Foolhardy theorists brace themselves in Kilkenny as quick-wits plan for last laugh

Making economists uncomfortable is part of what the Kilkenomics Festival is all about

Having a laugh at the Kilkenomics Festival in Kilkenny yesterday were Dan Ariely, Bill Black and David McWilliams. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan

Having a laugh at the Kilkenomics Festival in Kilkenny yesterday were Dan Ariely, Bill Black and David McWilliams. Photograph: Dylan Vaughan


Three economists walk into a bar (okay, it’s actually a cafe) and meet a journalist. One is Dr Dan Ariely, the Israeli behavioural economist, Duke University professor and author. He is delivering the keynote Raymond Crotty lecture tonight at this year’s Kilkenomics Festival. The other is Ariely’s long-time friend, Ron Weisberg, chief executive of IBI Investment House. The third is David McWilliams, co-founder of the aforementioned Kilkenny- based economics and comedy festival.

McWilliams met Ariely at Google Zeitgeist – “Google’s version of Ted,” says McWilliams – and convinced him to come to Ireland. “It’s hard to say no to David,” says Ariely.

Ariely is a likeable, intense academic who regularly breaks into bouts of considered theorising. “I have to tell you, I’m a little afraid of stand-up comedians,” he says. “They’re incredibly fast. Academics are not. There’s a wit comedians have. It’s an unfair advantage! We’re used to taking a question and thinking about it for a long time, these comedians have a skill of quickness.”

McWilliams says that making economists uncomfortable is part of what Kilkenomics is all about. Comedians, he says, ask the “why” questions that stop those foolhardy theorists in their tracks.

“Economists are like medieval priests,” he says. “We have a relationship with God – the economy. Then we speak to you in Latin.”

Ariely’s talk will be on the subject of dishonesty, but he is involved in other panel events. He recently published a book, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty, and is working on a documentary on the subject.

“I started by interviewing big cheaters, [people responsible for] insider trading, accounting fraud, cheating in sports, but then we started going around and asking people for their regular lies. Lies people tell are just amazing. What’s interesting is if you look at the big cheaters almost all of them started with little lies.”

Indeed, some of those little lies have been perpetuated by economists. Behavioural economics, Ariely’s field, focuses on the psychological quirks and irrationalities of human decision-making. Behavioural economists unravel the certainties of classical economics.

“There’s a joke where a guy goes to a psychologist with a problem and the psychologist says, ‘describe the problem, but I don’t think I’ll have anything to tell you’. Then he goes to an economist and the economist says, ‘you came to the right place! I have a solution for you. Now tell me what the problem is.’ . . . Economics can explain maybe 25 per cent of behaviour. Admitting this would be more intellectually honest but economists wouldn’t get such well-paid jobs.” Behavioural economists like Ariely build their economic theories on real-world psychological experiments. They go outside the university, he says, “to restaurants and coffee shops”.

Ariely is seemingly interested in everything. He is interested in religion. He is interested in the psychology of hospital treatment (in his teens Ariely had an accident leading to burns on over 70 per cent of his body). He is interested in the economics of dating. He recounts a conversation with a barman about the psychology/ economics of buying drinks for strange women in bars. I don’t quite follow the logic, but it leads to some learned bickering between the three economists (dating “tactics” are analysed).

Ariely currently has his mind on quick-witted comedians. “They probably have general strategies,” he says. “I tried to get Jon Stewart [host of the Daily Show] to do some experiments with me but he was uninterested. The reality is we don’t know what’s funny. There’s a theory that ‘funny’ is a sort of violation but that it can’t be too extreme.”

As if to demonstrate, he tells a dirty joke involving a priest and a rabbi. There’s a mixture of laughter and groaning.

“That’s not for the paper,” he says. It certainly isn’t.

The Raymond Crotty lecture with Dan Ariely is at 8pm today in the Set Theatre, Kilkenny