Why do humans make certain choices? Why do they select candy over fruit, for example? And why do they partake of free offers that could lead to unhealthy choices?

These are the questions Dan Ariely explores as a behavioral economist. On February 20, he will share his research on irrationality during the annual PPE Distinguished Public Lecture, which he is titling “Free Beer.” Spoiler alert: there is no free beer — ever — because all freebies have a hidden cost.

“Behavioral economists look at how human beings actually make decisions and behave and not how they are assumed to behave according to highly idealized models,” said Michael Moehler, director of Virginia Tech’s Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics, which is hosting the lecture in collaboration with its co-sponsor, the Data and Decisions destination area.

“Behavioral economists use models and facts from related disciplines such as psychology, sociology, anthropology, and biology to increase their understanding of human cognition and to arrive at more descriptively accurate predictions about human behavior than neoclassical economic theory,” Moehler added. “In doing so, behavioral economists have significantly enhanced our understanding of theories of choice and preference.”

A New-York-Times–bestselling author, Ariely has published six books, including “Predictably Irrational,” “The Upside of Irrationality,” “The (Honest) Truth about Dishonesty,” “Irrationally Yours,” “Payoff,” and “Dollars and Sense.” He is also a TED Talks speaker with more than 10 million video views.

At Duke University, Ariely is the James B. Duke Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics and a founding member of the Center for Advanced Hindsight. The organization’s tagline is “Making people happier, healthier, and wealthier with behavioral science, at home and abroad.”

Ariely first became interested in what motivates human behavior when he was a teenager recovering from an accident that left 70 percent of his body covered in third-degree burns. For the course of his three-year recuperation, nurses often had to change his bandages. And this seemingly simple process had a profound effect on the one-day-famous psychologist and economist.

The nurses, in an effort to minimize the duration of his discomfort, quickly ripped the dressings from his wounds. Yet that caused him excruciating pain. When the bandages were removed slowly, however, the pain became bearable, which caused him to wonder why people misunderstand the consequences of their behaviors and make poor decisions. In this case, it was the nurses’ misguided notion that it was better to limit the duration of the pain than the intensity of it.

And these observations inspired Ariely to complete two doctoral degrees — one in business administration from Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and one in cognitive psychology from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. He now focuses his research on the reasons people make repeated and predictable wrong decisions and what they can do to change these patterns.

“Dr. Ariely’s work corresponds with major goals of our college,” said Rosemary Blieszner, dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences. “He seeks to increase understanding of the complex nature of human experience and provide insights into influences on behavioral choices.”

Ariely’s talk crosses many other areas of the university as well, which is why the Data and Decisions destination area is co-sponsoring the lecture. “With its principal goal of ensuring that Virginia Tech is a global destination for data analytics and decision sciences, the Data and Decisions destination area is a natural partner for the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics,” said Moehler, who is also an associate professor of philosophy.

The university’s destination areas are key spheres of focus that combine academic and research strengths with innovative transdisciplinary teams, tools, and processes.

“Dr. Ariely’s work is a prime example that having good data or information is important, yet even more critical is understanding how people might react to it,” said Sally Morton, dean of the College of Science and a destination area stakeholder. “This lecture will demonstrate the importance of bringing together skills from disciplines like psychology, economics, and neuroscience.”

Members of the university community and the public are invited to the free lecture, which will take place from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Moss Arts Center (190 Alumni Mall in Blacksburg), followed by a reception.

“People relate to Dr. Ariely’s research,” said Robert Sumichrast, dean of the Pamplin College of Business and a destination area stakeholder. “Everyone connects to the truth about human nature, and this lecture will make people think about their choices and why they make them.”

Written by Leslie King