to overcome our laziness—our deep-seated desire to move through the world with as little effort as possible.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Last post about the INT

With great sadness I am writing my last post about my adventures in the INT!
Linking Ithaka and the INT, using this poem from Cavafy
As you set out for Ithaka
hope the voyage is a long one,
full of adventure, full of discovery.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
angry Poseidon—don’t be afraid of them:
you’ll never find things like that on your way
as long as you keep your thoughts raised high,
as long as a rare excitement
stirs your spirit and your body.
Laistrygonians and Cyclops,
wild Poseidon—you won’t encounter them
unless you bring them along inside your soul,
unless your soul sets them up in front of you.
Hope the voyage is a long one.
May there be many a summer morning when,
with what pleasure, what joy,
you come into harbors seen for the first time;
may you stop at Phoenician trading stations
to buy fine things,
mother of pearl and coral, amber and ebony,
sensual perfume of every kind—
as many sensual perfumes as you can;
and may you visit many Egyptian cities
to gather stores of knowledge from their scholars.
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if it lasts for years,
so you are old by the time you reach the island,
wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.
Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
She has nothing left to give you now.
And if you find her poor, Ithaka won’t have fooled you.
Wise as you will have become, so full of experience,
you will have understood by then what these Ithakas mean.

After a month on the INT

Just got back to the US (2 hours ago) after hiking for a month on the INT
What an amazing adventure, what a way to spend a month, and what a list of adventures.  Ron and I ended this adventure with a glorious party in the desert, and it made coming back to life easier (or so I think right now)
Taking a month to walk and think was very clarifying and useful and right now I am certain that it will make a real difference moving forward it my life.  We will see.
And for now I am keeping my bread from this month — maybe to hold onto the adventures for a bit longer.

Birthday Gifts

My 50th is getting closer and closer (April 29th) and because a few people have asked me over the past few days what I want for my birthday, I am walking while wondering about what makes a good gift.  There are a few obvious ways to think about good gifts.  Good gifts should be experiences and not things. Good gifts should be memorable. Good gifts should be unique.  Good gifts should increase the social bond between the giver and the receiver.  Good gifts are things that the receiver wants, but is not willing to buy for themselves. Good gifts are things that would make the receiver happy, but they don’t realize that it will.

But what are some good examples of good gifts? Headphones, Pens? Culinary classes?  I would love to get examples of good gifts that you either gave or received.

And what gifts did I ask from my friends this year?  I asked them not to give me anything, but I also told them that if they feel that they have to give me something, I want a copy of one of their favorite book, with an explanation why they love this book so much. And I am looking forward to having this shelf of books and reading it over the next few years.