Ask Ariely: On Life Changes, Valuable Visits, and Killer Odds

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,

Should I get a tattoo or a dog?

—Jeff

Since you are asking me, I’m guessing that you don’t have much experience with either. So my advice would be to experiment first.  In general, when we ask questions about the future, we are trying to simulate how our future will look with the changes that we have in mind and how happy they will make us. The problem is that it is very hard to replicate things in our mind (including your potential life with a dog or a tattoo), which is where experimentation can help. Put on one of these ink tattoos for a few weeks, then take care of a friend’s dog for a few weeks and see which experience gave you more pleasure.  My guess is that by the end of the experiment, you will wonder if you should be making some other life change altogether.

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Dear Dan,

Many museums have taken to offering free-admission days, but accumulating evidence shows that this tactic doesn’t do much to encourage short- and long-term attendance from folks who aren’t already familiar with museums. The museums’ idea was that free days would attract new audiences who would become more regular museumgoers. Not only hasn’t this approach worked, but now some patrons who would have made a return visit anyway simply choose to do so on the free days. Why isn’t this working?

—Carter 

In general, free as a strategy rarely turns people into long-term users. The basic logic of a free trial is that by (temporarily) removing the price, all barriers to try the product or service are eliminated, and once people try it, they will realize how empty their lives had been up to that point—and promptly become loyal users.  

This approach can work in a few very specific cases—mostly where the service or product is unquestionably amazing but people don’t realize just how amazing it is. A free-trial approach also works well for addictive products such as heroin, where a dealer just needs to get people to try it once. Museums don’t fit in these categories.  

My suggestion? Instead of offering free days (which also means shifting existing patrons from paying days to nonpaying days and undermining the perceived value of the museum), think about new types of value-added experiences that would make your museum more appealing to broader audiences.

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Dear Dan,

I recently read a story about lottery winners who get robbed and sometimes killed. That left me wondering whether people find it more morally justifiable to rob and kill people who won the lottery compared to people who receive a similar amount of money as a year-end bonus at their jobs. Any insights?

—Damjan 

I don’t think that this type of difference in morality is what drives the robbery and murder of lottery winners—but I do think that, as in many of our other behaviors, that salience and convenience play crucial roles.

First, on salience, we simply hear and know a lot about lottery winners. They are in the news, and their stories command a larger part of our attention. Second, in terms of convenience, lottery players often come from low-income neighborhoods, where the crime rate is likely to be higher and the perpetrators can more easily execute their plans.

More generally, I find state-sponsored lotteries immoral because they largely take money away from the poor citizens who buy so many of the tickets. Maybe this is another reason to take a closer look at the social effect of lotteries—and cancel them.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.