Ask Ariely: On Experimental Explanations, Procrastination Punishments, and Server Strategies

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,

For some time now, I’ve been proposing different experiments at my company—experiments with the prices we charge, what we pay employees and the way we treat customers who call to complain. But the experimental approach that seems so successful for science bumps into substantial resistance within my company. Any ideas about how to make experiments more palatable in the business world?

—Darren 

Without knowing exactly why your colleagues are balking at the experimental approach, it is hard to propose a solution. But based on my own corporate experiences, I’ll assume that they are objecting to the idea that some people in your experiments will get better treatment and some will get worse treatment, which just seems unfair.
One of my colleagues at Duke experienced a related challenge recently. He asked a local urban high school if he could offer half the students a free lunch to see how it might influence their attendance and academic performance. In the spirit of experimentation, he wanted to randomly select which pupils would get the free lunch and which ones wouldn’t. The school found the suggestion repugnant: It seemed offensive to select some kids and not others.
My colleague waited a few months and tried again. This time, he told the school administrators that he wanted to give all the students the free lunch but could only afford to pay for half of them—and asked the school how to decide who would get the free lunch. And what was their suggestion? You guessed it: to pick the kids randomly. As this story illustrates, equity is a major obstacle to executing experiments. But if you can figure out how to frame them as fair, they might become more palatable.

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Dear Dan,

I’m a philosophy professor, teaching metaphysics and philosophy of language. What’s the best policy for penalizing students who hand in coursework late, with an eye on preparing them for the world of work?

—Andrew 

If the goal is to prepare students for life, I would start by creating a penalty system with a continuously increasing punishment—say, cutting their total grade by 3% for every day of delay. This largely resembles the penalties that adult life imposes: Even for things with very clear deadlines, like taxes, you can be late—but there’s a penalty for doing so, and the longer you wait, the larger it becomes.
Since you’re interested in helping your students more generally, you could also help them learn how to better plan their time. Students procrastinate, routinely and repeatedly, and they rarely seem to conquer this pattern. You could take a more active role in helping them create virtuous habits of planning and time management, perhaps by helping them break down daunting tasks into manageable sub-tasks and showing them how to schedule these in their calendars. Such ploys won’t teach them philosophy, but by dedicating some class time to such things, you might teach your students some important life lessons—and free up more time for them to read Aristotle and Wittgenstein.

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Dear Dan,

I’m a server in a New York City restaurant in New York, and I want diners to trust my recommendations and leave me larger tips. Any advice?

—Robert 

As soon as you hand them the menu, tell them that you strongly recommend they avoid the branzino special (or any other very expensive dish). By demonstrating that you’re willing to steer them away from a pricey entrée, they’re more likely to think that you truly care about them, trust your advice and tip you more.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.