Ask Ariely: On Scanning Suitcases, Aligning Anticipation, and Validating Valentine’s Day

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


Dear Dan,

According to recent reports, screeners for the Transportation Security Administration keep failing to spot weapons possessed by passengers. I wonder if they simply pay less attention after finding nothing threatening time after time. What if we told TSA screeners that undercover officers will try to smuggle up to three guns through their location every day, and that whoever spots a gun will get a $50 bonus? What do you think?


I love the idea. First, you are correct. Research shows that our attention drifts after about 15 minutes of no action. So it would help to have those gun-packing undercover agents visit screeners even more often, perhaps every 15 to 30 minutes. There’s one big problem, though: As TSA agents scurried to deal with constant gun alerts, everyone waiting for flights would be completely terrified.

A simpler approach, less likely to cause panic at airports, would be to program the X-ray machine to show, periodically, a fake image of a weapon hidden inside a suitcase. This might help the TSA agents to stay more alert.


Dear Dan,

Some time ago, my dentist urged me to get clear aligners, a plastic form of dental braces. He said that my insurance would cover most of it, but I didn’t really want the braces, so I held off.

Then I quit my job and went to see the dentist one more time for my regular hygiene appointment—my last visit with the old insurance. Again he encouraged me to get the clear-aligner treatment, because it wouldn’t cost me that much. For some reason, that convinced me, and now after three days of wearing a clear aligner, I am miserable and regret the decision. What drove me to it?


Your story illustrates the power of anticipated regret. We get this feeling when we have only a moment to take a certain action—and can’t stop imagining how we’ll feel if we don’t do it.

I had my own run-in with anticipated regret when my wife, Sumi, and I went to buy a large-screen TV, and the salesperson said, “How would you feel if some of the pixels broke and you hadn’t bought the extended warranty?” We felt the anticipated regret and, of course, got the expensive warranty.

One defense is to imagine scenarios that are not time-sensitive. You could say to yourself, “What if my new job also offered insurance coverage for clear aligners? Would I go ahead and get them?” If the answer is no, it should tell you that anticipated regret, not a desire for the treatment, is driving you.


Dear Dan,

This Valentine’s Day, as usual, I felt it was a fake, commercial love holiday designed by corporations to maximize their own wealth at our expense. Next year, I swear, I’ll skip the holiday altogether. I know that my husband will expect a gift and a nice dinner, but I have a hard time giving in to these manipulative marketers. What should I do?


Gift-giving is an amazing way to increase human connection, friendship and reciprocity. We don’t give gifts enough to the people we love most. So, while we all know that Valentine’s Day is a commercial invention, at least it makes us think about our loved ones and our relationships—and that’s good.

My advice: Stick to the dinner-and-a-gift policy. And if it’s just too hard for you to do on Valentine’s Day, do it the day before.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.