Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.
My boyfriend and I have been together for a while, and people ask us whether we’re going to get married. We get along great and love each other very much, but I just don’t see the point of marriage. Why not just live together in a civil union and be happy the way things are? Aside from the cost, is there any point to this elaborate ritual?
I have no research on this topic, but allow me to share a story that might help you to think about the question.
When I was 19 and spending time in a hospital in Israel, recovering from severe burns, I had a friend there named David, who had been badly injured in the army while disassembling a land mine. He lost one of his hands and an eye and also had injuries to his legs and some scars. When Rachel, his girlfriend of several months, broke up with him, the other patients in the department were furious with her. How could she be so disloyal and shallow? Did their love mean nothing to her? Interestingly, David was better able to see her side, and he was not as negative as the rest of us about her decision.
Think about Rachel in the story above. Does her behavior upset you? How might your feelings differ if it had been a longer-term relationship, if they were engaged or in a civil union, or if they were married? And how would you behave if you were in Rachel’s position in each of these relationships?
I suspect that your level of scorn for Rachel will depend to a large degree on the type of relationship she had with David. I also suspect that your predictions about your own decision to stick with a partner who just experienced an awful injury would similarly depend on the type of relationship. If your assessment changes when you stipulate that David and Rachel were married, this suggests that publicly saying “for better and for worse” really means something to you.
Obviously, marriage is not some magical superglue for relationships; the high divorce rate is no secret. But marriage can serve a very real purpose by bolstering commitment and feeling in long-term relationships, all of which inevitably hit rough patches. So while I wouldn’t advocate marriage in all situations, I do think it’s worth thinking about the ways in which it can strengthen the bond between people.
When I go to a public bathroom, I often think about which stall I should use. Any advice?
I assume that your practical aim is to figure out which bathroom stall is likely to have been used the least. But what you are really asking is what drives other peoples’ choices in this important domain.
If those who patronize public bathrooms usually choose a stall based on which toilet they think is used the least, they will all choose the one they think is used least—which as a result, ironically, would be that most of them would use the same toilet. Therefore, you would be advised to pick the opposite (i.e., the stall that people think gets the most traffic). Following this logic, if people expect the stall farthest from the entrance to be the most popular, they will avoid using it—leaving it relatively more clean and unused than the others.
But what happens if people are more sophisticated than that? What if they come to the restroom with this same understanding and as a consequence pick what they think is the opposite of what other people think, or the opposite of the opposite?
All of this boils down to a more essential question: How sophisticated do you think other people are?
Personally, I believe people generally take about one step in their logical thinking. So I would say: Choose the opposite of the opposite and select the stall that people think will be used the most.
I enjoy Twitter, but I find that some people tweet very frequently, sometime as often as a dozen times an hour. When their face shows up again and again, I begin ignoring their messages. By contrast, when people tweet just once a day, I’m more likely to pay attention to what they say. Is this just me or does it reflect a larger principle?
I suspect that this feeling is very common. I also imagine that very few people have dozens of interesting things to say a day, much less an hour. Perhaps Twitter is a place where a system based on limits and scarcity (maybe two tweets a day) would be better for everyone.
See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.