Ask Ariely: On the Last Drop of Toothpaste, and Real Scars

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 went to brush my teeth this morning and found that I had to carefully, meticulously roll the tube from the bottom up before it would yield enough toothpaste. I wound up squeezing the tube so hard that my hands hurt and that I briefly considered buying one of those “toothpaste squeezers” you can find online. As I finally brushed, it occurred to me that my frugality behaviors are terribly inconsistent: I did whatever I could to squeeze as much toothpaste as possible from the tube, not daring to waste a gram of a cheap product—but as I continued with my grooming ritual, I wasted water, soap and many other scarcer, pricier products. 
 
Why is my frugality so inconsistent? And why is there a market for some frugality products, such as those toothpaste squeezers, but not others?
 
—Darin
 
I stopped aiming for consistency a long time ago, and I suggest that you also drop it as a standard for behavior. 
 
Consistency aside, your toothpaste behavior suggests how important attention is to our decision making.  At any moment, we could, in principle, carefully consider all our potential courses of action and all the ways we could save money and time.  But we don’t. We tend to consider only things that are front and center, and thus these aspects of life wind up driving our behavior. This is why, for example, people sometimes drive far out of their way to fill up their car with cheaper gas—wasting time and increasing the wear and tear on their car just to see the number on the pump drop a bit. 
 
More generally, all this implies that if we want people to waste less, we should make the waste clear, salient and visible. Perhaps we could position electrical meters at the center of our kitchens, add a water-measurement device to every faucet or equip cars to measure their total driving cost. And if we really want people to pay attention to these measures, maybe these numbers should be automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter.   

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Dear Dan,
 
Many years ago, I was badly burned, and since then, I carry many visible scars. Recently, at a Halloween party, somebody pointed to the scars on my face and told me what a wonderful costume I had. I tried to correct her and explained that I was really very badly burned, but she burst out laughing.
 
At this point, I had two choices: make her feel guilty or let it go. What should I have done? I must admit that it colored the Halloween party for me, and I no longer felt like I belonged.
 
—Dan (Ariely)
 
 
You should have let it go. The person pointing out your scars clearly had only good intentions, and trying to correct her once was sufficient. This was probably one of hundreds of comments that she made during the party, and while her remark was central for you, if you asked her in 48 hours about her memories from the party, she probably wouldn’t even remember you, your scars or her comment. You had already stopped enjoying the party after her comment; my guess is that having made her feel bad about her remark would only have intensified your negative feelings.
 
P.S. One more lesson from this unfortunate episode: Sometimes, putting yourself in the position of an external advisor and asking yourself what advice you’d give to someone else in the same situation can be a useful way to reason more calmly and make better decisions. Good luck using this approach next time.

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See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.