Ask Ariely: On Craving Companions, Finding Fairness, and Delaying Decisions

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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Hi, Dan.

I started college a couple of weeks ago, and I find myself very preoccupied about whether the people I’m meeting like me. Do you have any advice about how I can relax around people?

—Bronwyn 

You will be relieved to know that most of us tend to underestimate how much people enjoy our company. In 2018, Erica J. Boothby and colleagues published a paper about the “liking gap”—the difference between how much we think other people like us and how much they actually like us. In one of their studies, they asked first-year college students to rate how much they liked a given roommate and how much they believed their roommates liked them, starting in September and continuing throughout the school year.

They found that participants systematically underestimated how much they were liked. In fact, it wasn’t until May, after living together for eight months, that people accurately perceived how much they were liked. So try to focus your social energy on spending quality time with friends and don’t worry too much about the outcome.

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Dear Dan,

I work for a nonprofit organization that offers mindfulness retreats for teens. Our tuition model is that we request 1% of a family’s income, up to $2,000, for a week-long retreat. We feel that this model is fair, but some higher-income families object to paying more than others for the same service. Why do they feel this way, when the cost is such a small share of their income?

—Tom 

Our perception of what is fair depends to a large degree on what we’re being asked to give up to achieve a fair outcome. In your arrangement, people with more money are being asked to pay more, so they are likely to see a fixed price for tuition as being more fair than a sliding scale—and vice versa for families with less money.

One way to try to overcome this bias is what the political philosopher John Rawls called the “veil of ignorance.” In this approach, people are asked to design an imaginary society they will have to live in, without knowing whether they are going to be rich or poor. This means that they have to decide what is fair before they know how much they will personally stand to gain or lose from any given arrangement—for instance, the tax rate. Maybe you can try an exercise of this sort related to tuition as part of your mindfulness teaching.

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Hi, Dan.

I have an aging but perfectly fine car and waste a lot of time pining for something more modern and comfortable. But I haven’t found a new model I love, and with technological improvements happening so fast, cars are getting better every year. Should I wait for the perfect car to come along or should I compromise and buy something now?

—Alex 

My sense is that if you don’t like any of the available options, it means you’re not yet ready to make a change. Happiness isn’t just about what we have and don’t have; it’s also about not constantly looking for something better. Why don’t you decide that you won’t look at new cars for a certain period—say, two years—and then give yourself a three-month window to research a purchase. At the end of that time, you will pick the best option available. This way, you won’t waste time and energy on an open-ended search.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.