Ask Ariely: On Avoiding Admonitions, Bestowing Beverages, and Reaching Readers

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’ve read that gossip represents a huge proportion of people’s communication with each other. Why do you think gossip is so pervasive?

—Shelly 

The short answer is it’s titillating. But there is a deeper reason for why people dish about other people: It is society’s way of regulating behavior. We usually think negatively of gossip, but fear of being gossiped about can be beneficial.

A 2011 study by Bianca Beersma and Gerben A. Van Kleef about why people gossip illustrated this. They gave 147 participants lottery tickets and told them to allocate as many as they wanted to themselves or to others. Some of the participants were led to believe that the group would gossip about their decision. These subjects acted more charitably: They kept fewer tickets for themselves and gave more to the group.

While gossip isn’t fun for the person being talked about, it may be an effective way to keep each other in line.

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Dear Dan,

For 40-plus years I’ve given homemade Bloody Marys to friends over the holidays. Newer friends hear about them, so the list gets longer each year. I now make more than 60 one-liter bottles annually. I enjoy making them, but I’m sure that some recipients would prefer not to keep getting them. How can I separate those who really enjoy them from those who don’t?

—Bill 

Giving people an easy way out is helpful in matters like this. If you’re too direct—that is, if you ask people directly if they don’t want the gift—no one will want to hurt your feelings.

Given this, instead of asking who doesn’t want it, ask who does. Send everyone an email asking them to contact you to stay on the Bloody Mary list. And if you want to further control the number of bottles you make, tell them that you can only make 20, meaning that if they don’t really want your Bloody Marys, they would be taking one from a friend who does.

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Dear Dan,

I’m starting a neighborhood book club, but I want to make sure that only the most committed individuals join. So I considered having the club meet a bit outside of our neighborhood, or early in the day on Saturday. Would these methods ensure that I will only get the most dedicated readers? 

—Dylan 

I faced a similar dilemma when I started teaching. I wanted to get only the most dedicated students, so I decided to hold the class at 8 a.m. My logic was that only the most motivated students would sign up for such an early class. Two weeks in, though, I realized I was wrong. About half of the students weren’t showing up; many others were sleeping in class.

It turns out that my approach backfired: Instead of getting dedicated students, I got the ones who couldn’t wake up on time to register for classes that took place in a more reasonable hour.

This general problem is what is called adverse selection, where the process causes the people who join to be the ones that we want the least. So, while you think that your approach will recruit the most dedicated readers, consider that your method may instead land you people who have no friends or nothing else to do on the weekend. If you go ahead with this, let me know how it worked out.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.