Ask Ariely: On Funny Decisions, Security Insecurity, and Anthrax Horn

To celebrate today’s Ask Ariely column, I’d like to share the final Reader Response video. (But don’t worry, you can always check out the rest of the collection in this album.)

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,

Is there any research on the relationship between humor and the quality of decision-making? Does humor make for better or worse decisions?

—Meher

Both. On the positive side, it has been shown that humor can improve creativity, which broadens the perspective from which we examine a problem and helps us to come up with novel solutions. In one study, researchers gave subjects a box of tacks, a set of matches and a candle. Their assigned task was to affix the candle to the wall so that it wouldn’t drip on the carpet when lighted. Subjects who had watched an amusing video clip before the task were more likely to recognize the solution: tack the box (which held the tacks) to the wall and use it as the candle’s base.

On the negative side, humor gets us to believe that things are safe, which can lead to risk-taking behavior. For example, recent research in the lab of Peter McGraw at the University of Colorado, Boulder, shows that humorous public service announcements are less effective than their traditional, nonhumorous scary counterparts. Why? Because the joking tone puts people at ease.

So as far we can tell, the effect of humor on the quality of decision-making is mixed. But using humor in an interpersonal relationship is certainly a good thing. It enhances liking and trust—and Prof. McGraw’s findings also suggest that humorous people are more attractive as lovers.

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Dear Dan,

My wife and I bought a new house and are fighting about the door locks. She wants to replace all of the locks, fearing that some people might have keys that would let them enter. I think that there are many ways a thief could break into the house without bothering with a single door, so why spend money to deal with that negligible part of the problem? It seems to me that her irrational insecurity blinds her from the truth. Any advice?

—Darin

Your wife’s fear has to do with the ease and vividness of imagining a bad outcome rather than the probability of something actually happening. After the attacks of 9/11, for example, we were all more afraid of flying, so some people switched to driving. As a consequence, over the following months, more people died from car accidents. The increase in the number of people dying from car accidents was much higher than the number of people dying on flights.

This aspect of emotions is also why we are more afraid of Ebola (which, thankfully, did not kill many people in the U.S.) than of the seasonal flu (which kills thousands of people every year). Given that the power of emotions is connected to their vividness, it is only partially useful to try to counteract them by providing accurate information about probability. Sometimes it is better just to try to deal with our emotions more directly.

Your wife’s fear may not be rational, but neither is your refusal to take such a small action to make her less worried. Why not use this as an opportunity to look at all the new locking technologies out there (some of them are really interesting). You could turn replacing the locks into a fun activity for yourself.

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Dear Dan,

Is there a way to use behavioral economics to stop rhino poaching? Some people believe that consuming rhino horn cures a range of ailments, and though this is entirely mythological, it is hard to get them to change their minds about its supposed health benefits. Can you think of a way to undermine this market?

—Veronica

Sadly, it is very difficult to use information or experience to counteract such mythical beliefs. The only way to fight them is with other beliefs. One approach would be take advantage of the widespread myth about the link between rhino horn and anthrax, and work hard to propagate this false belief. People might still believe in the healing power of rhino horn, but their fear of anthrax might overpower it.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.