Ask Ariely: Strategic Seating, Rush Hour Rudeness, and Loose Lips

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,

My fiancé and I are realizing that we’re going to have to invite some awful people to our wedding. These are close relatives whom we love despite everything, but they often say or do crummy things at parties. We estimate that they’ll make up about 4% of our guests at a 150-person wedding. 

So how should we arrange the table seating for maximum guest happiness? Should we put all of the troublemakers together, spread them among other guests who don’t know them well or put them with family members who are more or less used to their behavior?

—Susanna 

First, congratulations. If you apply this kind of forward planning to your life together, you might beat the divorce statistics.

As to your question, we know that people get a sense of what’s socially acceptable from the people around them. If you put all the troublemakers at one table, they’ll build off each other, take each other’s actions as signals of what’s acceptable and create a tremendous ruckus that will far exceed their actual size at the wedding. So I’d recommend that you split them up and seat them next to some stern grandmother to keep them in check.

Here’s a riskier suggestion: Put them at the kids table. Thinking about children often makes us become more idealistic and try to be the best version of ourselves. And if they still misbehave, the kids will get a good, memorable experience.

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Dear Dan,

Every day on the New York City subway, I encounter a plethora of commuters traveling with additional bags, taking up extra space at rush hour and making the trip worse for everyone. Why are they behaving so irrationally?

—Lenny 

The behavior isn’t really irrational from the standpoint of the people with the extra bags, but it is certainly suboptimal for the commuter community as a whole. This type of behavior falls under the heading of what we call “the tragedy of the commons,” derived from a scenario in which several farmers have one cow apiece, with a patch of grass (the commons) that serves everyone. One day, one farmer gets a second cow. Now the cows eat the grass at a rate slightly faster than its replenishing rate. Eventually, there isn’t enough grass for any of the cows; malnourishment sets in, and milk production drops.

The same process could be unfolding on the subway, which would function far better if everybody would take just one bag. Taking multiple bags may suit those carrying them, but it hurts the group and the commuting exercise as a whole.

This analysis won’t help your problem, but maybe you could start looking at it with some deeper appreciation for the complexity of social dilemmas.

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Dear Dan,

Recently, a friend told me a secret that belongs to a third friend. She even added that the third friend had explicitly asked her not to share it with anyone. Why did she tell me? Doesn’t she realize that I will trust her less now?

—Evelyn 

Your loose-lipped friend has demonstrated that she is the secret-sharing type, but she has also showed that she cares enough about you to betray her promise to the third friend for your supposed benefit. If I was being puckish, I’d say you should trust her more.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.