Ask Ariely: On The Carrot Law, Summer Season, and Sticky Situations

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,

This depressing election season has left me deeply disheartened by the current state of American politics. Do you have advice on how I can remain optimistic? Are there any politicians whom you admire?

—Alfredo 

My favorite politician, without question, is Antanas Mockus—a Colombian mathematician and philosophy professor turned unconventional pol who served some years ago as the mayor of Bogotá and made several unsuccessful runs for Colombia’s presidency. During his two terms in office (1995-97 and 2001-03), Mr. Mockus introduced lots of positive behavioral changes to his unruly, crime-ridden city. He reduced water usage, prodded Colombians to obey traffic laws and reduced violence.

Mr. Mockus rooted his unconventional, often theatrical mayoralty in a deep understanding of our social nature. One of his inventions was the 1995 Ley Zanahoria (literally, the “Carrot Law”—in Colombia, the word for the vegetable evokes nerdiness), which ordered bars and other late-night joints to close at 1 a.m., thereby cutting crime and car crashes.

Mr. Mockus worked formally and informally to cultivate honorable civic behavior—praising good-humored citizens who played by the rules and didn’t cut corners. By popularizing this standard and asking citizens of Bogotá to call each other out when they saw unseemly behavior, he invited his city’s residents to end vicious cycles and reinforce virtuous ones. He led the way in establishing better, stronger social norms.

Mr. Mockus also had an unconventional way of saving water. As a World Bank report noted, he was once shown “in a TV ad taking a shower with his wife”—demonstrating how to get clean with less water while having more fun.

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Dear Dan,

As the school year comes to an end, I am starting to think about summer activities for my children—ages 10 and 13, both relatively good at music and interested in theater and dance. Would sending them to a camp for the performing arts be a good way for them to spend the summer?

—Vanessa 

First, kudos to you for being so thoughtful about your kids’ summer plans. One of the most interesting (and depressing) lessons we have learned about education is that, without summer enrichment programs, kids tend to forget a great deal while school is out.

Here’s the real question about your choice: Would your children be better off improving their skills in activities that already engage them (music, acting and dance), or would they be better served by learning skills that they haven’t yet cultivated?

Since your kids are very young and their tastes and talents haven’t yet matured and stabilized, I would suggest using the summer as an opportunity to expand their horizons by getting them to try things that they usually don’t get to explore. Maybe send them to a camp that focuses on creative writing, science or hiking.

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Dear Dan,

For a few years now, I’ve been trying desperately to overcome my addiction to pornography, without much success. Are there any techniques that can help to break such stubborn bad habits?

—Zain 

One thing we know about addiction is that staying in the same environment makes it very hard to quit. When we remain in the same spaces where we have engaged in addictive behavior, the environmental cues substantially increase our cravings—making it very hard to resist our desires. It is important for heroin addicts, for instance, to change where they live and the people whom they associate with.

With your pornography addiction, changing the environment is more complex—but try to replace your phone and computer so that you can have new devices that won’t evoke memories of your past behavior. Good luck.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.