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On NBC's "The Irrational," Psychology Solves Crimes

The drama is loosely based on the life of Dan Ariely, for better and worse.

Key points

  • NBC's "The Irrational" follows behavioral scientist Alec Mercer who helps law enforcement solve crimes.
  • Mercer is loosely based on real-life behavioral economist Dan Ariely.
  • Dan Ariely has faced some recent allegations of fraud and lack of rigor in his work.
  • But most of the psychology in the show is based on classic findings, not Ariely's research.
Sergei Bachlakov/NBC
A scene from "The Irrational".
Sergei Bachlakov/NBC

NBC’s new crime procedural, "The Irrational," will seem immediately familiar to fans of shows like "Bones," "Monk," "Castle," or "The Mentalist," where consultants use their unique expertise, skills, or perspective to aid law enforcement in solving crimes. "The Irrational" centers around professor and behavioral scientist Alec Mercer (played by Jesse L. Martin, best known for his many years on "Law & Order"), so his unique perspective is a deep insight into human behavior, most of which is based on real-life psychological science. For this reason, the show is most reminiscent of "Lie to Me," which was loosely based on Paul Ekman’s research on facial expressions and emotion.

If you enjoyed any of these past shows, chances are, you’ll like "The Irrational" too. In the three episodes I saw, the whodunnit mysteries were varied and interesting, if not especially surprising—they were generally more about why somebody did something than who was responsible—and the show found some neat ways of having the key investigative milestones turn on Mercer’s psychological insights.

For example, in the third episode, the detectives begin following a false lead after misinterpreting what someone said on a garbled recording. Mercer shows them how their faulty interpretation was shaped by their prior expectations, a classic case of top-down or context-dependent perception.

Because the show revolves around the Alec Mercer character—his expert insights, a tragic incident from his past, his personal relationships—how much you like the show will depend largely on how much you like Mercer. To me, the other characters feel like bland afterthoughts whose main purpose is to remind us how amazing Mercer is.

Luckily, the show is helped tremendously by a compelling performance by Jesse L. Martin. If nothing else, he makes it easy to believe why every other character’s attention is so quickly drawn to Mercer.

The Show's Connection to Behavioral Economist Dan Ariely

Perhaps one reason Mercer’s character feels so much more specific than everyone else is that he’s based on a real person: behavioral economist and Duke University professor Dan Ariely. Mercer and Ariely don’t just have a job in common; they share a powerful backstory about a childhood injury that scarred their bodies and ultimately led to their interest in irrational behavior. Martin even seems to be doing a vague Dan Ariely impression (minus the Israeli accent).

The timing of the show's debut could be seen as unfortunate given these strong ties to Ariely, who is currently facing allegations of research fraud. Two years ago, one of his most famous co-authored papers was retracted after data from one of its studies was shown to be altered; so far, Ariely has had difficulty accounting for the source of the fraud. An Israeli investigative news program The Source has also recently called into question the reliability and veracity of some of Ariely’s most well-known studies.

These allegations are serious. But how much of Ariely’s work is actually depicted in "The Irrational"?

Based on the three episodes I watched, not much. The only reference to Ariely’s own research I noticed was his work on the unique draw of free stuff, which Mercer and his colleagues used in one episode to root out a suspect in hiding by offering to send him a free gift—not exactly a ploy that requires a brilliant psychologist to come up with.

The rest of the show was full of psychology—but basically a highlights reel from an Intro Psych textbook. The first episode alone included discussion about people’s susceptibility to false confessions and the fallibility of memory, the cocktail party effect, and the use of reciprocity as a means of persuasion, among others.

In nearly every case, the concepts were clearly explained and generally correctly illustrated. If you’re looking for a not-too-heavy (if somewhat formulaic) show that will illustrate a few psychology concepts (mostly accurately) every once in a while, you could do a lot worse than "The Irrational."

In one episode, Mercer meets with a journalist who at one point had called his research “pop culture junk science”—perhaps the show making an oblique reference to the real Ariely’s critics. But almost immediately, the journalist explains she never published her article on Mercer because she determined his work was “unimpeachable.”

If only the real Dan Ariely’s work was as unimpeachable as the fictional Alec Mercer’s.

"The Irrational" debuts on NBC on September 25th with episodes streaming the next day on Peacock. I’ve seen the first three episodes.

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