Ask Ariely: On Justifying Gadgets, Job Satisfaction, and Just Flowers

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 thinking about buying the new Apple Watch, but I’m sure if it is worth it. Any advice?

—Greg

I’m not sure I can be truly objective here: I just might want one, and if I suggest that you shouldn’t get one, how could I justify buying one for myself later?

So without wanting to limit my own future purchases, let’s more generally consider the question of how we figure out whether luxury items are worth the cost.

Let’s take a very different product, black pearls, as our example. When black pearls were first introduced to the market, nobody wanted them [for more about this story, see Predictably Irrational]. But then the famous jeweler Harry Winston placed black pearls in his display windows alongside his rubies, sapphires and diamonds. He set the price of black pearls high, and they have been very valuable ever since. An important lesson from this story is that people tend to make relative judgments and to use only objects that are easy to compare as the standard for appraisal (like those rubies, sapphires and diamonds).

This implies that when you’re examining future purchases, you should ensure that you don’t just compare the object of your desire to similar objects but to other, very different things that you might also want. As you expand your scope of comparison, you should be able to make more reasonable decisions.

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Dear Dan,

I’m an air-traffic controller at a large airport. I don’t work in the tower but in a remote radar facility about 30 miles away, handling traffic within 50 miles of the airport. As a radar controller, everything is completely abstract. Would being able to actually see the planes I am guiding take off and land generate greater job satisfaction than just seeing targets on a screen?

—Zack

Probably. In many different domains (including moral judgment and empathy), when we present information in increasingly abstract ways, emotions get suppressed, and we care less. So if you plan to stay in this type of job for a while, moving to a tower might well boost your motivation.

But even if you stay put, other changes might increase the perceived meaning of your labor. What if your screen showed how many passengers were on each plane? What if, at landing time, you were told that they were all healthy? What if you were shown some pictures of the people waiting for them at the airport? With such changes, the information you have about the passengers in your care would be more than just a dot, and both your caring and your motivation should increase.

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Dear Dan,

I sometimes invite friends for dinner, and they usually ask me which dish they can bring. Actually, I really don’t want them to bring anything: It doesn’t help me out, and it might not fit with the meal I’ve got planned. But I’m not sure how I can politely reject their nice offer.

—Sigrid

I’ve had the same problem. At one point, I Googled “most difficult recipes” and picked the one I liked most. The next person who asked me what dish they could make got that recipe. I’ve been using this approach ever since, while also telling people that it truly is fine not to bring a dish. They inevitably end up bringing wine or flowers.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

 

By the way! “Irrationally Yours,” a book based on this column, will be published May 18 by HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).