The Irrational, Episode #2: Dead Woman Walking

February 29, 2024 BY Dan Ariely

The two main themes of this episode are Inattentional Blindness and Revenge.


Inattentional Blindness
Inattentional blindess occurs when an individual fails to perceive an unexpected stimulus that is in plain sight. The stimulus is something they would easily notice if they were not distracted.  In other words, inattentional blindness is the inability to see something due to lack of attention, not because of vision related issues.

The term was coined by Arien Mack and Irvin Rock in 1992 and is also the title of their book, published by MIT Press in 1998, in which they describe the phenomenon and the discovery story. A well-known study that demonstrates inattentional blindness was carried out by Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simons. In their study they asked participants to watch a video and to count how many times the actors in white passed a basketball to each other. Once the video was over, they asked the participants whether they noticed the person in the black gorilla suit. The results showed that by paying attention to the actors in white, the majority of participants did not notice the gorilla.

More recent research on inattentional blindness suggests that it is less pronounced for people with ADHD and that it becomes more pronounced with age.

For more information on Inattentional blindness see:


The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us



Revenge is one of the most interesting human impulses.  There is a joke where God comes down to a farmer and tells him to wish for anything he wants under the condition that his neighbor would get twice as much. The farmer just had an intense conflict with his neighbor over water rights and he replies, “Whatever I get, my neighbor gets twice as much?”

“Yes,” God answers.

The neighbor says, “In this case please take out one of my eyes.”

This sums up revenge. The fact that we are willing to sacrifice something to make our target lose even more. In the strict sense, revenge is an irrational impulse because the person who is exacting revenge often loses something (time, effort, money, etc.) for the privilege of the revenge.  Why would they make such a sacrifice instead of simply never interacting with their enemy again? When we look at revenge from a more holistic-social perspective, we see that society at large benefits when individuals are worried about acting badly because of possible revenge, keeping them on their better behavior. In this way we can think about revenge and the fear of revenge as a built-in policing mechanism embedded within our psychology. (I explore this more in The Upside of Irrationality.)

For more information on Revenge see:




The main social science terms used in this episode are:


Boasting is a version of bragging. Bragging is when someone speaks with excessive pride and self-satisfaction about their own achievements, possessions, or abilities. Boasting often also involves a sense of proving superiority so that others feel admiration or envy.

Curiosity is a broad topic, but for the purpose of this episode, curiosity is a powerful motivator. When I try to make this point, I usually say something like “When I was twelve, my mother had a very unique approach to raising us and giving us a sense of autonomy.” Then I stop and wait a few seconds. And continue, “My mother is great, but I have nothing specific to say about her approach. What I do want you to think about is how curious I have made you about my mother and her approach.  Even now that I have told you this was just a trick to make you aware of your curiosity, you are probably still curious about my mother.” This is why curiosity is a motivating force that can drive people to seek more information, fostering learning and exploration.

For more information on Curiosity see:



Family estrangement
Family estrangement is the loss of a previously existing relationship between family members, mostly through emotional distancing, often to the extent that there is negligible or no communication between the individuals involved for a prolonged period. Estrangement is often unwanted, or considered unsatisfactory, by at least one party involved.

For more information on Family estrangement see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Family_estrangement

Social alienation
Social alienation refers to a feeling of disconnection from a group or society that someone identifies with. This disconnect can lead to a sense of isolation, estrangement, and lack of belonging. Social alienation goes beyond simply being alone. It’s more about the quality of one’s social connections and the feeling of not truly fitting in.

For more information on Social alienation see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_alienation

The psychology of hope delves into the mind’s perspective on the future and its belief in positive outcomes. It encompasses an attitude that good things will come, combined with the agency to make it happen. The key aspects of a hopeful mindset are: Goals (having clear and meaningful direction; Agency (the belief that a person has the ability to influence their future); Pathways (identifying multiple ways to reach the desired goals); and Optimism (a positive mindset that the goals are achievable).

For more information on Hope see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hope
Quotes related to hope: https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Hope

Misdirected attention
In psychology and in everyday life, misdirected attention refers to any situation where someone’s focus is unintentionally shifted away from something important. This can happen due to distractions, irrelevant information that pulls attention away from the task at hand, cognitive biases that cause us to overlook important details, or emotional arousal that narrows our focus so much that we can’t concentrate.

For more information on Misdirected attention see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Misdirection_(magic)

Power of free
The word “free” has a remarkable psychological power that can influence our decisions and behaviors in ways we might not realize. This phenomenon, often referred to as the “zero-price effect” has been extensively studied and documented within the realm of marketing and consumer psychology.

To start with, the word “free” triggers a positive emotional response, making us feel happier and more inclined to accept an offer. This emotional hook bypasses our rational thinking, making us less likely to carefully weigh the pros and cons of whatever is being offered.

In addition, free items are perceived as having a higher value than their actual cost, even if it’s minimal. This is because when free is concerned we avoid losing money, and free eliminates much of the perceived risk that is inherent to any exchange. Even if the item itself might not be valuable, the “free” label makes it seem like a good deal we shouldn’t miss.

For more information on Power of free see: Predictably irrational https://predictablyirrational.com

Memory Triggers (with smell)
There are many times in which we know we have specific memories, but we have a hard time accessing them. When we encounter a cue that was present during the original encoding of the experience, this can help to bring up the memories from that event into our awareness.  For me, when I revisit the burn department, the smells of the hospital and the ointments, always brings up a very strong set of emotions and memories. Although I have been back to the burn department many times, the flood of these emotions and memories always catches me by surprise.

In this episode Alec uses smell to try and trigger his memories. What is interesting is that scents bypass the thalamus and go straight to the brain’s smell center, known as the olfactory bulb. The olfactory bulb is directly connected to the amygdala and hippocampus, which explains why the smell of something can immediately trigger a detailed memory or even intense emotion.

For more information on Memory triggers (with smell) see:



Unexpected loss
Bad things that happen to us are bad on their own. But bad things that happen unexpectedly are much more psychologically damaging than the same bad thing happening expectedly.  Expected loss is no exception.  To be clear, loss is always bad, but when the loss is unexpected dealing with it is much more complex, takes longer, and is harder to accept.  Unexpected loss can also include elements of self-blame, even if there was no way to know or to have changed anything.

For more information on Unexpected loss see:


Pride is “the quality of having an excessively high opinion of oneself or one’s own importance.” Pride may be related to one’s own abilities or achievements, positive characteristics of self, friends, family, or even one’s origin and country.

Pride is one of the most interesting emotions because some view it as positive and some as negative: Aristotle and George Bernard Shaw, for example, both considered pride a profound virtue. Others, including most religions, view pride as negative and even a sin. In Judaism, pride is even called the root of all evil.  Catholicism views pride as one of the seven deadly sins. When viewed as a virtue, pride in one’s abilities is known as virtuous pride, greatness of soul, or magnanimity, but when viewed negatively, as a vice, it is often known to be self-idolatry, sadistic contempt, vanity, or vainglory.

For more information on Pride see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pride

Narcissism is a self–centered personality style characterized as having an excessive preoccupation with oneself and one’s own needs often at the expense of others.

In my experience, more and more people are now interested in narcissism, particularly when they break up with someone and they blame the failing of the relationship on their ex’s narcissistic tendencies.  My view is that romantic relationships with narcissists are very captivating, and that being in love with a narcissist is very fulfilling and all-consuming in the short term (because, after all, they encourage endless engagement with them), but it is difficult to maintain such a relationship in the long run.

Narcissism exists on a continuum that ranges from normal to abnormal personality expression. While many psychologists believe that a moderate degree of narcissism is normal and even healthy, there are also more extreme and less healthy intensities of narcissism. When people become excessively self-absorbed they are defined as having a narcissistic personality disorder (NPD), where the narcissistic tendency is so powerful that it becomes difficult to function.

For more information on Narcissism see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narcissism

And, again, for fun, here are a few pictures from the set.

The Irrational, Episode #1: The Pilot

January 27, 2024 BY Dan Ariely

The Irrational is a TV show on NBC that is loosely based on my life and my research (very loosely). See a link to the show HERE.

Each episode is based on some basic psychological forces, and here I will elaborate on the psychology that is part of the action in Episode 1: The Pilot.

The main theme of this episode is: False Memories

The main psychological principle in this episode is memory; specifically, false memory.  As Elizabeth Loftus has shown, we tend to think that our memory represents our experience in a perfect way. That it works like a camera and that it records events exactly as they took place. But, in fact, our memory includes not only things that happened to us, but also things we imagined, things that other people told us happened, and things we learned about in other ways – and all of these can become mixed with the things that happened to us.

In this episode Alec says one of my favorite sentences: “Memory is the great con man of human nature.” This sums up the idea that we overestimate our memory’s accuracy despite its unreliability.

For more information about False Memories see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elizabeth_Loftus


The main social science terms used in this episode are:

The cocktail party effect
The cocktail party effect takes place when the brain zeroes in on a specific stimulus, typically auditory, while disregarding other stimuli. The standard case is when a partygoer engrossed in one conversation amidst a lot of chitchat can suddenly hear their name (or the word fire, or sex) when it comes from a discussion that they are presumably not hearing.

Surprisingly, the cocktail party effect suggests that this selective attention takes place after the meaning of the auditory signal is processed which means that at some level we hear the words, but actively suppress them before they arrive at our full consciousness.

For more about the cocktail party effect see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cocktail_party_effect

Guilt is an emotion that takes place when a person feels badly about compromising their own standards of conduct. It is an outcome of first internalizing the standards of society (don’t litter, don’t lie, etc.). Next, we judge ourselves relative to these social standards, and finally we feel bad — guilty — when our own behavior falls short relative to these social standards.

It is also interesting to contrast guilt and shame. The main difference is that shame takes place only when someone else is watching (or might be watching), and the shame comes from the feeling of being judged by another person.  Guilt on the other hand is independent from anyone watching, which means that guilt means that a person is their own judge.  From this view, we can think about guilt as a more evolved and more desirable emotion, where a person internalizes the values of society and judges themselves relative to those standards independent of anyone else watching or not watching.

For more about Guilt see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guilt_(emotion)

The identifiable victim effect
The identifiable victim effect is the tendency of individuals to offer more help when a specific, identifiable person (“victim”) is in need of help, as opposed to a large, vaguely defined group with the same need.

This idea is captured by quotes from both Mother Teresa and one attributed to Joseph Stalin.

“If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.” ― Mother Teresa

“A single death is a tragedy; a million deaths are a statistic.” ― Joseph Stalin (possibly)

The identifiable victim effect is based on two components. The first is that people are more inclined to help an identified victim than an unidentified one. The second is that people are more inclined to help a single identified victim than a group of identified victims.

Although helping an identified victim is commendable, the identifiable victim effect is considered a bias, because it causes us to take less action when we don’t know much about the person in need, and because it causes us to act less as the number of people affected by a tragedy increases.

For more about The identifiable victim effect see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identifiable_victim_effect

Memory is often thought of as an information storage and retrieval system. But we should think about it more like an informational processing system with explicit and implicit functioning consisting of a sensory processor, short-term (or working) memory, and long-term memory. Importantly, while we often place a lot of trust in the accuracy and validity of our memory, the reality is that memory is an imperfect repository of information, and its constructive processes change memories over time. In short, memory is less reliable than we think it is. Of course, with the increase of Alzheimer’s disease diagnoses, we are made more aware of the importance of a good functioning memory. We also worry more about losing this very important part of ourselves – a part that is at the core of who we are.

Paradoxical persuasion
Paradoxical persuasion starts with the very simple observation that convincing anyone of anything is incredibly difficult. Just think about the last five years and ask yourself how many people have you been able to convince during that time? Similarly, ask yourself how many times over the last five years somebody else has convinced you that you were completely wrong about something? The reality is that when we engage in an argument we start counterarguing even before the other person has finished their sentence (they of course do the same thing), which is why at the end of a conversation in which two people try to change the other’s opinion, they are often even more steadfast in their own opinion because instead of listening, they have been engaged in arguing for their opinion. Paradoxical persuasion approaches arguments differently by asking people to think about the minute details of their argument. With this approach people often realize that they have not thought carefully about their own opinions. While the person that has considered their position more carefully doesn’t become convinced that they were completely wrong, they often realize that they shouldn’t be as committed to their original opinion as they were before.

For more about Paradoxical persuasion see: https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.1407055111

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a disorder that develops in some people who have experienced a shocking, scary, or dangerous event. While it is natural for people to feel afraid during and after a traumatic situation, PTSD is a disorder where the “fight-or-flight” response that was evoked during the initial traumatic event keeps on appearing in the person’s life a long time after the event has passed.  People with PTSD have intense, disturbing thoughts and feelings related to their experience through flashbacks or nightmares and they continue to experience a version of the trauma and are unable to put the traumatic event behind them.

For more about PTSD see: https://www.psychiatry.org/patients-families/ptsd/what-is-ptsd

Reciprocity is a fundamental driver of human behavior. It is the idea that individuals tend to respond to the actions of others in a manner that mirrors the positive or negative nature of those actions. When other people are nice to us, we feel a need to be nice to them back. When other people are mean to us, we feel the need to act in kind. Reciprocity is also a social norm, meaning that beyond our need to reciprocate, we also feel a kind of social pressure to reciprocate.

What reciprocity means is that in our daily lives we are frequently much nicer and much more cooperative than the self-interested view of human nature would predict.

For more about Reciprocity see: https://thedecisionlab.com/reference-guide/psychology/reciprocity#

Sense of control
How much control do you feel you have over your life? You may feel we have a lot of control, or you may feel you have very little. Having the right amount of feeling of control is what helps keep us balanced. Feeling that we have no control can lead to anxiety, depression, and learned helplessness. And, as I argued in Misbelief, feeling out of control is a main driver that leads us to seek out stories that blame someone else for our problems as a way to help us make sense of our situations.

For more about Sense of control and its damaging effects see: https://misbeliefbook.com (Chapters 3 and 4)


My favorite quote from this episode: “Memory is the great con man of human nature.”

My favorite psychological advice from this episode: When we have a negative experience that stays in our memory and we just can’t shake it out, one approach is to try and replace it with something else. We can try to imagine that something else – something specific – happened and do this every day for 100 days. Eventually, the bad memory will fade and be replaced by the better one.

And for fun, here are a few pictures from the set.