Ask Ariely: On Minding the Gap, Making Contact, and Meaningful Kisses

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 do lots of research online for work. I’ve noticed that, as more and more information sources become available, I’m less and less sure about my research’s quality. Is my trust in online information dwindling?

—Maribel 

I suspect that the real reason isn’t trust. During my first years at university, I took many introductory classes and felt that I knew a lot about all the topics I was studying, from physiology to metaphysics. But once I got to graduate school and started reading more academic papers, I realized how large the gap was between what I knew and what I needed to learn. (Over the years, this gap has only widened.)

I suspect that your online searches have a similar effect on you. They show you the size of the gulf between what you know from online research and the other knowable information still out there.

The magnitude of this gap can be depressing, maybe even paralyzing. But the good news is that a more realistic view of how little we really know—and more humility—can open the door to more data and fewer opinions.

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Dear Dan,

I am a saleswoman working at a major company. Recently, we’ve been told to try to make physical contact with customers—for example, by touching their arm when stressing an important point. I don’t like this approach. Do you know if it has any scientific basis?

—Ayala 

You might not want to hear the answer, but we do have some evidence suggesting the efficacy of physical touch. Perhaps someone at your company read about a study by Jonathan Levav of Columbia University and Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta published in Psychological Science in 2010. They found that individuals who experienced physical contact from women—a handshake or a touch on the shoulder—felt calmer and safer, and consequently made riskier financial decisions.

Another study published two years later—by Paul Zak and his team, in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine—found that after receiving a 15-minute massage (especially the females) were more willing to give their money to others. Dr. Paul also found that their blood contained elevated levels of oxytocin, a hormone linked to trust and intimacy.

More research backs these findings up. One 2010 study, carried out by researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, found that 45 minutes of Swedish massage reduced the levels of hormones that are released during stress and tied to aggressive behavior.

And why stop there? Armed with this information, you could go to your boss and suggest that massaging the customers is inefficient: There are lots of them, and they stay in the store for only a short time. Why not massage the employees each morning instead to make them more friendly and trusting?

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Dear Dan,

Why does a first kiss feel so magical? Is it because of the law of decreasing marginal utility, according to which the utility derived from every ensuing kiss decreases, or is it because (besides the fun of the clinch itself) the kiss provides you with so much new information—notably, that the other person feels the same way about you, which in most cases offers a huge relief from the anxiety that you were on a one-way road?

—Gaurav

I suspect that the reason first kisses are special isn’t related to waning marginal utility or rising familiarity—and certainly not because they’re better. (The technique, strategy, approach and objective performance of a smooch probably increases over time.) The key is that a first kiss has tremendous meaning attached to it. It provides a transition to a new kind of relationship and a new way for two people to think about themselves, separately and together. Maybe it is time to try to imbue our other kisses with more meaning?

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.