Ask Ariely: On Swift Sales, Debt Distortions, and Beauty Beliefs

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,

A European online retailer recently changed its delivery policy from offering multiple delivery times to offering free one-day delivery on all purchases. Before the change, one-day delivery was available but cost 10 euros. Is this retailer smart to shift to this quicker, cheaper delivery arrangement?

—Thilo 

Many businesses are trying to deliver their wares more quickly, but it isn’t always a good idea. When we want something, we usually think that faster is better and now is ideal. But imagine that you had the choice of attending a concert by your favorite band either tonight or in two weeks. The vast majority of people would prefer to wait the two weeks. We recognize that the concert itself is only one part of the experience: Not only will the anticipation be fun, it also will help us to enjoy the performance more.

In the new delivery approach you describe, the retailer is basically forcing everyone to pay for faster shipping (the list price of your goods will necessarily include the cost of faster shipping) and forgo the joy of waiting. Neither is ideal, especially if your purchase happens to be an exciting treat rather than a dreary necessity. Many online retailers would do better to help their consumers savor the anticipation rather than deliver so quickly that we lose some of the fun of our purchase.

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Dear Dan,

I’m attending graduate school in famously pricey New York City. I’ve been living with my husband in a small studio apartment, but a huge, gorgeous one-bedroom just opened up next door for my final year of school. Of course, this perfect apartment costs considerably more than we can afford; we would have to take out more loans to cover the extra rent.

So is the difference between $150,000 in student loans and $156,000 in loans (a 4% additional expense) significant enough for us to remain in our underwhelming apartment—or, down the road, will any concern we feel about the financial difference matter less than our excitement about our great new place?

—Andrew 

The way we ask ourselves questions about spending money influences our answer. You could have asked whether this move is worth $6,000 or if it is worth the difference between $150,000 and $156,000—which, sensibly, keeps the focus on the absolute amount of $6,000. But your choice to frame the extra expense as a percentage difference suggests that you really want to move. And if you’re so eager to move that you are willing to distort your economic reality to feel better with the answer you want, maybe you should go for it.

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Dear Dan,

What is the essence of what we perceive as beauty? And what would it be if you were in charge of such things?

—Sinclair 

Our brain is largely attuned to changes, and that, I suspect, includes beauty. We often find beauty in shifts or transitions that are smooth but not too smooth: the way a melody changes, the arc of your beloved’s raised eyebrow, the imaginary line at the beach where the waves strike and retreat, the place where the mountains curve and the cliffs abruptly depart from the ocean.

But since you asked what I would want the definition of beauty to be—it would be slightly balding, slightly chubby, middle-aged university professors.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.