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Our ‘Surprise Endings’ Class, Valentine’s Day, 2013

“Surprise Endings:  Literature and Social Science,” taught in Spring 2013 by behavioral economics professor Dan Ariely and literature professor Cathy Davidson, is a for-credit Duke University course on the methods and insights of social scientists and of writers on seven key topics:  self control, relativity and defaults, obedience and resistance, racism and political correctness, social proof, gender and success, and honesty and dishonesty.

Throughout the term, students worked in four-person project teams to design  assignments and give feedback to the other students.  They also wrote a script and interviewed Profs Ariely and Davidson on the main course topics, edited the interviews, and uploaded them to a public website.

Each student team also created a mini-course on the topic as a final project.

We invite you to explore this website to experience many different aspects of this student-driven course, especially the final projects.


The Instructors:

Dan Ariely

Photo of Dan Ariely

DAN ARIELY is James B. Duke Professor of Psychology Behavorial Economics, Center for Cognitive Neuroscience; Kenan Institute for Ethics, Business, Fuqua School of Business, DIBS Faculty, Member, DIBS Center, D-CIDES Member.

As a behavioral economist I study how people actually act in the marketplace, as opposed to how they should or would perform if they were completely rational. I study a wide range of daily behaviors such as buying (or not), saving (or not), ordering food in restaurants, pain management, procrastination, dishonesty, and decision making under different emotional states.


Cathy Davidson

Cathy Davidson

CATHY DAVIDSON is Ruth F. DeVarney Professor of English and John Hope Franklin Institute Prof of Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke University; Co-Director, PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge.Educator, innovator, author of  NOW YOU SEE IT: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. Cofounder, HASTAC; codirector, HASTAC/MacArthur Digital Media and Learning Competition.   Davidson’s primary research interest is the relationship between technological change, communication, cultural forms (novels, films, websites, games), and innovative ways of  learning and teaching in the digital age.

“Surprise Endings” won’t solve life’s puzzles–but it should make students more prepared for life’s surprises, wiser about the ways to handle them, and smarter about the different ways that empiricism and artistry–social science and storytelling–can be used for learning, persuasion, and sometimes, if we’re lucky, insight and introspection.

  1. Thank you for opening this wonderful course to the public! What a dynamic rethinking of MOOCs with important new strategies for on-site teaching also. I have watched the videos as they are posted, read the articles, and followed some of the extensive student blogging (wish I had time to read more of it). It gives me the chance to “go back to school” and realign some of my own classroom practices. (I’m a professor in the Spanish Department at UC Santa Barbara.)

    Already this quarter, I’ve told my literature students about various articles Dan’s posted–self-control, deadlines, attention blindness, defaults, etc. and implemented new learning strategies. Rather than assigning term papers to be turned in two weeks later (usually spewed out a day or two prior), I’ve set up a series of deadlines for them to blog in smaller groups–brainstorming, posting thesis statements, opening paragraphs, rough drafts, and commenting on fellow students’ work over the two weeks. This brought up discussions about American individualism, team work, interactive learning, generosity, and re-thinking received notions of originality and property. Yesterday I showed them the cucumber/grape video to urge transcending our competitive instincts in this project at least.

    I hope soon to implement new iterations of the term paper that will involve careful thinking and writing processes with multimedia enhancements. Next quarter I’ll be teaching an Honors Seminar on enhanced e-books in which we’ll integrate some of the team strategies I learned about in your class with reading, writing, and thinking about this new cultural phenomenon. We’ll be using iBook Author for individual writing projects and, ultimately, a class authored volume posted in iBooks.

    I look forward to the rest of the readings, the final student projects, and the chance to “be there” through the videos. Congratulations to all the students, grad assistants, videographers, Cathy and Dan for a superb learning experience and for sharing this with us far and near.

    Comment by Ellen McCracken on March 8, 2013 at 11:53 am

  2. Discuss any insights, objections, parallels, or connections that you gained from these readings (DO NOT include summaries of the readings).

    What questions do you have that you would like to hear Professors Ariely and Davidson discuss and offer their opinions on?

    Category 1

    Category 2

    “The Emperor’s New Clothes” demonstrates how very profitable social proof can be. Materialism has escalated in the United States fostering opinion that it may be a cornerstone of societal patterns. It seems to me that social proof increases materialistic tendencies because our tangible, quantifiable goods at market price can be easily compared to those of other people. We learned in the interview on relativity and default with Professors Cathy and Dan that we often make decisions based on comparisons. It is easy to compare the progress of us with others in our lives when achievement can be easily empirically measured.

    The Obedience, Evil and Resistance group posted the article about the five psychological experiments that prove humanity is doomed. My “favorite” of the experiments proved to be The Asch Conformity Experiment (1953). The Asch Conformity Experiment illustrated that the beliefs of even strangers greatly impact maybe not what we belief, but what we communicate out loud. I wonder how to measure if there is a difference in social proof amongst friends and strangers. Are we more comfortable with friends and open about our opinions or are we more concerned with the long-term consequences of our actions? On the other hand we could also foster more trust for friends compared to strangers leading to more herd behavior. I would ask Professors Cathy and Dan if they think advertisements are as strong of determinants as conversations with friends?

    Category 3

    Social media like Facebook and Twitter increase the opportunities for the social proof impact of one individual. Differences otherwise hidden or ignored can become apparent even with the absence of an action. The internet has transformed how we are impacted by norms. Voting I think now is not a purely personal decision even though there is no one with you in the voting booth. In my social media circles the absence of posting political comments or statuses on Facebook is meaningful. Despite all of these new social media inputs some contributing factors to social proof might always take present. For example the parent’s political values are huge factor of those of their children . In a Gallup study (71%) of teenagers said their social and political ideology is about the same their parents.

    Question: Muzafer Sherif writes that norms appear stupid, and contrary to all notions of “common sense,” to a person whose thinking and behavior are regulated by norms of a different culture. Does social proof encourage a culture to be more extreme or must cultural norms remain tame to be appropriate for the greatest number of people?

    Category 4

    The first question that came to mind while reading the Hans Christian Anderson piece was why did the emperor never noticed that he wasn’t wearing clothes? Did he question his own self-confidence and faith as a leader? As we discussed during the relativity and default interview it is much easier to compare others than comparing our own qualities with others. The piece by J.M. Noland confirms these ideas. Yet our own understandings of our own decisions may be rather context specific. The excerpt from Brave New World discusses how says, “Adults intellectually and during working hours… Infants where feeling and desire are concerned”(4). I am very interest how the character, Bernard, thinks that we can be rational in the workplace and then completely irrational in our social lives. This is very true for Duke Students who according to the article ”A Tent City for Fun and Profit” who might have the privilege to transform their reality into another (crazier) version in spare time. The article highlights the seemingly humble conditions of K-ville compared to the grand resources. The author, Bill Morris, believes that more privileged behavior could include not to utilizing basic comforts. I wonder what percentage of Duke students who have tented in K-ville have actually camped in natural environments?

    Taking into account Professor Cathy’s experience noticing the gorilla I notice two steps necessary for social advancement: First we must have the capacity to recognize the gorilla, and second we must have the courage to voice the information.
    Question: Which of these steps is a more difficult challenge for us?

    Where do you see social proof in your own life?

    I really enjoyed the project proposed by the Self Control group that utilizes social proof in order to mitigate our weaknesses or even exceed them. While I very much enjoyed the readings this week, most of the themes focus on the negative possibilities of social proof. This week I have noticed how social proof plays into my own involvement in philanthropic endeavors and volunteering. This semester I often considered my preferences to be against social proof common at Duke including tenting and Greek life. Yet even our decisions to act differently are contingent upon these norms. In my case what I would have considered a natural behavior transformed into active decisions at Duke University. Even when we go against norms we still operate under the same assumptions and center of reference. Thus in my life I don’t consider my alternative choices to be independent.

    Comment by Phia on March 8, 2013 at 7:15 pm

  3. Altruism

    The discussion of altruism is both fascinating and extremely relevant to the topic of dishonesty. Understanding the scientific underpinnings of altruism provides an important element to supplement the philosophical debates I have always had about altruism. One interesting connection this reading prompted me to make was to Peter Kropotkin’s Mutual Aid commentary that I read in a prior class. Kropotkin observes in both history and in biology the existence of individuals prospering through cooperation and collaboration. His thesis is that populations that thrive are not divided and in competition, they are rather the populations that stress mutual aid and altruism. Kropotkin and Triver’s reading are mutually reinforcing and make for a compelling narrative about the value of altruism. I am a little uncertain as to whether this truly constitutes altruism though. I would ask the professors, if an individual makes a short-term sacrifice in expectation of its long term benefit, is this truly altruism? Isn’t this rather an example of the individual making a self-serving cost-benefit calculation that is just cognizant of the long run?


    I felt this research provided an interesting insight to the connection between narcissism and dishonesty – particularly as it pertains to academic cheating. Yet, I felt its conclusions were relatively unsurprising and failed to draw more important implications from the research. The recent Harvard cheating scandal elucidates that those who are typically most ambitious in their pursuit of success, are also those who use the least honest means to achieve their desired ends. I want to stress that this should not be interpreted as a hasty generalization; I am not speaking about all students at elite universities or all successful people. I am saying that there is a high prevalence of cheating at elite institutions. Therefore, I would be far more interested in learning about where narcissism comes from. The essay opens discussion but does not reach a definitive solution as to whether narcissism is a psychological disorder or a trait. Such a discussion would have been far more insightful. Therefore, I would ask the Professors to clarify the argument as to whether narcissism should be characterized as a trait or a disorder? Additionally, I would like for them to offer insight as to how we might mitigate narcissism at top universities and amongst elite populations especially by fostering greater empathy, and collaborative skills amongst these populations?

    The Lie

    This short story was a remarkably compelling – and hyperbolic — demonstration of the self-perpetuating nature of dishonesty. Once someone tells a lie, it becomes much easier to rationalize the next lie. To put it in economic terms, lying has a high entry cost but then each individual lie seems to have a lower marginal cost. This is pretty intuitive logic; lies pile on each other and an old lie often necessitates new lies to cover them up. This may be intuitive, yet it is still a disturbing demonstration of human nature. It helps explain contemporary examples of dishonesty, such as Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme. The lie grew so large and so profound that they were almost believe as true and rationalized as acceptable. Their collapse was imminent but the perpetrators were ignorant of this fact. So, my questions for the professors is how do people rationalize lies and justify them? Do we forget about the depravity of a lie as we become more entrenched in it?


    I think there is a discussion that emerges near the end of the first chapter that is essential to this class discussion on dishonesty and deeply rooted in major philosophical debates. Smith wrote of the “innate honesty of mankind.” Socrates agreed “that people are generally good even without enforcement” (49) Locke agreed with this classical liberal position in the innate goodness of man. Hobbes disagreed. He and Burke and other conservatives have championed this argument as the idea underlying their political philosophy. They caution against unchecked freedom because they believe man must be kept in check by institutions and a social contract that cedes some freedoms for necessary securities. I am unconvinced that Freakonomics resolves this underlying and deep philosophical divide. Are people innately good and honest? If so, how can we understand narcissism and Ponzi Schemes and the prevalence of dishonesty throughout society? The book only presents a cursory discussion of this crucial debate. I hope the Professors can comment more on it. Do you view human nature from a Hobbesian or Lockean viewpoint? Are individuals inherently honest and good or are they deceptive and sinful?

    Comment by Cosmo Kramer on April 5, 2013 at 10:55 pm

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