Jul 06

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

As you creep along in a traffic jam, someone inevitably tries to enter your lane from the side. Now here is the issue: If I let the car in, I feel good about it. But when I see others in front of me let someone in, I feel cheated, because I’ve been waiting longer than the car entering the lane, and I am upset with the driver who acted kindly at my expense. Any idea why I feel so different about these two situations?

—Walt

The issues here are control and credit. When you let someone into your lane, you’re the one making the decision—and you’re the one getting the nod or the hand-wave as an expression of gratitude. In contrast, if someone else is letting the needy car in, you have no control over the decision, and you’re not getting the credit—you only see the downside of the increased delay.

Consider a more moderate version of this case, one where you simply keep a large distance between you and the car in front of you. By doing this, you’re allowing the cars from the merging lane to come into your lane at will, but it doesn’t require a separate act of generosity on your part (you aren’t slowing down to let them in).

My guess is that this version of accommodating other drivers also would not feel very good for you, not to mention that you’re not going to get any credit for your kindness.

What‘s the conclusion? First, to feel good about the good fortune of someone else, we need to feel that the positive outcome is a result of our own actions. Second, we want other people to recognize how wonderful and helpful we are.

Still, given how many other people are stuck in traffic ahead of you and that they’ll keep on letting other cars merge, maybe you should start thinking that real altruism consists of allowing good things to happen both directly and indirectly—and even when other people are getting the credit for it. Taking this attitude won’t be easy, but if you manage it, good things will follow.

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Dear Dan,

I’m reading your book “The Upside of Irrationality.” As I read your description of the burn injuries you suffered as a teenager, I wondered the following: If you and I were ever to meet, and we shook hands, would it hurt you? My own hand was injured many years ago, and people can cause me pain by squeezing it when shaking. Basically, I worry when shaking hands with a new person. Do you have a similar worry? How would you like people to shake your hand? 

—Donni 

For me, the question of shaking hands is a mix of potential pain and the feeling that I am not part of normal society. If people shake my hand too strongly, it is painful, and if they shake too loosely, it reminds me of my injury and how I am still perceived by the outside world as someone who looks different. With this trade-off in mind, I prefer that people shake my hand, even if it causes me some pain. It may be irrational, but I like being able to share in this ritual of greeting. It lets me feel that I am part of the wider society.

Taking a different approach, I have started to switch from handshaking to hugs, which are not only less painful on my hands but more personal, more enjoyable and maybe even less likely than handshakes to transmit germs—so maybe this is a good direction for society as a whole.

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Dear Dan,

Are the stock markets manipulated or are they truly a mathematical outcome of buyers and sellers?

—Dave

Markets are a mathematical outcome of the interaction between buyers and sellers—some of whom successfully manipulate the prices.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.