Ask Ariely: On Denied Desserts, Trusted Faces, and Biased Brokers

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 a single guy in my early 30s, and I often take potential romantic partners out for dinner. When the question of dessert comes up, I’m never sure what to do. To be polite, I always ask my date if she’s interested in dessert, and the answer is almost always no. I then feel bad about ordering dessert myself, so I turn it down as well. Is it impolite to have dessert even if my date has decided not to?

—Lev 

It is most likely impolite not to order dessert. I’m basing that on two assumptions: first, that everyone enjoys at least a bit of dessert, and second, that your date may well be worried that, by ordering dessert, she would be signaling that she doesn’t care about her weight (which is a pity, of course, but it’s part of the reality of dating). With these assumptions in mind, I’d suggest that you ask her instead which dessert she loves most—and order one of those, with two spoons.

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Dear Dan,

Lots of candidates are running for president. Some are proven liars, backstabbers or double-dealers; others are arrogant and self-important; still more break their promises. I wouldn’t want to hang around any of these people, but many Americans would vote for them. Don’t we care about honesty and trust?

—Daniel

Americans certainly care about trust—but in a slightly different way than you might think. We often care most about the trustworthiness of candidates’ faces.

Alex Todorov, a Princeton psychology professor, has done some wonderful experiments on this topic. In one, he showed some Princeton undergraduates pictures of people running for local office in Canada and asked them to rate the trustworthiness of the candidates. The Princeton students had never seen these people before and knew nothing about local elections in Canada.

Dr. Todorov then examined the number of elections won by the candidates in the photos and found that the students’ ratings of trustworthiness predicted more than 90% of the election results. It would appear that Canadian voters made basically the same judgment: They evaluated their politicians through simple, superficial judgments based on their faces.

We like to think we assess candidates based on their policies, experience, honesty and so on, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Just a Canadian thing? I don’t think so. I suspect that even in important domains such as politics, we all make these sorts of rapid, emotional judgments. Maybe we need to go back and read what politicians are saying rather than just watch them perform on stage.

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Dear Dan,

Can financial advisers, brokers and others in the financial industry truly follow their fiduciary responsibilities when they are paid on commission?

—Helene 

If you’re asking whether they can act in their customers’ best interests and give objective advice, the answer is no. Even more depressing, it seems humanly impossible to be paid more for some outcomes than others—to get more money if the client invests in stock A rather than stock B—and avoid bias.

I’m not saying that financial advisers do this intentionally. We all do it when our interests motivate us to see the world in a particular way: We use our tremendous brainpower to convince ourselves that what is good for us is also objectively good.

That’s why we must eliminate (or at least reduce) conflicts of interests in the markets—and why you should always try to figure out whether your service providers have conflicts of interests. Luckily, in the U.S., we understand these pitfalls and don’t allow our politicians to be corrupted by special interests or money.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.