Ask Ariely: On Staying Safe, Cultivating Confidence, and Deciding Deadlines

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,

India has one of the highest rates of road-accident mortality in the world. Our Supreme Court in India mandated the use of helmets when riding a motorcycle or scooter, yet many people don’t obey the law. Why is it that people don’t wear helmets? Do they just not understand the risk?

—VN 

The problem is that while we know riding a motorcycle without a helmet is risky, our experience can provide us with a false sense of safety. If you decide to ride without a helmet once, the odds are that nothing bad will happen to you, since the probability of getting into an accident on any given ride is low. As a result, your bad behavior is reinforced, and you do it again and again until, eventually, your luck runs out. This is a good example of why it’s a bad idea to rely on intuition about what is safe, instead of trusting the actual data.

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Dear Dan,

I was attacked by a dog when I was 7, and it left me with serious injuries and scars. Now that I’m an adult, I realize that my appearance is holding me back from pursuing things I enjoy. What can I do to overcome this problem?

—Joe 

As someone who was badly injured in a fire as a teenager, I have to admit that my own concern with the way I look is still with me—particularly when people shake my injured hand.

But there are two rays of light. The first is something called the spotlight effect, which says that all of us pay a lot more attention to ourselves than other people pay to us. This was elegantly demonstrated in a study in 2000 by Thomas Gilovich and colleagues, who asked some Cornell students to walk into a fraternity party wearing embarrassing Barry Manilow T-shirts. After the party, the researchers asked them how many people noticed their shirts and what the social implications were. The participants believed that everybody noticed and that it hurt their social reputations. When the researchers asked everyone else at the party, it turned out almost nobody noticed the shirts.

The second hopeful fact is that with time and practice, your sensitivity to your appearance will go down, even if it’s never completely eliminated. I hope that this problem won’t prevent you from going out into the world and making the most of your limited time on earth.

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Hi, Dan.

I work in human resources, and I’m trying to motivate our employees to complete a short online training program. The training is very simple, but no one seems to get it done. Should I give them a deadline of a month to finish it, or will that just cause more delay?

—Archie 

Deadlines are very important—when we have lots of demands on our time we need deadlines to help us set priorities. However, people also use deadlines as a source of information about the complexity of the task. In a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Research, Meng Zhu and colleagues found that giving people longer deadlines led them to believe that the task was much harder, which in turn increased how much they procrastinated. So for an easy task like completing an online training program, set a short-term deadline, so that people will think the task is easy to accomplish and get right to it.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.