Ask Ariely: On Genuine Greetings, Moral Reminders, and Interest Aversion

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,

We often greet each other by saying, “How are you?” But most of us probably don’t really want a long answer. Why do we do this?

—Warren 

Here’s an old joke: Two friends meet after a long time apart. The first asks, “So in one word, how are you?” The second responds, “Good!” The first friend continues, “And in two words?” The second replies, “Not good!”
I suspect that we ask “How are you?” because we want to be seen to care even when we really don’t. We’re all so used to this superficial exchange that we don’t consider it a genuine inquiry into our well-being. But let’s try to change this. For the next week, when people respond to your rote “How are you?” with their rote “Good,” don’t take that as an answer. Follow up with, “No, really, how are you?” Perhaps this will inject some real caring into our relationships.
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Dear Dan,

To reduce cheating at the high school where I teach, we ask students to sign an ethics code before each exam and on every paper they submit. I’d estimate that they sign the code at least once a week. Your own research, I gather, shows that getting students to sign a similar ethics code just once helps to reduce cheating. What about signing it more often? Does overuse make it ineffective?

—Elliott 

We used an honor code in an experiment at MIT in 2007. We asked a few hundred undergraduates to do some simple math problems but didn’t give them enough time to finish. We then asked them to score their own tests and tell us how well they had done, with payment of $1 for each question they reported getting right. The students were asked to shred their papers afterward—but our shredder didn’t really work, so we could see how they had done. Many cheated. We had a second group of students follow the same procedure but only after they first signed the honor code. Signing the honor code before the test eliminated cheating altogether.
The effectiveness of such a code doesn’t stem from signing it, though. It comes from being reminded about moral issues. If your students eventually stop thinking about the ethics code as they sign it, it will lose its power. If they keep reading and reflecting on the code, its effectiveness might increase.
I ask my own students to write their own version of an ethics code—not because I’m especially interested in their interpretations but because it helps to ensure thought.

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Dear Dan,

I find it easy to avoid reckless spending. I don’t own a credit card because I hate the concept of interest, and I’m paying my daughters’ college tuition (they know that they have to pay me back) because if they took out loans, I’d have to co-sign and might be on the hook for the tuition and interest. Am I just more rational than other people?

—Wei 

A rational person wouldn’t hate interest but would use it when it made sense. And a rational person would make a decision about tuition based on how it might affect the relationship with their children—not to avoid the extra cost if they don’t pay up.
I worry that in trying to be so rational, you are sacrificing much of the joy of life. Perhaps you need a better definition of rationality.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.