Ask Ariely: On Delaying Decisions, Generating Generosity, and Enhancing Experiences

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 take a lot (and I mean a lot) of time to reach a decision. I keep consulting, thinking, making comparison charts, googling, asking experts. But when the time finally comes to decide, I’m never fully convinced that I’m making the right choice. How can I stop second-guessing myself?

—Ramesh 

When people agonize over making a decision, they usually aren’t thinking enough about the opportunity cost of their time. For instance, if you spend months thinking about whether to make a career change, you will have lost time that you could have spent actually building your new career. That’s why it is useful to set a time limit for any decision you face. Tell yourself, “I’m going to decide by Friday,” and if you haven’t decided by then, simply toss a coin.
Another mistake people often make is mulling over decisions they have already made. Regret and reflection are useful only if they teach us lessons we can use in future decision-making, not when we use them as a form of self-punishment. So try to focus not on the decision you have just made but on what you could do differently in the future.

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Dear Dan,

I was traveling in New York City and was about to board a bus to the airport when I realized that I’d forgotten my MetroCard. To my surprise, a stranger who was watching approached me and gave me her card. I thanked her and tried to pay her for it, but she refused. Are people more generous than we usually give them credit for?

—Yoram 

People have a tremendous capacity for generosity, but usually it only emerges under the right conditions. The first condition is that we need to see an individual in need, rather than masses of people suffering: It is easier to empathize with one person than with a large group. Second, we need to be able to identify with the person in need, to put ourselves in their shoes. In your case, both conditions were met: You were one person in need, and the people around you could easily imagine how they would feel if they were in your position since they were also waiting for the bus.

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Hi, Dan.

Everyone talks about the importance of friendship, but does sharing an important experience with another person actually make it better?

—Alex 

It depends on whether the experience in question is a good or bad one, and on whether the person you are sharing it with is close to you or not.

In a 2014 study in the journal Psychological Science, Eric Boothby and colleagues showed that eating chocolate along with another person made the experience more enjoyable, but eating very dark chocolate with another person made it taste even worse. The presence of others seems to make positive experiences more positive and negative experiences more negative.

Other studies have shown that experiencing pain—for instance, sticking your hand in an ice bath—becomes more intense when it is shared with a friend than with a stranger. This suggests that, to enhance good experiences, we should invite friends to participate—but when it comes to unpleasant experiences, it is best to go it alone.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.