Ask Ariely: On Capricious Cavities, Burning Bills, and Pursuing Pronoia

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,

I’m a Swedish journalist working in New York City. I recently went for my annual dental checkup. I’d only ever had two cavities before, so I was shocked when the dentist told me I had nine. I don’t have U.S. dental insurance, so I chose to wait until my next visit home to get treated. To my surprise, my regular Swedish dentist found only two minor spots on my teeth and advised me to wait and see whether any problems developed. He also looked at my X-rays but didn’t find any cavities—let alone nine. 

How can two dentists disagree so much on the state of my teeth? 

—Linda

Clearly, your American dentist has much better vision.

Seriously, this is probably another example of a common problem in modern society: conflicts of interest. It is easy to chalk this confusion up to one bad apple of a dentist, but conflicts of interest are all around us, and they often change our view of the world.

As any sports fan will tell you, if a referee makes a call that goes against your team, you can’t help but see him as evil, blind, stupid, etc. The same goes for all kinds of motivations—including financial ones. Once we have a motivation for seeing reality in a self-interested way, we tend to do it—often without realizing that we are biased.

This is why Republicans and Democrats can see the same poverty and suggest such different policies for dealing with it. This is why Israelis and Palestinians can watch the same explosion and interpret it so utterly differently. And this is often why medical professionals who get paid by the procedure see the need for more procedures.

Understanding the prevalence of conflicts of interest probably won’t help us become more objective, bridge the political gap or bring peace to the Middle East. But it should often prod us to seek a disinterested second opinion.

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Dear Dan,

A new Android app called Burn Money lets users pick an animated replica of a bill from $1 to $100, pay for it with real money, then flick an animated lighter and watch the bill burn to electronic ashes. Users later receive a certificate they can post on their social media pages. And that’s it. 

What do you think?

—Emilia

Curious. Maybe people are using this app as a signaling device. Signaling is a way to communicate to ourselves and anyone watching who we are—and, often, who we want to be. For example, we can signal prosperity with the homes we buy, we can signal stylishness with the clothes we wear, and we can signal environmental concern with the hybrids we drive.

Similarly, letting people know you’ve been burning money (both virtual and real) could be an attempt to signal wealth—as if people are saying, both to themselves and to anyone watching, “Look at me: If I can burn money, doesn’t that show how wealthy and comfortable I am?”

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Dear Dan,

The U.S. Declaration of Independence gives us the right to pursue happiness. But is happiness really what we should aim for?

—Helen

Happiness is fine, but if I had to pick a mind-set to pursue, it would be pronoia—a state that is the opposite of paranoia. As I recently learned from Wharton professor Adam Grant, pronoia is the delusional belief that other people are plotting our well-being or saying nice things about us behind our backs. Now there is a wonderful way to experience life.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.