“The unknown, the mysterious, is where art and science meet.” – Albert Einstein
Inside the bubble of academia that houses the Center for Advanced Hindsight, we welcome a refreshing break to look up from our computers and try on a fresh perspective from the outside world. And what better place to look than the art community?
Behavioral research, an indispensable tool for social scientists, can be used to understand and comment on our lives. Controlled experiments allow us to measure and reflect on issues ranging from inequality to advertising, the taste of beer to medical conflicts of interest, and social networks. It is a fantastic way to test whether our intuitions about the world are true and figure out when, how, and why we are wrong. And although there are many differences between the worlds of Science and Art, both can provide useful social commentary. Interestingly, it is these very differences that invite a discussion between the two. We hope that, through this project, the scientific and artistic approaches can fertilize one another and open the lines of communication among two fields that have so much in common, but speak to one another so rarely.
The Artistically Irrational exhibit series is essentially an experiment in feedback loops, an exploration of the dialogue between science and art. Each project begins with a discussion of the social science research (on the nature of dishonesty or inequality, for example) and a request for artists to reflect on the topic through their art. The artists then provide us with their output, and we can further reflect on our research through their eyes.
We live on a continuum of social and financial worlds, maneuvering between the two constantly. But sometimes, things are better left untainted by money. Introducing financial norms to social situations can bring unintended consequences, leaving people unwilling to cooperate and with a sour taste in their mouths. A date can feel like prostitution with the introduction of money; a gift can seem offensive when accompanied by mention of its dollar value. Market Mixers is an exploration of the tangled web of efficient markets versus human markets, revealing that you simply can't build social capital with cash.
Dan Ariely will host an exclusive discussion about the interaction between social and market norms on Thursday, September 26th, 7 PM EST. After this discussion, artists who have attended will be invited to submit a proposal for new artwork to be created in response to this research. Accepted proposals will be included in the group exhibition Market Mixers at the Nasher Museum in Spring 2015.
Labor leads to love. Research shows that when we expend effort in creating something, we place a higher value on the fruits of our labors than similar products that we had no hand in making. Also known as the IKEA effect, this phenomenon explains why we have such an affinity for our own creations but fail to fully appreciate the works of others.
DIY: The Magic of Making takes an introspective look at the science of producing art, with a twist. Rather than one artist creating one piece of art, two minds will work together to forge a partnership between unlikely pairs: student and professor.
In this collaborative project, art students at Duke and UNC will match themselves with professors at their respective universities to create a work of art together -- inspired by the professors' research.
Self-control is the problem of considering what we want now versus what is good for us in the long-term. When our preferences in the moment are inconsistent with our ideals for the future, we are stuck battling the heat of the moment – which sadly has a much more pronounced influence over our decisions than our aspirations for the distant future. In other words, that half box of chocolate that we could receive now looks much more appealing than the whole box of chocolates that we could get if we waited a week.
If you think about the environment we live in, you will notice that it is essentially designed to challenge every grain of self-control that we possess. Businesses have the means and motivation to get us to do things NOW, not later. Krispy Kreme wants us to buy a dozen doughnuts now (while they are hot); Best Buy wants us to buy a television before we leave the store today. And as technologies (like iPhones) develop, they only become more tempting to use when we shouldn’t (for example, while driving). In a world of increasing distractions and temptations, the importance of overcoming self-control problems becomes even more apparent.
Several decades ago, Walter Mischel began investigating the determinants of delayed gratification in children. He found that the degree of self-control independently exerted by preschoolers who were tempted with small rewards (but told they could receive larger rewards if they resisted) is predictive of grades and social competence in adolescence. And the evidence for the importance of self-control is still building. A recent study by colleagues of mine at Duke demonstrates the role that self control plays – not only in better cognitive and social outcomes in adolescence, but in many other factors and into adulthood. In this study, the researchers found that individuals with lower self-control experienced negative outcomes, with greater rates of health issues like sexually transmitted infections, substance dependence, financial problems including poor credit and lack of savings, and even crime. These results show that self-control can have a deep influence on a wide range of activities. But there is also some good news: if we can find a way to improve self-control, it’s possible that we could improve wide spanning life outcomes such as these. To do this, we can create incentives and restrictions that motivate or force us to stick with our long-term goals rather than giving in to instant gratification.
So, how do we stick to our commitments? One helpful metaphor for overcoming self-control problems is found in the tale of Ulysses and the sirens. Ulysses knew that the sirens’ enchanting song could lead him to follow them to his demise, but he didn’t want to fall prey to their spell. At the same time, he didn’t want to deprive himself from hearing their song – so he asked his sailors to tie him to the mast so that he could hear the song of the sirens but resist their lure (essentially, having his cake but not eating it too). Was Ulysses able to resist temptation? It depends how you look at it. While he did get to hear the sirens’ song, he was able to come up with a strategy that prevented him from being able to act on his impulses. Ulysses’ ability to exert self-control is less connected to a natural zen-like quality in the face of temptation, and more linked to the ability to reconfigure the environment in a way that would help him avoid temptation from the get-go. We, too, can tie ourselves to the mast and create strategies that would prevent us from following our temptations.
For the Restraining Order art show at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, we attempted to impose this kind of a restriction on our participating artists. We set up self-control rules for the exhibition, embedding the concept of self-control into the artistic process itself. We not only asked our artists to ruminate on the topic of self-control, but had them give us their best shot at exhibiting it themselves by working on their projects a bit each week until the final deadline, and sending us weekly proof of their progress. As humans, we have the tendency to procrastinate until the last minute, not just on completing homework assignments or submitting expense reports, but even when doing something fulfilling like creating art. We decided to take control of this natural tendency, forcing the 26 artists to exert self-control, and observe how this would affect the process and the outcome of the art.
How did things turn out? With the imposition of weekly deadlines, fewer than half of the artists submitted something for each week. And only 20% of the artists submitted their photos on time. And yet, in my research I have found that externally imposed deadlines are effective in improving task performance. Of course, we don’t know how the artists would have behaved if they were left to their own devices, so we have no comparison – but I suspect that if we had not provided any deadlines, they (like most people) would have had an even tougher time battling procrastination.
Further evidence for this is seen in the fact that the artists, too, felt that the deadlines were a healthy, motivating force against procrastination. When we asked the artists whether the deadlines helped them stay on track, almost all of them agreed that having deadlines improved their process.
So, while the effects of deadlines on the artistic process seem to suggest that it was useful, what did we learn about the outcomes? From a purely subjective glimpse at the array of pieces that we received for this exhibit, it appears that there was an overall theme of structure and segmentation. The pieces are bound by rigidity, constrained by order. A few of the artists divided their work into panels that represented the time they had to complete the project, calendar-like creations that kept them on schedule.
Additionally, we found that the artists in this exhibit tended to set their prices much higher on average than those in previous shows. For Creative Dishonesty: Cheat Codes, the average listed price was $570, and for PoorQuality: Inequality, the average list price (excluding one exorbitantly priced outlier) was $695. For this Restraining Order exhibit, however, the average price jumped to $1,093. Consistent with our research on the IKEA effect, it may be that artists valued their work at a higher price because they invested more effort into the project and devoted more time and thought to the process. And if this is the case, maybe we should add deadlines to all of our shows!
Thirty-four artists were invited to create innovative and engaging artwork after a stimulating discussion on social and economic inequality, wealth distribution, and what is so taxing about taxation.
Some chose to explore how to visualize analytical data. Suzanne Broughel used color to interpret the U.S. racial wealth gap by decorating a white bed sheet “canvas” with coin marks made by dipping quarters and pennies in liquid foundation makeup and pressing them on the fabric. Peter Lisignoli, an MFA student at Duke University, became interested in how one represents the absence of food. He photographed a Quick-n-Go market to rethink how space and time are rendered by such a space. Despite his efforts to tackle the social issue of food inequality, his project changed focus toward the ghettoizing gaze of the surveillance camera. Jody Servon's piece attracted much attention and even a bit of controversy with her wall of dollar bills.
Other artists explored the capacity for art to spark an emotional response to the research presented by the Center for Advanced Hindsight. Leslie Salzillo’s “The Rise of Soraya M (What Does that Make Her?)” honors all women who have suffered small and great injustices created by the unequal legal and social double standards misinterpreted to dehumanize women.
At the Center for Advanced Hindsight, we do quite a bit of research on cheating and dishonesty. We spoke to a group of artists who, research on their minds, went back to their studios to put together their interpretations of our findings. And they came back with a range of pieces, from depictions of dishonesty in their work to the embodiment of straddling the moral line themselves through various degrees of artistic “borrowing,” some less scrupulous than others. One artist played with the idea of citation, which is virtually nonexistent in art but is a practice with rigid requirements in the sciences (APA, 2010). Another considered how the mere label of “art” affects how we experience something, whether it is a flattened steel grid or a topsy turvy urinal. Other artists examined the spiral of bad decisions that can spring from one little transgression. And how moral reminders or cleansing rituals can help us correct our misdeeds and start over. Many explored the ways that we lie to others and ourselves, how we hold distorted worldviews and memories – and the rationalizations that go along with them.
All of these pieces revolved around a central finding of our research – the tendency of creatives to be less honest than non-creatives. And as David Hockney said, “the moment you cheat for the sake of beauty, you know you're an artist.”