Sex, anger and getting to work: Designing around temptation

Ask yourself, and be honest, did you eat more than you should have today? Did you sleep less than the recommended eight hours? Have you ever been tempted to cheat on your spouse? Would the answer to that last question change if you were sexually aroused? What drives us to give into temptation and act contrary to our best interests? Too few people seem to be able to find relief from temptation. And the costs can be high: diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, bankruptcy, decimated relationships or even death, among other consequences.

The age-old symbol of temptation: the apple. Photo by Flickr user Beshef
The age-old symbol of temptation: the apple. Photo by Flickr user Beshef

The first meeting of "Taming Temptation: Designs for Self Control" convened in Studio 2 at the d.school. The class is one of the d's popular pop-up courses -- a zero-credit, short-term lecture series that brings students together around a central theme. This pop-up features Dan Ariely, a visiting professor at the d.school and the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology & Behavioral Economics at Duke University. He is also the author of "The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty". A New York Times Bestselling author and a regular contributor to The Wall Street Journal, Ariely is a sought-after expert when it comes to what drives us to give into temptation.


He joins d.school Managing Director Sarah Stein Greenberg and d.school Director of Executive Education Jeremy Utley in teaching this pop-up class.

"Looking at the world around us, you can think that the goal of the world around us is to tempt us," says Ariely. Everything from social media to coffee tempts us in some way. And time is a key factor as well. Our responses to temptations change when a consequence or reward is placed nearer to or further from us on the timeline.

"In the future," says Ariely, " we're wonderful people."

But when temptation is close -- a cookie right up under your nose, say -- emotion and cognition pull a switcheroo, replacing one another. Then, with emotion at the wheel, we give in. And, says Ariely, emotions are like computer programs. Once they start running, they take over and "just go."

In terms of design thinking, this raises some key questions. Empathy, for example, is the first element of the design thinking practice. But how can you empathize with another person if you don't fully understand what controls and drives you? Now, layered on top of that, how do you design around temptation if, as a human being, you are so naturally susceptible to temptation yourself? How do we transcend something so basic? As Ariely says, when it comes to temptation, the ramifications of our inability to resist are "big, important and only going to get worse."

But Ariely is not only in the class to teach. He's at the d.school to learn as well. I asked him what he hoped to take away from his work at the d.school, and here's what he had to say:

"I am hoping to learn about the design approach from experts (Sarah and Jeremy). I think about social science as a tool for designing a better world, not just for physical things like computers but things like saving plans, retirement account[s], health insurance etc. -- but I don't really know anything about design. So this is my chance to learn about it. And I am not sure if you realized, but I take part in all the exercises in order to experience and learn about it. Plus, I hope to learn from the students about the problems that they (you) are struggling with and see what approaches people are thinking about, interested in, and are willing to engage in."

In the interest of full disclosure, I re-scheduled a flight (at no small cost, at least for me) to make sure I could attend all of the sessions as required. I am curious to see how students apply the design thinking process to one of the most pernicious temptations: the temptation to, as comedian Stephen Colbert has put it, "[make] a better tomorrow ... tomorrow." That's right, boys and girls, procrastination. Why do we do it? What drives us? If you're reading this, you're probably procrastinating right now. So get back to work. The last homework task for this pop-up was, not surprisingly, not to procrastinate.