Ask Ariely: On Expense Explanations, Nicotine Notices, and Fatal Fantasies

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 lead a small startup with an informal human-resources system. To get employees to report expenses accurately, would it be better to create detailed policies or to set out general principles for people to follow?

—Jenna 

Setting out general principles is a better approach. Even if you made your company policies very detailed, it’s impossible to anticipate every contingency that might arise, so they will inevitably be incomplete. What’s more, when people are given highly specific rules, it’s easier for them to adhere to the letter of the law rather than to the spirit—telling themselves that they are not misbehaving even when they are. And bureaucracy is the enemy of trust: Every time you make people explain why they should be reimbursed for that extra cup of coffee, you are communicating to them that you don’t trust them.

Instead of creating a list of allowable expenses, try asking people to spend the company’s money as if it was their own. You could also remind them that a rigid system for expenses would make it more difficult for them to be reimbursed, so that in the long run behaving honestly will benefit both the company and its employees.

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Dear Dan,

There has been a lot of news recently about the potential dangers of e-cigarettes, and some states have even moved to ban them. But obesity is a much bigger public health problem, and the government isn’t trying to ban fattening foods. Why is there a disproportionate response to e-cigarettes?

—Dylan

One of the main reasons is that cigarettes themselves are widely known to be unhealthy, so we are prepared to be suspicious of any product that resembles them. Imagine that, instead of looking like a cigarette, liquid nicotine was mixed with coffee and drunk from a mug. Would people be as eager to ban it? I don’t think so.

Our reactions are often based more on emotion than on logic, and in this case the distrust many people feel toward tobacco and tobacco companies fuels their willingness to believe that e-cigarettes are especially dangerous.

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Dear Dan,

I sometimes think about what it would be like if my husband died. Is this normal?

—Sheila 

The evidence I’ve collected in an informal survey of 40 people suggests that, after a few years of marriage, it is perfectly normal to fantasize about your significant other dying. In fact, I found that the vast majority of respondents had thought in surprising detail about how they want their spouse to die. They tended to think about this in terms of a trade-off between how much their spouse was going to suffer and how long the survivor would be expected to mourn.

A sudden death by car accident, for example, minimized the suffering of the victim, but it seemed to demand a long mourning period from the survivor. On the other hand, a prolonged battle with cancer meant extended suffering but allowed the surviving spouse to move on after death. Most people hoped for something in between: a brief illness that would not involve too much suffering for the dying spouse and would allow the survivor to resume their life quickly.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.