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.