Ask Ariely: On Real Randomness, Complex Conversation, and Linen Loss

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,

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, my wife wanted to observe how roulette is played. In addition to the real game with a real wheel, we saw video versions of the game that you could bet on. It looked to us like the real version was less random than the video version, which must depend on algorithms to mimic the roulette wheel. Could this difference in randomness be true?

—Mark 

I haven’t made a study of real roulette games versus virtual ones in Las Vegas, but I have to think that you’re imagining the difference. We have a very hard time perceiving randomness and tend to see links between events even when there are none. We blame the gain of a pound overnight on eating things that couldn’t have enough calories to cause such a weight increase, and we believe TV shows and web sites that explain with supposed certainty why a certain share price on the stock market went up or down that day, even though it’s often just random variation.

It’s the same with roulette. My guess is that with the physical wheel, you had more factors to pay attention to: the person turning the wheel, their movements, the action around the table. I suspect that it all made you think the real game was somehow less pure, less random.

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Hi there.

My girlfriend and I get along well but feel our relationship is very superficial. The truth is that we both have trouble speaking about ourselves or our feelings, so we almost never have deep conversations. But our mundane discussions don’t provide any real closeness, and they just help us pass the time in a sort of pleasant way. More troubling are times when one of us is going through some difficulty and doesn’t bring it up—and as a result gets no help solving the problem. We’ve both realized this and want to get better. How could we establish a mechanism to push us to have regular “deep” conversations?

—Miguel 

You’re experiencing what I’d call the small-talk syndrome. Making meaningless small talk is the easiest way to keep on having a conversation. Everyone can participate, and no one will be offended because nothing complex or controversial will be discussed.

But a deep relationship, which demands more intimate connections and often brings important challenges, needs more. I would suggest that you create a few rules for conversations. For example, ban small talk from Friday-night dinner: Only complex topics are allowed.

If you need some inspiration, Kristen Berman at Irrational Labs (a nonprofit behavioral consulting company that I co-founded with her) has made a deck of questions for such situations, including “What was the last lie that you told?” and “What gives you energy?” If you follow this plan for a few months, I suspect that making “big talk” will become much more natural and easy for both of you.

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Dear Dan,

I belong to a sports club that loses many towels because members take them home. The towels are cheaply made, so it’s doubtful that my club’s affluent members really need them for their homes. What can be done to stop the losses?

—Freddie 

Put a permanent tag on each towel and write $20 in a large font. This will remind members that the towels have value and that taking them is stealing.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.