Ask Ariely: On Tempting Tomatoes, Genuine Gestures, and Optimistic Outcomes

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 grow lots of tomatoes in our backyard garden, and we eat or freeze all of them. Each year, our neighbors hint about wanting some share of the bounty. We like our neighbors and occasionally socialize with them, but we fear that sharing our tomatoes will create an expectation for subsequent years. We also worry that such a gift would suggest the tomatoes are free when they actually cost us dearly in time and effort. Are we right, or are we just stingy tomato-hoarders?

—Martha 

You’ve got a point. Just giving your neighbors the tomatoes that they covet will indeed encourage them to take for granted the work that goes into growing them. It will also create the expectation of future installments.

You could try to pre-empt the issue altogether by complaining demonstratively to your neighbors at the start of each growing season that you fear you won’t be able to grow enough to meet your own needs this year. But that would be dishonest.

Here’s a better approach: help your neighbors to experience firsthand the effort involved. This season, pick a weekend when you’ll be doing a lot of arduous garden work (maybe tilling the soil) and invite the folks next door to help out.

This will lessen your own workload and let them see how much sweat goes into gardening. You will then feel better about sharing some of the tomatoes that they will have helped to grow. Maybe your neighbors will learn to like gardening enough to start their own garden—and will share their own crops with you next year.

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Dear Dan,

When I pay someone a compliment, they often say something along the lines of “Thank you, but your house is beautiful too” or “Thank you, but your children are also so accomplished.” This makes me feel that my compliments aren’t being taken as genuine expressions of esteem but instead are seen as a sign of my own low self-esteem or an attempt to fish for accolades myself. I find that I’ve stopped complimenting people altogether. Should I?

—Irene 

What’s happening here is best explained by the principle of reciprocity: When someone does something nice for us, we feel compelled to return the favor, often in a similar way. With compliments, the easiest way to reciprocate is to promptly return them.

This yearning for reciprocity is deeply rooted in our evolutionary history. It has long helped to strengthen social bonds. So when people quickly compliment you back, it isn’t a response just to you; it’s human nature. They don’t think you need the emotional boost, but they do feel the need to reciprocate.

The upshot? Don’t take this personally, let alone badly. Even more important, don’t stop giving compliments. Praise is free, and it makes people happier, so offer it to others whenever you can and enjoy it when it comes your way.

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Dear Dan,

I’ve heard that you just turned 50. Is there any good news about getting old?

—Ron 

Yes: Our eyesight deteriorates. Everything turns out to look better slightly blurry and without details, particularly other people’s faces.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.