First day & book reading

February 21, 2008 BY danariely

counter0.jpgThe big day!

I stayed awake until midnight, just to see the countdown on my computer arrive at the “In Stores Now!” I went to bed soon after but at 2:30 AM woke up, full of excitement, and could not fall a sleep again. I was not too worried because I was sure that the excitement would give me sufficient energy for the day ahead and indeed this was correct.

From 7:00 AM until 4:30 PM I went from studio to interview and back to studio. TV was a bit strange because the time was so short, and the pace was so fast. Radio was more relaxed and conversational. Magazine interviews felt even more natural.

At 7:00 PM I began my first “book reading.” Given my experience with reading poetry for experiments, I decided not to read but instead just talk about my research. The audience was filled with collaborators, former students, friends, family, and the teams from the literary agency and publisher. Overall, it was the most supporting audience one could imagine.

I intended to begin by describing my injury and how it set me on the path of thinking about irrational behavior more generally. Although I had spent time beforehand walking between the aisles of Barnes & Noble, planning what I would say, to my amazement the moment I started talking, I also started to cry (not too much but enough to prevent me from being able to talk).

This happened to me once before at an academic conference. I am very used to discussing my injury with people, and so at the conference I decided to share some of my experiences and make some comments about adaptation–the things that I got used to and the things I did not. The emotions that overwhelmed me the moment I started talking were surprising and I was unable to talk without crying. I tried to walk it off and start again, but without any luck. After a few attempts I gave up and just skipped to the other points I’d planned on making.

Before the “book reading” I was thinking about that experience, and I wondered if the existence of the audience at the academic conference was the trigger that so strongly amplified my emotions. I tried to predict if it would happen again with the audience at Barnes & Noble. I did not feel any of those emotions surface as I planned my talk among the bookstore’s aisles, so I assumed it would be fine–but of course I was wrong. The moment I started talking in front of an audience the emotions overcame me and I again had to skip to other topics.

This was a very good lesson on the power of emotions and our inability to predict their onset. In essence, when we don’t feel the emotions it is very hard to determine how they will influence us once they are evoked. And oddly, even with the research I have done on this very specific problem, I was unable to make a correct prediction.

I was also puzzled by the effect of the audience itself, and I am wondering if the existence of other people, in general, amplifies emotions–maybe this is what happens to actors, singers and other people that perform in front of audiences. I am not sure I want to continue doing these experiments on myself, but I sure am curious about it.

Irrationally yours