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.