Ask Ariely: On Helping Hands, Popular Posts, and Mischievous Motivators

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’m struggling financially, and I’m considering asking some friends for help—perhaps seeing if they could offer a small amount every month until things get better. Is this a good strategy, or should I ask for more money upfront?

—Jordan 

Mixing finances and personal relationships is always risky. But if you have the right friends—understanding, compassionate and generous of spirit—and are determined to go this route, I would ask them for all the money upfront.

The issue here isn’t just asking them for help; it is their having to think about your request. When a friendship gets tangled up with personal finances, the best you can hope for is that all involved won’t have it in mind when they spend time together and will be able just to enjoy one another’s company. But if you have to keep asking your friends for more installments, everyone is more likely to be thinking about it. That will lead to more uncomfortable conversations, strain the friendships and add to your financial stress.

So the simplest route is to ask just once, for the full amount that you need, thank your friends sincerely—and not mention it again until you can pay them back.

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Dear Dan,

Why would people rather believe a viral social-media post over credible scientific information?

—Efrat 

Because we are cognitively lazy and want simple answers.

A fuller explanation would also concede that academics and scientists bear some responsibility for the difficulty that some feel in taking our research at face value. We tend to write in technical jargon, to add endless qualifications to our findings and to insist that every topic needs to be studied further—all of which makes it hard for nonspecialists to take guidance from us.

As for posts on social media, their believability has to do with what psychologists call “social proof.” That is, we instinctively follow the herd, without realizing that we are doing it. The algorithms that social networks use are designed to exploit social proof and to get people to spend more time online. When a post becomes popular, the social networks promote it even more heavily, targeting users who are likely to be sympathetic, with the goal of maximizing their use of the network. Of course, that means that more people will see the popular post, pushing the chance of something going viral even higher.

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Dear Dan,

My son, a fourth-grader, recently had another child’s progress report placed in his box by accident. That made me wonder: If children were “accidentally” sent a fake report card, along with their own, for another kid who was making slightly better progress in school, would it motivate them to work harder?

—Paula 

I like the way you think—slightly devious but very creative. You’re also right. Giving people (children included) the sense that another person is doing better increases their motivation—so long as it’s only slightly better. Setting unattainable goals doesn’t work well, but offering a reachable one can be a useful goad.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.