Ask Ariely: On Treating the Teacher, Perceiving Pain, and Realizing Resolutions

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,

I always agonize this time of year over getting the right gift for my children’s teachers. I hate gift certificates, which feel so thoughtless and generic. So what should I give?

—Raquel 

You’re absolutely right about skipping the gift certificate. A present for a teacher shouldn’t be a financial transaction; it should foster connection and express gratitude. Gift certificates get spent or forgotten.
For that matter, flowers die, and apples get eaten. You’re much better off with a nonperishable gift that will strengthen the relationship between your family and the teacher. Consider giving a funky little piece of art (such as a decorated planter) made by your child, inspired by something he or she learned from the teacher. Or you could get something that the teacher would enjoy but might feel guilty spending too much on, such as a fancy fountain pen or even a lovely notebook with superb paper—and a heartfelt note from your child on the first page.

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Dear Dan,

How do expectations influence our perceptions of pain? Several months ago, I underwent serious but elective surgery on one foot. Many friends told me that they had heard how long and painful the recovery process would be. I have a very low tolerance for pain, so I worried and imagined the worst. Still, I went through with it, and to my surprise, the pain wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. It has been a long and uncomfortable recovery but far less painful than I’d anticipated.
I used to think that a positive outlook would serve me better, but now I wonder if my negative expectations might have worked in my favor. What do you think?
—Stacy
 
Your experience highlights an important concept in decision-making, known as “affective forecasting errors.” We turn out to be notoriously bad at predicting how we will feel after major life events, even life-altering experiences such as losing a limb or winning the lottery. Both positive and negative milestones often affect our long-term happiness much less than we expect.
As for your experience, I am happy that it wasn’t as bad as you’d feared, but I wouldn’t conclude that your dour expectations were the reason. The academic literature on pain (for example, the 2005 studies by Tetsuo Koyama and colleagues at Wake Forest University School of Medicine) shows that when we expect decreases in pain, our subjective experience of pain also decreases, and so does the activation of brain regions responsible for pain.
In other words, our expectations about pain help to shape the neural processes underlying the physical experience of pain. That can bring the reality more in line with our expectations. As such, I wonder whether you might have experienced even less pain had your friends underestimated your postoperative pain.

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Dear Dan,

As we enter December, I wonder whether I should make any New Year’s resolutions. I have been making them for years, and I inevitably fail to keep them, which is pretty frustrating. Should I give up or give it another go?

—Jamie 

Don’t give up. Even if you stick to your resolution for, say, three or six months, you will be better off than you would have been if you had done nothing. And you might do better if you make New Year’s resolutions that are more limited and achievable. For example, what if instead of promising yourself that you will exercise three times a week for the whole year, you pledged just to work out for six weeks? That goal would be far easier to grasp, and maybe by the time you reach it, you will want to keep going.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.