Ask Ariely: On Overwhelming Options, Frustrating Fees, and Valuable Vocations

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,

Does the fact that so many Democrats are running for President in 2020 make it more difficult for voters to choose among them? I’m especially interested in politics, and even I find it hard to compare each candidate’s positions. I wonder if many Democratic voters will simply give up on paying attention to the primaries.

—Tracy 

In behavioral science, we call this phenomenon “the paradox of choice.” While many people report that they like having more choices, having too many choices can end up making it impossible to make a decision at all. For example, when people are given a lot of flavors of jam to choose from, they tend to sample more flavors, but they are less likely to actually buy one of them. In the case of the Democratic primaries, the number of candidates is certainly overwhelming, and I think it is likely to decrease voter turnout.

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Dear Dan,

During a recent doctor visit, I was asked to sign an agreement saying that if I missed a future appointment I would have to pay a $50 fee. I thought this was excessive and refused to sign. Does this kind of policy really get more people to show up for medical appointments?

—George 

Negative incentives—in other words, punishments—are more complex than they seem and can backfire. One of my favorite studies on this topic is by the economists Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini, who showed that when a day-care instituted a fine for late drop-offs, parents became even less likely to arrive on time. Instead of viewing the fine as a punishment, parents saw it as a way to pay for the right to be late, and they took advantage of this service without guilt.

In your case, I would expect to see a similar result: Patients might feel more entitled to miss appointments if they know they can pay a fee for it. In addition, the system will probably make patients even more furious when doctors are inevitably late, since it implies that the doctors think their own time is more valuable than that of their patients.

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Dear Dan,

Do people’s salaries tend to accurately reflect the value they contribute to society? Can we assume that if someone makes a lot of money, they are adding significantly more value than someone who makes only a little?

—Richard 

On the contrary, there are many people who create a lot of value and don’t get paid much, as well as many who create very little value and get paid well. One of the best examples of this mismatch is teachers. A paper by Raj Chetty and colleagues in the American Economic Review estimated how much of an impact teachers have on the future of the students in their classes.

They found that students with strong teachers are more likely to attend college, have higher lifetime salaries and are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers. They estimated that replacing a teacher in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase their students’ lifetime income by $250,000 per classroom. Yet obviously, teachers don’t make anywhere close to that figure. Maybe one day we will evolve as a society and base people’s salaries on their actual contribution to the common good.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.