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ALEX BEAM

In hindsight, he's way ahead of us

When I moved to Boston 23 years ago, my father offered me some counsel: Check out the geniuses at MIT.

Good advice! A few weeks ago, in the nether pages of The Wall Street Journal, I spotted a reference to the Center for Advanced Hindsight, domiciled at MIT. On his website, Professor Dan Ariely explains that center was founded about 10 years ago, during a not-so-stimulating academic confab in Chicago: "We were inspired to initiate the center by the simple, yet painful, fact that everyone around us was affiliated with some wonderful-sounding institution, and we felt left out. People around us were talking about CMR, SRI, DR, SDS, NSF, and over a nice Chicago pizza we decided to start a center that would capture what we do best."

Vanderbilt University business professor Steve Hoeffler , a founding member of the CAH, furnished the pitchers of beer that irrigated the center's founding. "If you want to know the winner of the Super Bowl, please call me on Monday," he offers, true to the center's core mission.

In hindsight, I'm glad I took the time to meet with Ariely and confirm that, yes, the center is really just a joke. "It's a joke, and it's also a commentary on the social sciences," Ariely explains. "If we hear something, or discover something new, we say that we knew it all along. It's endemic to all the disciplines."

Ariely boasts an impressive rack of credentials, including PhDs in psychology and business, as well as a joint appointment at MIT's Sloan School of Business and at the Media Lab. This year, Ariely is a fellow at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, treading the ground that Einstein trod.

Ariely specializes in consumer behavior and decision - making. Yes, some of his experiments seem to confirm things you already knew. Let's cut to the chase: He has a sense of humor, and he's not scared to use it. How can you not warm to an article in the journal Psychological Science called "Try It, You'll Like It," where the research was conducted at the Muddy Charles pub on Memorial Drive?

Co-written with two other academics, the paper examines beer drinkers' predisposition to like, or dislike, a beer after they've been told that it contains a dash of balsamic vinegar. Predictably, knowing that the beer has an unexpected ingredient skews the drinker's preference. Over coffee, Ariely tries to convince me that this paper has some important data about cognitive versus intuitional decision-making, and I'll have to take his word for it.

Managing expectations is his stock in trade. Before we met, Ariely said I would recognize him because "I have a lot of scars." (You can see his picture, and read about his burn accident at his website, web.mit.edu/ariely/www ) So after looking for a John Hurt/Elephant Man look - alike, I found myself shaking hands with a handsome, normal-looking 30- something academic. Prepared for something much worse, I think I am sitting across the table from Cary Grant.

With his research focusing on personal choices -- I'll be discussing his article for the Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, "In the Heat of the Moment: The Effect of Sexual Arousal on Sexual Decision-Making" in a future column -- Ariely's work would naturally lend itself to big-buck consultancies, no? Not really. "Consultants are hired to collect data and give answers," he explains, "I like to conduct experiments. Big corporations get nervous when they hear the word 'experiment.' "

"It's about where you want to spend those marginal hours," explains Wharton School professor Gal Zauberman , a friend and co founder of the CAH. "Dan's motivations are different from those of other people."

Ariely has researched so-called micropayments, which I long ago decided would bankroll the future of online journalism. For instance, you'd pay a dime to read this column on the Internet, wouldn't you? No way, says Ariely. "Micropayments aren't working anywhere," he asserts. What about iTunes, I counter? He thinks Apple may be leaving money on the table.

Maybe, maybe not. But I'm glad I took my father's advice about seeking out the geniuses.

Alex Beam is a Globe columnist. His e-dress is beam@globe.com.

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