Why We Should Use Behavioral Economics to Design Technology That Doesn’t Kill Us

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One hundred years ago, bad decision making accounted for less than ten percent of human deaths. Nowadays, it represents a little over 44%. What has changed?

Behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, offered one explanation during his talk at Singularity University this month: With all the new technology we’ve invented, we’ve also created many new ways to kill ourselves.

Think about texting while driving, an activity that makes drivers six times more likely to cause an accident than while driving drunk. Most of us know it’s dangerous, but when we get behind the wheel and receive a new notification, we can’t seem to stop ourselves.

Though classical economics assumes humans are rational maximizers able to make wise decisions for our long-term health and wellbeing, research shows we’re not.

As Ariely puts it, we’re predictably irrational and programmed to prioritize daily desires and temptations over what’s best in the long term.

“In the future, we are all wonderful people,” says Ariely.

The problem is, we live in the present where we are horrible decision makers, with poor self-control—we eat the donut, forget to take our medication, and say we’ll put money in our savings account tomorrow. But tomorrow never happens.

Not only are humans poor decision makers, but the convenience of technology can tempt us away from making positive choices. Automated payment apps and marketplaces like the iTunes store aren’t designed to help us save for retirement, but to decrease decision-making time and increase feasibility—we click “buy” before considering where else our money could go.

“We create technology that hacks our ability to make good decisions, and the consequence is, we kill ourselves,” says Ariely.

It’s a frightening thought, but it’s not as grim as it sounds.

In fact, we can design technology to take into account the limits of human decision making and help us take actions that will benefit our future selves.

Positive behavior change is something technology companies across the board are taking on—from financial planning apps focused on putting savings away for college funds, to apps that help individuals with chronic diseases adhere to medication and healthy lifestyle routines.

Though it’s in our nature to make irrational choices, technology does not have to exploit this—rather, it can mend it.

Here are the two classical behavioral economics principles Ariely presented that, applied to technology, can support better decision making for the long haul.

1) Reward Substitution

Principle: Because humans are not designed to care about what’s best for ourselves in the future, we can create other immediate rewards to keep us on track. The rewards do not have to be large, only enough to help us stick with a positive behavior daily.

Example: Ariely points to global warming as the perfect example of this challenge. It is one of the greatest threats to humanity, yet most of the world is apathetic towards it because the dangers are too distant. On an individual level, saving for retirement is a similar long-term challenge. Using reward substitution, however, we can set incremental goals that are tied to short-term rewards in order to focus on smaller chunks of the savings journey.

Watch Ariely explain this principle in detail below.

2) Ulysses Contracts (or Self-Control Contracts)

Principle: Lower the dangers of weak self-control by stopping temptations before they arise.

Example: This idea shows up in Homer’s Odyssey. Ulysses (or Odysseus in the Greek) orders his sailors to plug their ears and tie him to the mast of the boat so he can hear the sirens, whose deadly song tempts ships to steer into the rocks, but avoid wrecking his own ship. A current day example of this is driving with your cell phone, but placing it in the trunk so you aren’t tempted to text and drive.

Watch Ariely explain this principle in detail below.

Both principles show the power of creating and following through with rules, even in the face of our increasingly hyper-connected and impulse driven lives.

As technology inserts itself into more areas of life, it is important to learn to identify which technologies have been designed with our best interests in mind, and which have been created to maximize our irrationality and fondness for making poor short-term choices.

The next time you look to download a new app or purchase the latest tech gadget, ask, “Has this been designed with my best interest in mind?” And if the answer is, “No,” consider putting your time and money elsewhere.

Image Credit: Shutterstock.com

Alison E. Berman
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Alison E. Berman

Staff Writer at Singularity University
Alison tells the stories of purpose-driven leaders and is fascinated by various intersections of technology and society. When not keeping a finger on the pulse of all things Singularity University, you'll likely find Alison in the woods sipping coffee and reading philosophy (new book recommendations are welcome).
Alison E. Berman
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Discussion — 7 Responses

  • Quantium January 28, 2016 on 8:34 am

    Wouldn’t it be even better just to switch off you mobile telephone when driving? If you put it in the boot (trunk) then the battery will still run down.

    The other problem that both these examples show is the effect of cheaply available travel way beyond as far as individuals can walk. It is immensely liberating for sure, but if the price is a planet turned into another Venus, or for a few individuals horrible accidents, is it a price any sensible people would be willing to pay?

    However technology itself does offer solutions. Telepresence reduces the need to move bodies when moving minds will do. Driver assistance (cars that won’t let you drive into obstacles or people) is already available, and the totally self driving car not far off, as regular readers of these blogs will know.

  • ideasware January 28, 2016 on 10:04 am

    That is really among the stupidest recommendations in the world. The first part is right, of course, because it’s based on solid fact, but then it veers off wildly, when it comes to the actual solutions. I wonder how come? It’s because it’s just a hairbrained theory which does not meet the smell test — simple.

  • Walt Stawicki January 28, 2016 on 11:17 am

    First one must unquestioningly swallow that “10% then, 44%now” first sentence. If that goes down, you’re qualified to continue…

    My epic fail.

    Then i guess watching someone rehash decades old material is…new, improved and, for someone, career enhancing.

    Im starting to think from mounting experience that economic school studies should stay out of personal psychology, should stick with larger social issues at
    policy informing level. The pholosophical unpreparedness is alarming.

  • horseshoe7 January 28, 2016 on 11:50 am

    Man-made Global Warming is NOT a threat… stop the nonsense.

  • shnfy February 1, 2016 on 3:13 pm

    The world was a much harsher place to survive in before we had all of this technology. Whats perhaps more likely is that increased ease of living has selected for people who would otherwise not have survived past childhood.

    • Quantium shnfy February 2, 2016 on 3:11 am

      Idiocracy had a brilliant message. However not everyone likes slapstick comedy, which unfortunately puts them off.

      As one of the UK’s Prime Ministers said in a speech after he lost an election, he had left the second most important job in the country for the most important one — being a father. (Gordon Brown)

      Unfortunately parenting can be done by anyone with no education whatsoever, and that is a problem for which there is no real solution. The best that can be done is to offer “domestic science” education for anyone who wants it, and hope that their offspring remain in the majority.

  • suzi February 5, 2016 on 4:28 am

    That initial 44% statement is completely wrong on so many levels and should be removed.

    Todays death rate by accidents is 3.8%.

    Dying of cancer or heart failure are not “choices” you can make today, no matter what you do you will die from one or the other unless something else kills you first.

    A hundred years ago you simply didn’t have the choice to NOT die of some infectious disease we can easily cure today.

    Worst, it doesn’t account for all the people who didn’t die today because of good choices ( medicine, vaccination, etc )

    So his entire statement is based on a completely false fact, makes it hard to take the rest seriously.

    Please fix this 🙂