Jun 07

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,

For my birthday, my boyfriend gave me a rather expensive coupon for tandem sky diving. I could have used the coupon that weekend, when the sky diving season ended, but I chose instead to wait a few months for the new season to begin. My thought was that I’d be braver in the future and somehow mentally prepare myself. But can someone really prepare for something like this?

—Kinga

When we think about experiences, we need to think about three types of time: the time before the experience, the time of the experience and the time after the experience. The time beforehand can be filled with anticipation or dread; the time of the experience itself can be filled with joy or misery; and the time afterward can be filled with happy or miserable memories. (The shortest of these three types of time, interestingly, is almost always the time of the experience itself.)

So what should you do? In your case, the time before your sky diving experience will certainly not be cheerful. The time of the experience will also probably not be pure joy. At a minimum, you’re going to ask why you are doing this to yourself. But the time after the experience is likely to be wonderful (assuming that you get out of this alive), and you will get to bask in the way you conquered your fears and relive the view of Earth from above.

So your best strategy was to make the time before the experience as short as possible. It is too late now, but you should have just gone sky diving the moment you got the coupon, which also would have signaled to your boyfriend how much you appreciated the gift.

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Dear Dan,

Early in my career, I wrote a massive Excel macro for the large bank where I worked. The macro (a set of automated commands) would take a data dump and turn it into a beautiful report. It took about two minutes to run, with an hourglass showing that it was working away. The output was very useful, but everyone complained that it was too slow.

One way to speed up a macro is to make it run in the background, invisibly, with just the hourglass left on-screen. I had done this from the start, but just for fun, I flipped the setting so that people using the macro could see it do its thing. It was like watching a video on fast forward: The macro sliced the data, changed colors, made headers and so on. The only problem: It took about three times as long to finish.

Once I made this change, however, everyone was dazzled by how fast and wonderful the algorithm was. Do you have a rational explanation for this reversal?

—Mike

I’m not sure I have a rational explanation, but I have a logical one. What you describe so nicely is a combination of two forces. First, when we are just waiting aimlessly, we feel that time is being wasted, and we feel worse about its passage. Second, when we feel that someone is working for us, particularly if they are working hard, we feel much better about waiting (and about paying them for their effort). Interestingly, this joy at having someone work hard for us holds true not just of people but of computer algorithms, too.

The life lesson should be clear: Work extra hard at describing how hard you work to those around you.

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Dear Dan,

During a recent hotel stay, I tried to resist temptation but gave in and bought a $5 bag of M&M’s from the minibar. I know from research on pricing that paying a lot for something often makes you experience it as especially wonderful—but that didn’t happen with the M&M’s. Why?

—David

Research does indeed show that higher prices can increase our expectations, and these increased expectations can spur us to more fully enjoy an experience. But there are limits. First, you have probably had lots of M&Ms in your life and have rather set expectations about how good they can be. Second, some high prices are just annoying.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.