Ask Ariely: On Creating Commitments, Simulating Stressors, and Tempting Turnips

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 was recently at a very good lecture about global warming, and by the end of the lecture I was highly motivated to make real changes in my life and have a more positive impact on the environment. Two months later, I realized that despite my good intentions, I had done very little to change anything about my behavior. Why is it so difficult for me to take any action?

—Rachel 

This is very human and common. There are many cases in which we feel we should take particular actions, but then we don’t—such as exercising, eating healthy, washing your hands, practicing safe sex or texting while driving. I think that getting people to care about the environment is perhaps one of the toughest behavioral challenges we have. In some ways, it’s as if the issue were perfectly designed to maximize human apathy: The consequences are probabilistic and somewhere in the far future, and anything we can do is just a drop in the bucket. In short, all the elements that create human apathy are rolled into one challenge.

So how can you make sure that you’re acting on your beliefs? Come up with very specific rules (change the setting of your thermostat, eat less meat, etc.), write them down, tell other people that you have committed to them, and then try to follow them.

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Dear Dan,

As an oral surgeon, I encounter patients in pain (or anxious about possible pain) every day. I have a solution for many of them: intravenous sedation! Unfortunately, the cost (about $600) deters many patients and they prefer to suffer to avoid the payment. Do you have any advice about how best to guide patients who would benefit from IV sedation to pick it instead of suffering?

—Andrew 

Helping people figure out how they’ll feel in a future state, especially one that they’ve never experienced, is tricky. I would suggest that you try to create a comparison between the pain of the surgery and another type of pain. Suggest that your patients put their hands in a bucket with ice for three minutes (which is very painful), and when they are experiencing this pain, say: “Here is what surgery would most likely feel like without the IV sedation. The only difference is that the surgery will take about an hour. Would you rather pay for the IV sedation or do the surgery without it?” Now, the patients can make a more informed decision, and my guess is that many more will pick the IV sedation.

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Dear Dan,

I notice that at farmers markets, I am generally less worried about price and tend to spend more than I do in regular grocery stores. Does the presence of the crowd make me less concerned with the way I spend my money? I wonder if the same tendency is true for visitors to county fairs, flea markets, carnivals and other outdoor venues where lots of people gather in a temporary mini-community. Or is something else entirely going on in this context?

—Paul 

My guess is that it is the result of excitement, but the excitement is not with the crowd but with scarcity—with having a small window of time to buy, say, locally grown kale or handmade stuff. The knowledge that this window of opportunity will soon close and that we will not have a way to get back to our beloved kale makes us want the product more—and get it without paying much attention to the price.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.