Ask Ariely: On Ephemeral Emotions, Getting Gadgets, and Treacherous Taxes

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,

Every time a severe natural disaster strikes, like a typhoon or the outbreak of a new epidemic, everyone starts talking about how to combat these problems, but all the chatter dies down in a week or two. Given the importance of these issues and the number of lives they affect, why do we have such short-term memories? And how do you keep up interest in topics like these?

—Akhil

The problem isn’t with memory—it is with emotions. Every time we see those televised images of disaster, our emotions get ignited, we care, and we want to act. But over time, our emotions inevitably subside, and we stop caring.

If the problem here just had to do with memory, finding a fix would be simple: We have plenty of ways to remind people about important things they forgot. But we don’t know how to fully re-invoke emotions.

So what can we do? I’d suggest crafting legislation to deal with such crises in advance, then just holding onto it until the next disaster strikes. Then, while emotions are running high, take the bill out of the drawer and try to get people to commit to some concrete steps forward.

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Dear Dan,

What should I know about a product before I buy it?

—Pat

When we look for a product—say, a new electronic gadget—we usually try to understand exactly what it does, how it works, what are its features, etc. We hope this will help us figure out if the product is right for us and worth all that money. The downside of this approach is that the knowledge it provides often reduces the fun, surprise and discovery that come with experimenting with a new electronic gizmo.

Ideally, someone would be able to tell us whether we should get the product or not, while leaving us to discover our new gadget’s capabilities after we’re holding it. Another advantage to this approach: It leaves us to enjoy more buildup and anticipation as we wait for the gadget to arrive.

When I was looking for a new camera, I asked my friend David (my personal expert on everything technological) what he thought I should get, and I purchased the exact camera he suggested without even checking the details. Then I started anticipating its arrival, and I enjoyed learning all about it by playing with it after it was delivered. Maybe you should try to get your own David.

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Dear Dan,

What percent of Americans cheat on their taxes?

—Lee

I’m not sure, but it’s clearly a large amount: Pew Research estimated that the IRS lost about $270 billion dollars for tax “underreporting” in 2010. I tend to agree with Will Rogers, who once said, “The income tax has made liars out of more Americans than golf.”

Taxes don’t just tempt many Americans to cheat. They also kill us. A 2012 paper by Donald Redelmeier and Christopher Yarnell published in the Journal of The American Medical Association found that over the past 30 years, fatal accidents increase by about 6% on April 15 compared to standard days. The authors chalk this up to stress. They also show that this increase doesn’t hold for people at retirement age (who, presumably, aren’t that stressed about taxes), has increased over time (suggesting we’ve been under more stress as U.S. taxes have grown more complex) and is particularly large for those of us on the West Coast (where state taxes are particularly high).

Of course, these two findings—increased dishonesty and increased stress—could be linked. So this tax season, please try to be safe when filling out and delivering your 1040s.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here. (add link to “here” and delete this)