Erik Van Alstine

Erik Van Alstine

Author. Leadership strategist. Expert in Perceptual IntelligenceTM.

Dan Ariely, Email, and the Root of Evil

Ever email someone and they don’t email back? Text and they don’t text back? We feel put off, like we don’t matter. Or frustrated because we can’t get cooperation.

  • “Nothing is more irritating,” says Billie Blair, president of a consulting firm.
  • “My readers’ prime complaint,” says Judith Kallos, who runs a site on email etiquette, “is that they feel they’re being ignored.”

When people feel ignored, they fire off flame-mails and badmouth the culprit to friends and co-workers. Or the payback is more subtle. “I am less likely to jump to respond to people if they fail to respond to me in a timely manner and a downward spiral ensues,” says a VP of operations at a software firm.

Dan Ariely’s Email Gauntlet

In the middle of this climate of social obligation and resentment, there’s my friend Dan Ariely. He’s a popular guy: a Duke University professor of psychology and behavioral economics; a New York Times bestselling author of several books; a renowned TED talker (His talks have been viewed almost 8 million times now).

When I first emailed Dan years ago, I saw how his contact form asked me to run a gauntlet.

  • First he writes, “Before you write me, please see if my FAQs below answer your question.” There are eight questions with video answers. I checked my topic against the videos.
  • Then, “What is this about?” There’s a drop-down list of options. I had to select one from the list.
  • Then a form entry that reads, “How urgent is this?” There are four options.
  • Then a bullet that reads, “Do you need a reply?” The options are “Yes please” and “No, this is just to let you know.”
  • Then a subject line which reads, “Be as specific as possible.”
  • Then a message box, which reads, “Go straight to the point. Make this a multiple choice question if possible. Say who you are in the ‘bio’ field below.”
  • Then there are boxes for email and name, and options to add a website and bio.
  • Finally there’s a required checkbox that reads, “I have followed Dan’s requests and I believe my email is valuable to him.”

Dan tells me this form eliminates most inquiries, as people realize their message isn’t priority for Dan or not worth the effort.

Nevertheless, I completed the form. I didn’t expect Dan to reply, but to my surprise, he did.

His reply was unusual, a short message with an attached audio that read, “Dear friend, I am trying to save on typing, so here is an audio recording of my message…” I clicked the audio and there was Dan, talking through his response as he’d leave a voicemail.

I liked the personal touch. Dan says, “I find that email can’t convey the emotion and tone I want to get across. Audio is quicker, easier, and it captures the heart of what I want to say better than text can.” Dan also created an app called Vail so others can do the same thing.

“What is this nonsense about not doing email?”

People often bristle at Dan’s terrifying front-gate and lack of response. “I get emails from people who are offended that I didn’t get back to them,” Dan tells me, “and sometimes it gets abusive.”

Again, people feel justified in their resentment. There’s a social obligation to respond, and when guys like Dan don’t email back, people see him as irresponsible or arrogant. That makes him ripe for payback. They insult him. They shame him. They put him down.

But there’s a twist in the story. Here’s a video that shows the real reason Dan doesn’t email very much.


I remember watching this for the first time. It was at least a year after several of our email exchanges, so it came as a shock. Before watching, I’d get these voicemails from Dan and thought nothing of why he did them, other than the fact that voice captures tone and emotion better and is faster than typing.

So when I saw this video, it moved me. I put together my own audio and emailed it back to Dan, and titled it, “Misperception, the root of evil.” Dan responded with an audio, then we decided to rope Roy Baumeister in the conversation, for reasons you’ll understand as you listen to these three audio files.

Erik’s Voicemail to Dan: Misperception, a Root of Evil

Dan’s Reply to Erik

Erik talks with Roy Baumeister on Misperception and Evil

The Bottom Line

After reading and listening, I get a fresh desire for truth. Not just for the big truths about good and evil, but for the small ways we can miss the truth, and how our own mistaken perceptions can automatically influence error and cruelty.

How much evil and drama and conflict might we sweep out of our own lives if we could stop, check ourselves, and get the right view instead of jumping to conclusions?

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