unlikely inspirations

How a Terrible Accident Inspired Dan Ariely’s Career Path

DLD Conference 2009
Photo: Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

When he was a teenager, the Duke University behavioral economist Dan Ariely was horrifically burned in an accident at a graduation ceremony, when a flare was mistakenly lit and exploded right next to him. “The fire nearly killed me,” writes Ariely, author of the recently published Irrationally Yours, in a first-person column for The Wall Street Journal. “About 70% of my body was covered in third-degree burns.” But what could’ve sent a young man’s life careening off course ended up doing exactly the opposite. Today, Ariely believes that it was this painful period in his life that inspired his life’s work of studying human behavior. 

He spent the next three years in and out of hospitals and surgeries, and, he writes, “since I had little else to do and badly needed distraction, I began to notice and record things.” In particular, he started to wonder about the way his nurses handled the bandages that covered most of his body:

For example, every day, I had to have a soaking bath that involved removing my bandages and scraping off my dead skin and flesh. The nurses would rip off the dressings all at once, without a break. It was excruciating, but the nurses insisted that tearing the bandages off was the best way.

It’s the conventional wisdom, right? The best way to pull off a bandage is to rip the thing off quickly, getting the pain over with. But Ariely later found in his research that the opposite is true: People would rather endure a lower amount of pain for a longer period time than a very high amount of pain for a shorter time. “If my nurses, despite all their experience with burn victims, had erred in treating the patients they cared so much about, other professionals might also be misunderstanding the consequences of their behaviors and make poor decisions,” Ariely writes. In a way, this early observation of human irrationality would come to be the groundwork for much of Ariely’s work, including his best-selling 2010 book Predictably Irrational. Inspiration can sometimes strike in peculiar places. 

A Terrible Accident Led to Dan Ariely’s Career