Ask Ariely: On Reasonable Requests, Trash Talk, and Paper Piles

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 fly by myself every week for work. I always fly coach and try to book my trips months in advance so I can get an aisle seat closer to the front of the plane. With fuller flights nowadays, I am frequently asked to move to accommodate a family or a couple who want to sit next to each other. I usually say yes and end up in a middle seat at the rear of the plane, which I hate. On the few occasions I have declined to move, the cabin crew has treated me like the enemy for the entire flight. How do I handle such situations?

—Kevin

Many years ago, Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer carried out one of my all-time favorite studies. She asked her research assistants to look for lines for photocopiers, approach someone waiting to make copies and say, “Excuse me, can I get in line in front of you?” Unsurprisingly, this request was usually refused. Prof. Langer then had her research assistants change their phrasing and instead ask, “Excuse me, can I get in line in front of you—I need to make a photocopy” With this new version, they were frequently allowed to cut in. Obviously, the second phrase held no new information—why would anyone join this line if not to make a photocopy? But the longer phrasing had the structure of a reason-based-request: Excuse me, may I do X, I need Y. Prof. Langer showed that because people often don’t pay attention to what we say, it is sometimes enough to say something that sounds reasonable—and people will often agree.

So what can you say to the flight crew? It doesn’t really matter; it just needs to sound like a reason.

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Dear Dan,

The other day, I saw someone throw out garbage from her car. Other than pick up after her, should I have said something? If so, what? I was concerned about starting a confrontation that could have turned ugly.

—Blaine

You should have certainly said something—perhaps something like, “Excuse me—I’m new in town, and I’m trying to figure out the local customs. Is throwing out trash from the car window something that is common here?”

You should have spoken up not only because it might make her think twice in the future but also for you. At some point, you will inevitably encounter bigger injustices and even more inappropriate behavior. How can you expect to stand firm in these large cases if something as simple as a comment about trash left you too fearful to speak up? Think about such small cases of confrontation as training wheels that will help move you toward becoming the person you want to be—and start practicing.

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Dear Dan,

I have this pile of papers on my desk. It is growing by the day, and the clutter is driving me crazy. At the same time, I don’t feel like I can handle my regular workload, so I keep postponing clearing up the pile—and it keeps getting larger and more daunting. Any advice?

—Marc

Sometimes, we need to be forced to make a decision. My advice: spill a cup of coffee on your pile of papers. A few weeks ago, I was grappling with a similar problem, and one morning, while on a video conference call, I reached out to pick up my coffee and knocked it onto the pile of papers. I then had to look at each page and decide whether it was worth cleaning and drying. Most of them were useless.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.