Ask Ariely

On Capricious Cavities

Dear Dan,
I’m a Swedish journalist working in New York City. I recently went for my annual dental checkup. I’d only ever had two cavities before, so I was shocked when the dentist told me I had nine. I don’t have U.S. dental insurance, so I chose to wait until my next visit home to get treated. To my surprise, my regular Swedish dentist found only two minor spots on my teeth and advised me to wait and see whether any problems developed. He also looked at my X-rays but didn’t find any cavities—let alone nine.

How can two dentists disagree so much on the state of my teeth?

-Linda

Clearly, your American dentist has much better vision.

Seriously, this is probably another example of a common problem in modern society: conflicts of interest. It is easy to chalk this confusion up to one bad apple of a dentist, but conflicts of interest are all around us, and they often change our view of the world.

As any sports fan will tell you, if a referee makes a call that goes against your team, you can’t help but see him as evil, blind, stupid, etc. The same goes for all kinds of motivations—including financial ones. Once we have a motivation for seeing reality in a self-interested way, we tend to do it—often without realizing that we are biased.

This is why Republicans and Democrats can see the same poverty and suggest such different policies for dealing with it. This is why Israelis and Palestinians can watch the same explosion and interpret it so utterly differently. And this is often why medical professionals who get paid by the procedure see the need for more procedures.

Understanding the prevalence of conflicts of interest probably won’t help us become more objective, bridge the political gap or bring peace to the Middle East. But it should often prod us to seek a disinterested second opinion.
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On Burning Bills

Dear Dan,
A new Android app called Burn Money lets users pick an animated replica of a bill from $1 to $100, pay for it with real money, then flick an animated lighter and watch the bill burn to electronic ashes. Users later receive a certificate they can post on their social media pages. And that’s it.

What do you think?

-Emilia

Curious. Maybe people are using this app as a signaling device. Signaling is a way to communicate to ourselves and anyone watching who we are—and, often, who we want to be. For example, we can signal prosperity with the homes we buy, we can signal stylishness with the clothes we wear, and we can signal environmental concern with the hybrids we drive.

Similarly, letting people know you’ve been burning money (both virtual and real) could be an attempt to signal wealth—as if people are saying, both to themselves and to anyone watching, “Look at me: If I can burn money, doesn’t that show how wealthy and comfortable I am?”
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On Pursuing Pronoia

Dear Dan,
The U.S. Declaration of Independence gives us the right to pursue happiness. But is happiness really what we should aim for?

-Helen

Happiness is fine, but if I had to pick a mind-set to pursue, it would be pronoia—a state that is the opposite of paranoia. As I recently learned from Wharton professor Adam Grant, pronoia is the delusional belief that other people are plotting our well-being or saying nice things about us behind our backs. Now there is a wonderful way to experience life.
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On Technology’s Painless Payment

Dear Dan,
Apple recently announced Apple Pay, which will allow iPhone and Apple Watch users to simply wave their gadgets to pay for purchases. How might this technology change our spending habits? Could Apple Pay and other such hassle-free payment mechanisms (such as Amazon’s “1-click ordering”) lead us to spend more—particularly on stuff we don’t need?

-Nikki

The essence of payment is opportunity cost. Every time we face a purchasing decision, we should ask ourselves if getting this one thing is worth giving up the ability to purchase something else, now or in the future.

Different ways of paying make us think differently about those opportunity costs. For example, if we have $20 in cash in our pockets, we will have a hard time not thinking about opportunity cost. If we consider buying a sandwich, we realize that we won’t have money for coffee; if we get a cab, we realize that we won’t have money for dinner. But when we use a credit card or gift certificate, our thinking about opportunity cost will be less natural and prevalent—which means we’re likely to spend more without fully thinking about the consequences.

This is why the general answer to your questions is both yes and no. As you suggest, electronic payment mechanisms can easily lead us to think less about opportunity cost and spend more recklessly. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Electronic payment could be designed in ways that get us to more fully understand our opportunity costs and make more reasonable decisions. Apple Pay and the like could be game-changers, helping us think about our spending much more rigorously than we ever could with cash.

So the questions are: Who is designing these electronic wallets, and for what purpose? Will they be designed to get us to spend more money—or to help us make better decisions? Right now, electronic payments seem to be going down the path of less thinking and more spending—but I hope that at some point, some of the payment companies will change their approach, adopt the perspective of their users and offer electronic payment methods that help us make better financial decisions.
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On Email Equilibrium

Dear Dan,
How can I tell people who email me that I simply don’t have the time to respond to everyone?

-Kat

There is a well-known finding that when you ask couples how much each of them contributes to their relationship, the total far exceeds 100%. That is because we see all the things that we do, small and large, but we fail to see all the things that our partner does. The same is true for the people you respond to. They probably see how busy they are, but they have a hard time understanding the demands on your time.

So why don’t you create an automated email response that lists all the demands on your time, including how little time you have for sleep, exercise and your social life? With this kind of information, I hope, the people you email will understand why you can’t help them.

And while you perfect this approach, make sure you also—nicely—make your significant other aware of all the things you’re doing for the household and the relationship.
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On TP Tribulations

Dear Dan,
Do people use twice as much single-ply toilet paper as double-ply?

-Gary

When toothpaste makers started putting a larger hole in the tube’s cap, people started using more toothpaste. That is because we judge the amount of toothpaste we apply largely by the stretch it covers on the toothbrush, not by its thickness or total volume. I suspect that the same principle is at work with toilet paper, which would mean that we judge the amount of toilet paper by its length—and don’t sufficiently adjust our use to take the added thickness into account.
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On Staying in School

Dear Dan,
I am a senior in high school, and I really dislike doing homework. We get a lot of it, and it adds nothing to my education. Writing countless essays for English and doing numerous labs for biology isn’t making me smarter, let alone better in those subjects. Here’s my quandary: I know that doing homework is valuable because it assesses how hard I work in school, which is what universities fundamentally look for in applicants—but I feel that if I really want to educate myself, I should dedicate all my free time to gulping down many books on a wide range of subjects. Should I dedicate myself primarily to school and homework, or should I read as much as possible and absorb information primarily through books?

-David

I believe deeply in trying to find things at which we can excel. We can all read poetry, and many of us can probably write bad poetry. But to be really good, to be a poet, you need to devote a lot of time, read widely, work hard, study things from different angles and (ideally) learn from the best. This is what school should give you. Not every teacher and topic is going to be enthralling—but it is still worth it for the teachers and topics that are. My advice: Stay in school, and try to pick a subject or two that excite you enough that one day, you could become the world’s expert on them.
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On Balancing School with Family

Dear Dan,
What advice would you—as a university professor who has been teaching for a long time—give to students who are starting the new academic year?

-Peter

Simple: Keep on investing in your relationships with your family—your parents, of course, but particularly your grandparents.

Here’s why: Most professors discover that family members, particularly grandmothers, tend to pass away just before exams. Deciding to look into this question with academic rigor, Mike Adams, a professor of biology at Eastern Connecticut State University, collected years of data and concluded that grandmothers are 10 times more likely to die before a midterm and 19 times more likely to die before a final exam. Grandmothers of students who aren’t doing so well in class are at even higher risk, and the worst news is for students who are failing: Their grandmothers are 50 times as likely to die as the grandmothers of students who are passing.

The most straightforward explanation for these results? These students share their struggles with their grandmothers, and the poor old ladies prove unable to cope with the difficult news and expire. Based on this sound reasoning, from a public policy perspective, students—particularly indifferent ones—clearly shouldn’t mention the timing of their exams or their academic performance to any relatives. (A less likely interpretation of these results would be that the students are lying, but this is really hard to imagine.)

Kidding aside, social relationships truly are important for our health and happiness, in good times and bad—and fostering them is a wise goal for anyone at any stage of life.
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On Two Things about Consultants

Dear Dan,
Why do consultants always break problems and solutions into three?

-Alice

When consultants give answers, they often try to strike a delicate balance between making the answer simple (on the one hand) and complete (on the other). I suspect that offering three things to consider strikes this sweet spot.
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On Mandatory Meetings

Dear Dan,
I’ve been recently been promoted, and I now receive all sorts of requests for activities that have little to do with my love for my job. I recognize the importance of doing things for coworkers and the organization as a whole, but these other activities are taking up too much of my time and making it impossible for me to do my job. How can I set my priorities better?

-Francesca

Ah yes—the perils of success. Promotions usually sound good, but once we get them, we realize that they come with extra demands and annoyances. We also don’t seem to remember this lesson from promotion to promotion, so every time, we’re surprised when we discover those extra obligations.

Here’s how I suspect your new life looks. Every day, someone asks you to do something at some point far in the future—say a month from now. Your calendar looks rather empty, and you say to yourself, “Well, since I’m free then, how can I say no?” But your future is not really going to be free; the details are just not yet on your calendar. When the day arrives, you have to do all kinds of things that you wish weren’t on your plate. This is a very common problem, but three simple tools can help you better stick to your desired priorities.
First, every time a request comes in, ask yourself what you would do if it was for next week. If you would cancel other things to make time, go ahead and accept—but if you would not prioritize it higher than your other obligations, just say no.
A second tool: Imagine that you are fully booked that day, then try to gauge your emotional reaction to declining the request. If that prospect makes you feel sad, you should accept; if you feel happy at the prospect of getting out of it, turn it down.
Finally, learn one of the most beautiful words in English: “cancel-elation,” the glee you feel when something is canceled. To use this tool, imagine that you accepted this particular request, and it promptly got canceled. If you can taste the joy at the prospect of its being scrubbed, you have your answer.
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On the Meaning of Free Will

Dear Dan,
If people make decisions in a way that depends on their environment, does that mean that there is no free will?

-Matt

Yes and no. Imagine that every day, I came to your office and covered your desk with doughnuts. What are the odds that you will not weigh more by the end of the year? Close to zero, I suspect. Once the environment is set, we are largely helpless, but we don’t have to be tempted by doughnuts every day: We can keep the doughnut peddlers out and otherwise design offices that help us make better decisions. That’s where free will resides—in our ability to design our environment for the better and make the world more compatible with our weaknesses.
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On Macroeconomist Musings

Dear Dan,
I’m thinking about investing in real estate. Have we passed the bottom of the market?

-Drew

I’m happy to speculate about human nature, but predicting market trends should be left to those who divine the future from cards, coffee grounds and crystal balls (and to macroeconomists). The only interesting thing I can tell you about real estate is that I once met one of the founders of Siri, Apple’s personal assistant, and he told me that he decided to work with Apple when Steve Jobs offered him the most valuable real estate in the world: the button at the bottom of the iPhone.
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On the Bordeaux Battlefield

Dear Dan,
I love eating out, including some wine with dinner—but I can’t tell much difference between different bottles, and I never know which wine to order or how much to spend. When I ask waiters or sommeliers for advice, they often give some flowery descriptions about soil and accents of apricot, but these never help me figure out which wine pairs best with my meal. The whole wine-ordering business makes me feel incompetent and inadequate. Do you have any simple advice for how to order wine?

-Josh

The first thing to realize when picking from a wine list is that you are in a battlefield. This is a battle for your wallet—a fight between the restaurant, whose interest is to get as much of your money as possible right now, and your savings account. The restaurant’s owners have much more data than you do about how people make their wine decisions, and they also get to set up the menu in a way that gives them the upper hand.

In particular, restaurants know that people make relative decisions: If a place includes some very expensive wines on its list (say, bottles for $200 or more), customers are unlikely to order them, but their mere presence on the list will make a $70 bottle seem much more reasonable.

Restaurants also know that many of us are cheap—but we don’t want to seem cheap, which means that almost no one orders the cheapest wine on the menu. The wine of choice for cheapskates is the second-cheapest wine on the list.

Finally, the restaurants have another weapon in their arsenal: waiters and sommeliers who add to our feelings of inadequacy and confusion and, in the haze of our decision-making, can easily push us toward more expensive wines.

Now that you are starting to think about ordering wine as a battle, or maybe a game of chess, you can think ahead. Perhaps decide in advance to spend up to a certain amount of money on wine. Or tell the waiter that you have a religious rule against spending more than a set sum on wine and ask for a recommendation that would fit within your boundaries.

And if you really want to strike back, inform the waiter that you have allocated a total of $50 for the tip and wine combined—so the more you spend on wine, the less you will leave for a tip. Now let’s see what they recommend.
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On Irrationality Impact

Dear Dan,
I am convinced that some of our decisions are irrational, but what’s the proportion of irrational decisions?

-Julianne

The right question, I think, isn’t the proportion of irrational decisions but their impact. Think about something like texting and driving—perhaps you do it only 3% of the time, but each of these instances could kill you and other people. So what we really need to ask ourselves isn’t the proportion of our irrational behavior but the extent to which such behavior can harm our lives, the lives of those around us and society in general.
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On Ruminating while Running

Dear Dan,
I often hear people say that after they go for a run, their minds are clear, and they can focus better on big questions at work. Can this be so? Do we need to exercise to think clearly?

-Sam

I suspect that running isn’t the best way to clear the mind. In fact, I suspect that running while thinking about work is a recipe for designing products and experiences that enhance agony and misery. Now that I think about it, maybe this was the start of what we know as “customer service” for cable companies.
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On Restaurant Reservations

Dear Dan,
I recently went to a restaurant that doesn’t take reservations. The maître d’ told me that the wait would be 20 minutes. Twenty minutes later, he said it would be 15 more minutes—and after that, 10 more minutes. It took just over an hour to get seated. How can I rationally decide when to wait—and when to cut my losses and go to another restaurant?

-Roger

Let’s start with a basic issue: Are the hosts at restaurants all over the world lying on purpose about the wait, or are they simply (like most of us) overly optimistic about time? It’s tempting to suspect that they’re lying because it seems so unlikely that hosts, who have so much experience predicting wait times, can so often be so wrong. But I’m the same way: Every day, I think that I’ll leave work at a certain hour, and every day, my predictions get crushed. I also don’t seem to learn much from my prediction errors. So let’s not assume that the host is deliberately giving you a biased estimate.

The question now is what you can do about it. As an outsider, you have an advantage over restaurant hosts. You’re not trapped in their biased views, so you can develop a “fudge factor” and apply it to their estimate —maybe make it 1.5 times as long as the host’s estimate. So when the host tells you an expected wait time, multiply their estimate by your fudge factor and ask yourself if the food is worth this more realistic amount of time.

Then, if you do decide to wait, don’t look at your watch all the time—it only makes waiting more annoying. If it is a nice day, take advantage of the unscheduled time, leave your cell number with the host and go for a stroll. The street will probably be a fine environment for a chat with your dinner companion, and it will help you burn some calories in preparation for the meal—all good things.
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On the Psychology of Parking

Dear Dan,
When I drive home at night, I have to look for a parking spot in my neighborhood. Should I stay in one place and wait for a parking spot to become available, or should I drive around in circles in search of a free space?

-Ian

I’m not sure there’s an objectively correct answer, but here are a few things to consider. On the one hand, you never know when and where a parking spot will free up, but you know for sure that driving around wastes more fuel than staying put. This suggests that waiting in one spot is the right approach. On the other, if you idle in place, you might be waiting at a location where everyone has already parked for the night, and if you drive around, you at least get to spread your risk and hedge your bets. And this suggests that driving around is the right approach.

But you should also consider the psychology of waiting: Staying put and doing nothing is much more annoying than being active. When we just wait, time passes more slowly, and patience wears thin. Regardless of how much fuel they might save, a lot of people would go crazy if they had to just sit in their cars and wait. So between fuel economy and mood maintenance, the best thing to do is to buy a fuel-efficient car and keep moving.
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On the Perks of Pickup Lines

Dear Dan,
I am happily married and was never much for the bar scene. But I do wonder if those cheesy pickup lines actually work—”If I told you that you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me” and so on. I can’t imagine anyone would buy such transparently empty flattery, but these lines are so common that they must be doing something. Any insight?

-Barbara

I’m no expert here, but my guess is that these kinds of pickup lines work much better than you might expect. Some interesting research shows that we love getting compliments, that we are better disposed toward people who give us compliments and that we like those people even when we know that the compliments are insincere. So beyond the pickup lines, the real question is why we don’t give compliments more frequently. After all, they’re free, and they make the recipient happy. Try out some pickup lines and compliments on your husband for the next few weeks, and let me know how it works out.
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On Puppy Problems

Dear Dan,
One of the not very well-paid cleaners working in my office sometimes chats with me about her life, including her family’s financial difficulties. Last week, she told me that she had just got a puppy. I was shocked that she would take on the responsibility of caring for a pet when she doesn’t have the money to take care of her family. How could someone in her situation be so careless and irresponsible with money?

-Andrea

This probably wasn’t a great choice on her part, but to understand how she could make such a decision—and to figure out if you or I would have made the same call if we were in her shoes—we need to better understand her circumstances and capacity to make good choices.

Consider the following scenario: You are relatively poor, and as you go through your day, every decision you make is consequential. You decide whether to get coffee and walk to work, or skip the coffee and take the bus. You decide whether to take a short break or make another $6. On your way home, you decide whether to fill a prescription or to have a better dinner. When you get home, you are exhausted from all the difficult choices you’ve made throughout the day. You are depleted—the term we use to describe the type of mental exhaustion that stems from making decisions and resisting temptation. And now your children ask you for the 100th time to get a puppy. You know that, for your long-term financial well-being, you should resist. But do you have the mental stamina? Unlikely.

You may be more likely to make better decisions than your colleague, but we don’t know whether that is because you are better at making sensible long-term decisions—or because you simply aren’t as depleted at the end of the day. My guess is that life circumstances and depletion, not heedless irresponsibility, explain many such less-than-desirable decisions.
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On Probing Personality

Dear Dan,
A few years ago, I discovered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator and decided to take the test, which seemed pretty detailed. When I was shown my resulting “personality type,” I was blown away: It seemed to explain things about my personality that I had felt but had never put into words. But ever since, I’ve been insecure about whether my MBTI type is my “true type” or just confirmation bias. Help, please?

-Cory

Next time, just look at the horoscope. It is just as valid and takes less time.
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On Misplaced Cars

Dear Dan,
A few days ago I got out of a meeting and couldn’t find my car keys. I suddenly realized that I must have left the keys in the ignition. I forgetfully do that from time to time, and my husband scolds me for it. Frantic, I headed for the parking garage, only to discover that the car was gone. I immediately called the police. I later called my husband and told him, “I left the keys in the car, and it’s been stolen.” There was a moment of silence. He said, “Are you kidding me? I dropped you off!” Embarrassed, I said, “Can you come and get me?” And his response was, “I’ll be there as soon as I convince this cop that I didn’t steal your car.”

Should I expect more moments like this as I start to pass into my golden years? Any advice on how to make it less painful?

-Pat

Memory is a gift that we don’t sufficiently appreciate until we start losing it. But appreciating memory isn’t helpful in figuring out what you can do to decrease memory loss.

The best tools are habit and repeated behavior. You may no longer be able to remember easily where you left your glasses or book the last time you used them, but if you always try to put them in the same place, the odds are higher that you will find them. Rehearsal is also useful: Repeating things multiple times helps to transfer them from short-term to long-term memory (with the risk of looking crazy if people see you talking to yourself). Another tool is to take notes that will bypass the need to rely on memory (aside from remembering to look at your note pad). A modern version of such notes is to use your phone to take pictures, which come with even more context around the item you are trying to remember.

Your story is highly amusing, so perhaps you can also try to see the funny side of these senior moments. In fact, if you can make a point of sharing them with your friends and family, you will benefit from remembering those happy moments, too.
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On Forgotten Loans

Dear Dan,
Many years ago a friend of mine asked me to lend her a substantial amount of money. At the time I was happy to help her, but now it has been years since I lent her the money. She has never mentioned it, and the shadow of this exchange is clouding our relationship. What should I do? Should I say something?

-Mariel

Because you’re the one who loaned the money, you probably think that she ought to be the one to bring up the topic. The problem is that the asymmetry in your relationship makes it much, much harder for her to do this. Someone unquestionably should, though, and given the power dynamic I think it should be you. It might be a bit uncomfortable in the short run, but in the long run, it could save your friendship.

Next, the question is what to say. If you need the money, I would say something like, “A few years ago I was happy to loan you some money, but I’m trying to sort out my accounts in the next few weeks. I just need to know when would be a good time for you to repay me.” If you don’t need the money and are willing to give it to your friend, I would say something like, “A few years ago, you asked me for some money, and I just wanted to make sure that you knew I always meant it as a gift.”

Either way, the topic would be out, and you would have a better chance to resume your friendship.
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On The Mystery of Marriage

Dear Dan,
Why is the divorce rate so high?

-Jacob

It is hard to imagine we can be happy with any decision even a year down the line, much less 10, 20 or even 50 years later. Frankly, I am amazed by how low the divorce rate is.
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On Sticking to Stocks

Dear Dan,
How can we get people to follow their long-term strategies when investing in the stock market? Many of my clients say they’re willing to take risks, but when the market goes down, they change their minds and ask me to sell. How do I get my clients to stick to their game plans and not break their own rules?

-Ganapathy

I suspect that you are asking about is the so-called “hot-cold-empathy gap,” where we tell ourselves something like, “I can handle a level of risk where I might get gains of up to 15% and losses of up to 10%.” But then we lose 5% of our portfolio, panic and want to sell everything. In such cases, we usually think that the cooler voice in our head (the one that set the initial risk level and portfolio choice) is the correct one, and we think that the voice that panics at short-term markets fluctuations is the one causing us to stray.

From this perspective, we can think about two types of solutions. The first option is to get the “cold” side of ourselves to set up our investments in ways that are hard for our “hot,” emotional selves to undo in the heat of the moment. For example, we could ask our financial advisers not to let us make any changes unless we’ve slept on them for 72 hours. Or imagine what would happen if our brokerage accounts had a built-in penalty every time we tried to sell right after a market dip. Such approaches recognize that our emotions flare up and make it harder for us to act on them.

A second option: You could try not to awaken your emotional self, perhaps by not looking at our portfolio very often or by asking your significant other (or financial adviser) to alert you only if your portfolio has lost more than the amount you’d indicated that you were willing to lose.

Either way, the freedom to do whatever we want and change our minds at any point can be the shortest path to bad decisions. While limiting our freedom goes against our democratic ideology and faith in human nature, such tactics are sometimes the best ways to guarantee that we stay on the long-term path.
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On Stopping the Struggle

Dear Dan,
My boyfriend and I keep having terrible fights, with lots of verbal and emotional abuse on both sides. After each of these fights, we really hate each other. But a few days later, we become loving again—until we have another awful blowup after a few more days. I keep hoping that things will change and that these fights will stop. Am I being naive, or can people change?

-Amy

I’m sorry — this sounds very painful. You may be experiencing the ostrich effect: burying your head in the sand despite the accumulating evidence. Of course, this is hardly unique to your difficult situation. We all sometimes overestimate very small probabilities — hoping against hope that the real nature of the world (and people close to us) will be different from what we’re experiencing.

It is not easy to overcome the ostrich effect, but here’s one approach: Distance yourself from the situation and try to take “the outside view” — the perspective of someone not personally involved in this problem. For example, imagine that someone else was having this exact problem and described it to you in great detail. What advice would you give them? What if the person was someone close to you, like your sister or daughter?

Take the outside view, make a recommendation to this other person—and then follow your own advice. And good luck.
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On Stifling Smoking

Dear Dan,
What’s the best way to get people to stop smoking?

-Myron

The problem with smoking is that its effects are cumulative and delayed, so we don’t feel the danger. Imagine what would happen if we forced cigarette companies to install a small explosive device in one out of every million cigarettes—not big enough to kill anyone but powerful enough to create a bit of damage. My guess is that this would stop smoking. And if we can’t implement this approach, maybe we can get people to start thinking about smoking this way.
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On Anticipating Adventure

Dear Dan,
For my birthday, my boyfriend gave me a rather expensive coupon for tandem sky diving. I could have used the coupon that weekend, when the sky diving season ended, but I chose instead to wait a few months for the new season to begin. My thought was that I’d be braver in the future and somehow mentally prepare myself. But can someone really prepare for something like this?

-Kinga

When we think about experiences, we need to think about three types of time: the time before the experience, the time of the experience and the time after the experience. The time beforehand can be filled with anticipation or dread; the time of the experience itself can be filled with joy or misery; and the time afterward can be filled with happy or miserable memories. (The shortest of these three types of time, interestingly, is almost always the time of the experience itself.)

So what should you do? In your case, the time before your sky diving experience will certainly not be cheerful. The time of the experience will also probably not be pure joy. At a minimum, you’re going to ask why you are doing this to yourself. But the time after the experience is likely to be wonderful (assuming that you get out of this alive), and you will get to bask in the way you conquered your fears and relive the view of Earth from above.

So your best strategy was to make the time before the experience as short as possible. It is too late now, but you should have just gone sky diving the moment you got the coupon, which also would have signaled to your boyfriend how much you appreciated the gift.
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On Watching it Work

Dear Dan,
Early in my career, I wrote a massive Excel macro for the large bank where I worked. The macro (a set of automated commands) would take a data dump and turn it into a beautiful report. It took about two minutes to run, with an hourglass showing that it was working away. The output was very useful, but everyone complained that it was too slow.

One way to speed up a macro is to make it run in the background, invisibly, with just the hourglass left on-screen. I had done this from the start, but just for fun, I flipped the setting so that people using the macro could see it do its thing. It was like watching a video on fast forward: The macro sliced the data, changed colors, made headers and so on. The only problem: It took about three times as long to finish.

Once I made this change, however, everyone was dazzled by how fast and wonderful the algorithm was. Do you have a rational explanation for this reversal?

-Mike

I’m not sure I have a rational explanation, but I have a logical one. What you describe so nicely is a combination of two forces. First, when we are just waiting aimlessly, we feel that time is being wasted, and we feel worse about its passage. Second, when we feel that someone is working for us, particularly if they are working hard, we feel much better about waiting (and about paying them for their effort). Interestingly, this joy at having someone work hard for us holds true not just of people but of computer algorithms, too.

The life lesson should be clear: Work extra hard at describing how hard you work to those around you.
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On Overpriced M&Ms

Dear Dan,
During a recent hotel stay, I tried to resist temptation but gave in and bought a $5 bag of M&M’s from the minibar. I know from research on pricing that paying a lot for something often makes you experience it as especially wonderful—but that didn’t happen with the M&M’s. Why?

-David

Research does indeed show that higher prices can increase our expectations, and these increased expectations can spur us to more fully enjoy an experience. But there are limits. First, you have probably had lots of M&Ms in your life and have rather set expectations about how good they can be. Second, some high prices are just annoying.
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On Double Trips

Dear Dan,
I often buy a breakfast sandwich from my regular café. Sometimes, I take the empty paper wrapper, walk five meters to the trash bin, dispose of the wrapper and walk back to my seat—a perfectly convenient sequence of events. But other times, I try to throw the wrapper into the trash from my seat. I am a lousy shot, and when I (inevitably) miss, I have to make the same journey to the bin. But on these occasions, the trip feels like a chore.

Why do I feel so differently about the same journey?

-Richard

The answer lies in the realm of counterfactuals. When you aim and miss, you can clearly imagine a world in which you sunk your shot, and you judge your efforts by comparison to that imagined world—and, in relative terms, feel bad about it. But when you don’t even try to hit the trash can, there is no other world to imagine and no contrast to make you feel bad.

My suggestion: Buy your sandwich and your coffee, but ask the café to serve you the coffee three minutes later. Then sit with your sandwich and try to aim the wrapper at the trash can—and, no matter how successful you are, get up and walk to the counter to pick your now-ready coffee. If you made the basket, great; if not, pick the wrapper on your way to get your coffee. This way, there is no world in which you did not have to get up after your shot, no counterfactual and no comparison. Happy breakfast.

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On Price Puzzlement

Dear Dan,
A restaurant I recently visited had the following options on their menu:

10 wings for $7.99 with two sauces
15 wings for $12.49 with two sauces
20 wings for $16.49 with two sauces
30 wings for $24.79 with three sauces
50 wings for $39.79 with four sauces

Here’s what I don’t understand: Why would anyone purchase 20 wings with two sauces for $16.49 when they could purchase two 10-wing packages and receive the same amount of wings, plus two more sauces, for less money—for $15.98 instead of $16.49?

Can you help me understand this type of pricing?

—Lester

Let me propose three possible theories.

My first theory is that people don’t usually engage in particularly precise calculations about price, so when we see a menu, we just get what we want without thinking much about the exact cost. On top of that, prices ending with 49 and 79 make it even less likely that people will do the math in their heads. If you could order 10 wings for 8 dollars and 20 wings for 18 dollars, the computation would be simple, and many people would realize that this makes no sense. But the price for 20 is $16.49, and people just don’t make the effort to figure it out.

A second possibility: People may just assume that there’s a quantity discount for larger purchases (which is generally true) and mindlessly apply this assumption to all cases, without comparing the prices.

And finally, the people in charge of pricing might have simply made an innocent mistake—which they might well be happy to fix the moment you point it out to them.
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On Rationalizing Rolex

Dear Dan,
I am thinking about buying a Rolex watch. On one hand, I’m reluctant to buy it because it will probably be seen as symbolizing someone who thinks he’s made it. On the other hand, in all honesty, the fact that it is a status symbol is the reason I want it. If I owned one, people I meet might think, “He wears a Rolex! He must know a lot about his business, so I want to do business with him too.”

Should I buy a Rolex? And is this rational?

-Michael

Of course you should. After going through such an elaborate mental exercise to explain why buying a fancy watch is such a good idea, you deserve a reward. As for whether all this is rational, you could argue that it is more than rational: It is rationalization.
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On Creed Fatigue

Dear Dan,
I work for the central organization of a large church, and my job includes dealing with “crooked” priests of one form or another. For now, let’s think only of the embezzlers, of whom there are, sadly, far too many.

This got me thinking about the experiment you and some colleagues ran a few years ago, which showed that levels of cheating plummeted when participants were asked to recall the Ten Commandments right before taking a test. As you wrote, “reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.”

Your own Ten Commandments experiment suggests that a priest who, as a matter of daily or weekly ritual, recites religious teachings should be highly moral. But I see every day that this isn’t so.

What’s going on here? Can repetition cause “creed fatigue”?

—Simon

As you pointed out, our experiments show that people became more honest when we got them to think about the Ten Commandments, swear on the Bible (which, interestingly, worked for atheists too) or even just sign their name first on a document. But our experiments were a one-shot exercise, and we don’t have data about what would happen if we repeated them over time.

Even so, I would guess that as such actions (including rituals) become routinized, we would stop thinking about their meanings, and their effect on our morality would drop. This is why I recommend that universities not only set up honor codes but have their students write down their own version of that code before writing each exam and paper—thereby minimizing the chances that these could become thoughtless habits.

Such procedures would be hard to implement in a religious setting, of course, so I’m not sure I have an easy answer for you or your church. Maybe your role should be to try to give the priests more clear-cut rules, reduce their ability to rationalize their actions and eliminate conflicts of interests.

Still, on a more optimistic note: Have you considered the possibility that these rituals are in fact having a positive effect—and that without them, these individuals would behave far worse?
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On Souls for Sale

Dear Dan,
Out at a bar recently, I met someone who told me that he did not believe in the soul. I immediately asked him if he would sell his to me. We ended up agreeing on a price of $20. I paid up, and he wrote a note on a napkin giving me his soul.

Now, I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I also can’t help but believe that there is an exceedingly small chance that a soul could have an infinite value. So $20 seemed a reasonable hedge. Did I pay too much, or did I get a good deal?

—Carey

Well haggled. Your logic here is reminiscent of what is known as Pascal’s Wager, after the philosopher who figured that if there was even a small probability that God and heaven exist (which means infinite payoff for being good), the smart move is to live your life this as it were true. But you got a good deal here for three other reasons. First, discussing this trade had to have been far more interesting than the usual bar chitchat, so if you value the quality of your time, the $20 was a good investment even if souls turn out not to exist. Second, you now have a great story to reflect on for a long time, which is also worth a lot. And finally, you are now the proud owner of a soul. But if all of these reasons don’t convince you, send me the soul, and I’ll pay you back for it.

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On Defying Gravitas

Dear Dan,
At what point do people have to “act our age”? At 73, my wife and I still enjoy our sex life, are physically active and dress the way we did when we met more than 30 years ago. But most of our contemporaries dress like old people, act with gravitas and aren’t doing well in the weight department. What to do?

—Aaron

Move to Berkeley.
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On Noisy Chatrooms

Dear Dan,
Why do young people on dates go to loud, crowded places? The dim light prevents the couple from talking to each other and eliminates any possibility that they will actually get to know one other better. So what’s the point?

—Amanda

Have you considered the possibility that these daters are not interested in getting to know each other better?
More seriously, noisy and crowded places help daters in many ways—most clearly by masking awkward silences. If the could-be-couple runs out of topics from time to time, they can have the illusion that the silence isn’t due to their inability to keep up a lively conversation and chalk it up to the difficulty of talking over the music or their fascination with the song being played.
A second benefit of such date venues: The noisy surroundings give couples an excuse to get physically closer to each other in order to be heard. A loud bar may even give them permission to talk into their date’s ear. (Permission to nibble is up to the date.)
Finally, music and crowds have been found to be very effective in creating general arousal. Yes, arousal. With noise and people all around them, our daters may feel more aroused as well—and, more importantly, they may attribute this emotional state to the person they’re with. (Social scientists call this “misattribution of emotions.”) To the extent that people confuse the emotions created by the environment with the emotions created by the person sitting next to them, going out to loud, busy places could well be a winning strategy. I hope this explains the mystery—and inspires you to start going on dates in noisy places.
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On Maximizing Buffets

Dear Dan,
How should I maximize my return on investment at an all-you-can-eat buffet? Should I go for dessert first and then hit the entrees? Or should I stick to the salads and pick only healthy foods from the main courses?

—Syed

I appreciate this return-on-investment, or ROI, mindset, but in food, as in all other areas of life, we must focus on the right type of returns. Your question seems to focus on the short-term returns, not the long-term ones. If you go into a buffet trying to maximize your short-term ROI, you might gulp down more food, but then you’ll have to deal with the long-term effects of spending extra hours in the gym or packing on the pounds—downsides that take away the fun of the buffet. Also, avoid the common mistake of trying to maximize the cost of the food to the buffet’s operators.
Instead, I would stick to a balanced and mostly healthy diet. But since many buffets boast a large assortment of dishes, I would make some exceptions and sample a delicacy I’d never tried before—just for the experience.
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On Like Buttons

Dear Dan,
What is the function of the “Like” button on Facebook posts? Why doesn’t the site have options for “Dislike” or “Hate,” for example?

—Henry

Facebook’s “Like” button is much more than a way for us to react to other people. It is a social-coordination mechanism that tells us how we can respond. It gives us feedback on what is OK (and not OK) to post and generally tells us how to behave on Facebook. Adding buttons such as “Dislike” or “Hate” would probably destroy the social network’s positive atmosphere. But I’d favor adding a button for “Love.”
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On Superstitious Toasts

Dear Dan,
At a dinner party a few years ago, we were raising our glasses to our hosts’ health. The person on my right said that every time you make a toast, you need to look straight into the eyes of the person you’re toasting as your glasses touch—and that failure to do so inevitably results in five years of bad sex. I don’t think anyone around the table believed in that superstition, but we found it very amusing and, for the rest of the night, looked into each other’s eyes while toasting. I don’t think of myself as superstitious, but since that dinner party, I find myself looking very intently into peoples’ eyes whenever I toast. I know I am being irrational, so why can’t I shake this superstition?

—Kathleen

If you were going to design a superstition, this one is as close to perfect as you’re likely to get. For starters, the cost of the ritual (looking into each other’s eyes) is low, and in fact pleasurable. On the other hand, the cost of ignoring the ritual is very high (years of rotten sex). It’s certainly not worth risking such a large consequence for such a small act. And like all good superstitions, the outcome in question occurs far into the future and is difficult to evaluate objectively.

The only thing I might add would be a method to make things right after a missed opportunity. Perhaps if someone forgets to make eye contact, they should have to close their eyes and have the person next to them hold a glass to their lips and help them drink? With this addition, you would have a perfect ritual and superstition to make any party a bit more fun.

Incidentally, I told a friend about this five-year deal, and his response was, “Only five years?”
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On Exploring the Unknown

Dear Dan,
As summer finally gets closer, we are starting to plan our family vacation. The past few years, we have gone to Florida for two weeks. Should we stick to this familiar plan or try something different?

—Michael

In general, sticking with something well-known is psychologically appealing. Our attraction to the sure thing explains why, for example, we often frequent the same chain restaurants when we travel—and even order the same familiar dishes. Sure, we might enjoy something new more than the sure thing, but we also might not. And given the psychological principle of loss-aversion (whereby we dislike losses more than we enjoy gains), the fear of loss looms heavy, and we decide not to risk trying anything new.

That’s a mistake, for three key reasons. First, if you think about a long time horizon (say, 20 more years of vacations and eating out), it is certainly worth exploring what else may be out there before settling into a limited set of options. Second, variety really is one of the most important spices of life. Finally, vacations are not just about the two weeks you are away from work; they’re also about the time you spend anticipating and imagining your trip, as well as the time after you are back home when you replay special moments from your vacation in your mind. Among these three types of ways to consume the vacation—anticipation, the trip itself and consuming the memories afterward—the shortest amount of time is spent on the vacation itself.

Given all this, the short answer is: try something new.
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On A Midlife Cliché

Dear Dan,
I am a middle-aged guy who’s doing OK financially, and I’m thinking about buying myself a sports car—perhaps a Porsche 911. But I’m also a bit disturbed by the obvious midlife cliché. What would you do?

—Craig

Tesla designs cars for people with your exact conflict. The Tesla is a sports car, but it has an environmental image, and those who buy it can look at themselves as green, not gray.
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On Late-night Raids

Dear Dan,
Whenever I work the night shift, I wind up raiding the fridge—and ruining my diets one after the other. During the day, I manage to resist the temptation, but at night, my self-control seems to stop working. What should I do?

—Meni

What you describe is a well-known phenomenon called “depletion.” All day long, we face small temptations and do our best to resist them. We maintain control over ourselves so as to be productive, responsible people and stop ourselves from caving in to our urges to shop, procrastinate, watch that latest cat video on YouTube and so forth. But our ability to resist urges is like a muscle: The more we use it, the more tired we become—until at night, it just becomes too weak to stop us. (This is one reason the temptation industry—bars, strip clubs—operates mostly at night.) One way to overcome this problem is based on the story of Odysseus and the sirens. In this story Odysseus told his sailors to tie him to the mast as they sailed near the island of the sirens and not to untie the ropes under any circumstances so he couldn’t be tempted to jump into the water and swim toward the sirens’ seductive voices. The modern equivalent of this tactic? Keep all tempting things out of your house. You can hope that your future self will be able to resist temptation, buy the chocolate cake and eat just a sliver of it every other day. But the safer bet is not to keep chocolate cake in the fridge in the first place.
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On Home Improvement

Dear Dan,
At work, I have no problems giving my subordinates feedback about their performances and suggesting improvements. But it is harder for me to give feedback to the woman who cleans my home. So I’ve adopted an indirect approach: Instead of giving her pointers in person, I leave her a note. Is there a better way?

—Galia

Leaving notes isn’t ideal. Would you leave notes for your kids on how they fell short on their chores? Would you give your husband written feedback on his performance in bed? In general, when results matter, communicating while the task is being performed (or immediately after) is the way to go, and communicating face to face makes quick communication much more natural. It may not always be fun, but it makes clear to the person performing the task what the feedback is about—and offers a greater chance for learning. The second part of your question involves the different ways you treat people at work and your cleaning lady. I suspect this difference comes from your general discomfort about having someone else cleaning your house (maybe it is something you may feel you should be doing yourself). But you’re not really helping your cleaning lady by withholding timely feedback. My suggestion: tidy the house up a bit before she shows up (as many people do), leave a generous tip but also start be more diligent about pointing out the dust bunnies she missed.
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On the Magic of Memory

Dear Dan,
My 10-year-old daughter wonders: If a child has been really mean to her best friend (for example, by tattling on her) and their friendship falls apart, how do they manage to become best friends again after only a couple of days?

—Ariel

That is the wonder of bad memory. We enjoy this benefit when we’re young and then again when we’re old. In between, we’re unhappy and vengeful.
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On God’s Image

Dear Dan,
Why are there so many religions, all of which suggest that God is on their side and holds the same values that they do?

—Moshe

One answer comes from a 2009 study by Nick Epley and some of his colleagues from the University of Chicago, which asked religious Americans to state their positions on abortion, the death punishment and the war in Iraq. (This study is described in Dr. Epley’s recent book, “Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel, and Want.”) Participants were then asked to predict the opinions of a few well-known individuals (such as Bill Gates), President Bush, the “average American,” and—and uniquely to this study—God on these issues.

Interestingly, the respondents were rather objective about predicting the opinions held by their fellow humans, but they tended to believe that God had similar opinions to their own. Conservatives believed God was very conservative; liberal believers were certain that God was more lenient.

To find out why we can view God so flexibly, a follow-up experiment asked another group of participants to take the position on the death penalty diametrically opposed to their own and argue this viewpoint in front of a camera. A large body of research on cognitive dissonance has shown that people who are forced to argue for an opinion opposite to their actual one feel so uncomfortable with the conflict that they’re likely to change their original opinion. After giving their on-camera speech, participants were again asked to express the views on these hot-button issues of the study’s famous individuals, President Bush, the “average American” and God.

The results? After expressing the opinion opposite their original one, individuals became more moderate. Those who disliked the death penalty became less opposed, and those who were for it became less so. But there was no such shift in participants’ predictions of the opinions of the well-known individuals, President Bush or the “average American.” And what about their predictions about God’s views? Participants tended to attribute the same position as their own new, more moderate viewpoint to God.

God, apparently, is something of a clean slate on which we can more easily project whatever we wish. We subscribe to the religious group that supports our beliefs, and then interpret Scripture in a way that supports our opinions. So if there is a God, I believe—no, I’m sure—that that (s)he thinks the way I do.
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On Marriage Money

Dear Dan,
My partner and I will soon be married, and in honor of the event, his parents have promised us some money. Now my parents have offered us double that amount. How can I tell my partner without making him feel uncomfortable?

—Nikki

Congratulations—I hope you’ll have a lovely wedding and a good life together.

As for your question, the problem is not just that your future husband and his parents will feel uncomfortable; it is also that your dynamics as a newlywed couple will proceed from an uneven starting point. I am not suggesting that every time that the two of you fight, you will remind your husband that it was your family’s money that let you buy a new house. But even small inequalities at the start of a marriage can have long-term effects.

If I were in your shoes, I would ask your parents to give you the same amount now that your fiancé’s parents are giving—then give you the second amount in a year, once the marriage is more established. (If you’re not sure you will stay together, maybe ask them to wait five years.)

Incidentally, since weddings are irrational in so many ways, I recently obtained a license to perform weddings through some online site—and now I’m waiting for the first couple to ask me to conduct their nuptials (hint hint).
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On Weather Delays

Dear Dan,
I was recently stuck overnight in a strange city due to a canceled flight. Because the airline blamed the cancellation on “weather,” no one helped me find a place to stay or pay for it. Meanwhile, I saw other flights leaving the same airport. Is “weather” just a term airlines use when they try to consolidate flights, not compensate their customers and avoid blame?

—Kelly

I am sure that sometimes the weather really is at fault, but I have no idea whether the airlines use the weather excuse promiscuously when it’s to their financial advantage. It would be difficult to make such a judgment call (should we call the reason for the delay the weather or technical issues?) while completely ignoring the economic incentives involved. And blaming all kinds of things on the weather is a very useful strategy for the airlines because trapped fliers don’t directly blame the airlines for it.

But let’s be honest here: Many of us also sometimes blame our own tardiness on traffic or the weather. And I suspect many of us would blame the weather even more frequently for all sorts of lapses if we just had the opportunity.

To my mind, the weather excuse (as the airlines use it) has one major problem. The airlines’ logic is that bad weather is an act of God, which releases the airline from responsibility. But isn’t the airlines’ behavior probably the reason God is angry to begin with?
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On Time Delays

Dear Dan,
How can I enjoy life more? Every year, time seems to go by faster; months rush by, and years just seem to disappear. Is there a reason for this, or is the memory of time passing more slowly when we were children just an illusion?

—Gal

Time does go by (or, more accurately, it feels as if time is going by) more quickly the older we get. In the first few years of our lives, anything we sense or do is brand-new, and a lot of our experiences are unique, so they remain firmly in our memories. But as the years go by, we encounter fewer and fewer new experiences—both because we have already accomplished a lot and because we become slaves to our daily routines. For example, try to remember what happened to you every day last week. Chances are that nothing extraordinary happened, so you will be hard-pressed to recall the specific things you did on Monday, Tuesday etc.

What can we do about this? Maybe we need some new app that will encourage us to try out new experiences, point out things we’ve never done, recommend dishes we’ve never tasted and suggest places we’ve never been. Such an app could make our lives more varied, prod us to try new things, slow down the passage of time and increase our happiness. Until such an app arrives, try to do at least one new thing every week.
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On Garlic Cologne

Dear Dan,
My daughter recently persuaded me to start eating two cloves of garlic every day. I feel more energetic and less stressed. Is it the garlic, or is it a placebo?

—Yoram

I am not sure, but have you considered the possibility that the reason you feel so much better is that people are now leaving you alone?
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On Quick Cleaning

Dear Dan,
Why do I clean my cell phone many times a day but don’t care that much about the cleanliness of my car or my house?

—Sara

I suspect that this is about your ability to reach your end goal. You probably don’t really think you can ever reach your goal of getting your house 100% clean—maybe 80%, tops. The task is just too large, and others in your household can mess the place up faster than you can clean it. But when it comes to your phone, perfect cleanliness is within reach, and this achievable goal spurs you on.
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On Misery’s Company

Dear Dan,
I recently met up with an old friend whom I hadn’t seen for a very long time. I had been eagerly looking forward to our lunch, but I left very disappointed. All she did for more than two hours was complain—mostly about her husband, with some breaks to complain about her kids. It was just negative and depressing. Why do people complain so much? Could she really think this was a good way to spend time with an old friend?

—Andrea

People complain for many reasons, and we should to try to figure out your friend’s. For one thing, misery often does make us closer to one another. Imagine that you meet a friend—and either tell them how annoying traffic was along the way, or give them the same level of detail about how wonderful your drive was and how easy it was to find parking. Under which case would your friend like you more?

Also, when we complain, we often are looking for reassurance—hoping others will tell us that everything is OK and that what we’re experiencing is just part of life.

So your friend might have been looking to reconnect through shared misery. In this case, you should have indulged her efforts to strengthen your bond. But your friend might also have really wanted you to tell her something like, “You think your husband is a schmuck? Let me tell you about my prize”—thereby assuring her that her life is actually more normal than she might think.

Either way, complaining can actually be pretty useful. The next time a friend starts complaining, go with it.
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On Traveling Torture

Dear Dan,
I travel a lot for work, and I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed with the U.S. way of flying: the waste of time, the disrespect shown to passengers and the lame excuses for delays that the airlines make. Why are we putting ourselves in this horrible situation?

—David

I’m not sure, but here’s what helps me. First, every time I’m stuck on a runway, I try to think about the marvel of flight and remind myself how amazing the technology is. Second, I try to see the experience of travel misery as evidence of our common humanity. Security guards and airline staffers are just as rude and inconsiderate all around the world, suggesting that once you put people in the same situation (in this case, the same tiring, trying and thankless service job), we all turn out to be more or less the same. And as more people travel and see our deep similarity, we will all come this much closer to world peace. Anyway, that’s what I tell myself—and it helps.
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On Squirrels

Dear Dan,
I find myself acting irrationally when it comes to squirrels. The rascals climb down a branch and onto my bird feeder, where they hang and eat like limber little pigs. Then I rush outside yelling and take great pleasure in frightening them away. But victory never lasts long. They come right back, and the whole insane cycle starts over. My sister tells me I need to watch “Snow White” again, to be reminded that squirrels are also a part of nature and not inherently worse than the birds I prefer. Perhaps, but this theory doesn’t satisfy me. Can you help to explain what’s going on with my reasoning, and how I might make peace with the furry marauders in my yard?

—Nearly Elmer Fudd

It sounds to me that the root of your problem is that you view the squirrels’ behavior as an immoral theft from the right owners of this food, the birds. If so, why don’t you start calling the contraption a “squirrel and bird feeder”? With this new framing, your problems should go away, and you might even be able to market this new product.
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On the Value of Education

Dear Dan,
Do you think that colleges should continue teaching subjects like philosophy, sociology and literature? After all, they’re a waste of time and money.

—Clara

With something like computer science or statistics, we find it easy to assess what skills we will acquire and how we will use them in a practical way. But with sociology, literature or even psychology, it is not always exactly clear how our studies are going to change us. Are we going to learn how to think analytically or see things differently? And how valuable are these skills anyway?

Maybe it is worthwhile to think about education as a lottery ticket. After all, like a lottery, when it comes to academic education we don’t know exactly what we’re going to get, and we’re not 100% certain that our degree will always justify our investment. But what if for every year of studying you got one really good idea? Or if your education somehow improved your mental capacity by 10%? Think of your education as a lottery ticket that you get to use year after year for the rest of your life. Of course, it is hard to predict what exact benefits you’ll reap from good ideas or an improved mental ability, but if you think about education as a long-term bet, I suspect that you will easily see it as a bet with very high expected payoffs.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that as someone who teaches for a living, I have a vested interest in students continuing to attend universities. And maybe, in this case, it is hard for me to see the world from a different perspective.
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On Quarterly Appraisals

Dear Dan,
I was talking with a friend about your research on dishonesty, notably the way that people feel free to steal sodas and cookies from the “break room” but not cash. My friend said that office items such as staplers, tape dispensers and so on used to be constantly taken from his desk. He then glued a quarter onto each piece, and no one has taken anything with a coin on it for five years. Does this follow your findings?

—Tony

I love the application of this finding. Now, if we could only glue quarters to stock certificates and other financial products, maybe the world would be a better place.
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On Taking out the Trash

Dear Dan,
Some neighbors in our building are trying to get other neighbors to kindly put their garbage in the trash bins and not just leave it on the floor, but to no avail. Polite requests and threats have proven equally unsuccessful. What should we do?

—Ariel

The problem in your building is not just about cleanliness. The problem is more complicated, and has to do with changing a social norm. What you have is a sub-culture where trash bags are left on the floor instead of thrown in the bins. Since this is the established norm, it won’t be easily changed.

Social norms are a powerful motivator, and we are influenced by them all the time. If you go to the trash room and see bags lying around, you are affected to some extent by your own values, and to some extent by the behavior of those around you. You say to yourself, “leaving the garbage bags on the floor is the standard practice and I can do the same and still feel alright with myself”. But if there is no trash around, you would probably tell yourself, “That’s inappropriate, and I shouldn’t mess the place up”. The important thing to remember about social norms is that when it comes to minor violations we criticize the violators, but when the violations become repeated, the norm itself changes and sweeps everyone with it.

And the solution? Given that the New Year just started, and with it comes a symbolic opportunity for change, I would summon a tenants’ meeting to discuss plans for the New Year. In the meeting you need to create a new social understanding of the right behavior by having everyone sign a pledge to take care of the house, including placing your garbage in the right place. As long as you can create such a new social norm, the garbage will seem to clean itself.
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On Focusing on the Forgotten

Dear Dan,
I often get the feeling that I am forgetting something and spend too much time trying to remember what it was—sometimes failing entirely, sometimes realizing that it wasn’t very important in the first place. How can I force myself to let minor things go more easily while still making sure I remember the important ones?

—Richard

With the increase in life expectancy, most of us have good chances to suffer some sort of memory loss. This means that dealing with reduced memory is part of the modern human condition. You’re just ahead of your time.

As for what you can do about it: The simple answer is to get a smartphone with a note-taking app and use it as your central memory repository. All your potential tasks will be there waiting for you, and all you’ll have to do is to go over the list. Such recognition is much less demanding than remembering.

The more difficult but deeper answer is that you should just stop worrying so much. You probably already realize that most things aren’t that important to begin with. If you could only get into this “Hakuna matata” mindset, you would be less stressed and much happier. Plus, remember that if something is really important, it is also important to someone else, and that someone will probably remind you about it at least three more times—so why take this pleasure away from them?
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On Smoke Detectors

Dear Dan,
My neighborhood recently suffered a horrible tragedy: A house fire, started by a faulty appliance, broke out in the middle of the night and killed two young children. I don’t know the parents, but their family has many parallels with mine: the parents’ jobs, the kids’ ages, the friends we have in common and, most importantly, the fact that we also don’t have smoke alarms in our house. I haven’t bought one for the usual list of reasons: I’m so busy, no one said I have to get one, I don’t know what kind to get, I never see them in shops anyway and so on. So how can I get myself—and everyone I’ve ever met—to buy a smoke detector?

—Tanya

It would be nice to think that everyone will realize the important steps they need to take for basic safety and just take them. But it’s also extremely unlikely. For example, we already know that texting and driving is terribly dangerous and that overeating is bad for us, but we still let our eyes drift to our phones when we’re in traffic and we still order that burger with fries.

I also suspect that something as seemingly simple as installing a smoke detector is more difficult and confusing than we might think: There are many options, they need batteries, they may need to be installed in a tricky spot, we are not sure which brand will fit the bracket we have at home, and so on. And while none of these concerns are particularly substantial, they do increase our procrastination and indecision—leaving us in homes without functioning smoke alarms.

This is why I think that cases such as this call for some type of government regulation— something that will not assume that we’ll act in our best long-term interest and instead will make us do the right thing.

In the meantime, I suspect that many people reading this right now are realizing that they need to get smoke alarms of their own or change the batteries—and I also suspect that this feeling will last about 20 minutes and then be replaced by other urgent thoughts. So if you (yes, you) are one of these people, stop now (yes, now), go online, order that smoke detector, get those batteries and tell your household that you promise to install it by the end of the week.
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On Speaking Academese

Dear Dan,
I recently attended a lecture by a well-known academic, and I was amazed and baffled by his inability to communicate even the most basic concepts in his field of expertise. How can experts be so bad at explaining ideas to others? Is this a requirement of academia?

—Rachel

Here’s a game I sometimes play with my students: I ask them to think about a song, not to tell anyone what it is and tap its beat on a table. Next I ask them to predict how many other students in the room will correctly guess the song’s name. They usually think that about half will get it. Then I ask the rest of the students for their predictions—and no one ever gets it right.

The point is that when we know something and know it well, it is hard for us to appreciate what other people understand. This problem is sometimes called “the curse of knowledge.” We all suffer from this affliction, but it’s particularly severe for my fellow academics. We study things until they seem entirely natural to us and then assume that everyone else easily understands them too. So maybe the type of clumsiness you heard is indeed something of a professional requirement.
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On Kopi Luwak Coffee

Dear Dan,
During a recent trip to Los Angeles, I stopped by a coffee shop offering a very expensive coffee called kopi luwak, or civet coffee. I asked about the steep price, and the barista told me the story of the special process required to make this coffee: A catlike Indonesian animal known as a civet eats coffee cherries and then poops out what are basically beans. People then collect these “processed” beans and use them to make a highly unusual brew that’s said to be smoother than its journey. It can sell for hundreds of dollars per pound. I was curious but not interested (or brave) enough to buy it—let alone drink it. Can you explain why are people willing to pay for this?

—Chahriar

First, I think you made a mistake. You should have paid up and tried a cup—in part because you are still clearly curious about it, in part because it would have made a much better story (and what are a few dollars compared to a good story?). So next time you pass by a coffee place with kopi luwak, try it—maybe even get the double shot with hair and all the trimmings.

As for civet coffee’s quality: The promotional material that I found says that civets know how to pick the best coffee beans and that their digestive systems ferment the beans, reducing their acidity and providing a much better coffee. (I have no idea how this works, but the story caught my curiosity too.)

So why are people willing to pay for so much for civet coffee? It’s probably for the novelty and the story—and because the amount (and type) of labor involved is clearly so much higher than your average cup of java. People are generally willing to pay more for something that required more effort to produce even if the product itself is not better—and civet coffee sounds like a prime example of this effort-based-pricing principle.

Finally, I wonder how much people would be willing to pay had the beans passed through not an Indonesian animal but an American human. My guess: That’s too strong a brew for any of us.
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On Financial Advisors

Dear Dan,
Are financial advisors a wise investment? Mine charges me 1% each year for all my assets under their management. Is it worth it?

—Allan

It is hard to know for sure. But the fact that many financial advisers have different hidden fees suggests to me that they themselves don’t think that people would pay if they charged for their services in a clear and upfront way.

To help you think about this question in your own life, let’s contrast two cases: In case one, you are charged 1% of your assets under management, and this amount is taken directly from your brokerage account once a month. In case two, you pay the same overall amount, but you send a monthly check to your financial adviser.

The second case more directly and clearly depicts the cost of your financial adviser, providing a better frame for your question. So, put yourself in the mindset of the second case, and ask yourself if you would pay directly for these services. If the answer is yes, keep your financial adviser; if the answer is no, you have your first action plan for the New Year.
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On Christmas Cards

Dear Dan,
Every year, when Christmas comes, I feel an obligation to send Christmas cards to everyone I know, and every year, the number of cards I send gets larger and larger. It is now officially getting out of hand. Can I switch to sending cards only to my really close friends?

—Holly

It is fine to send cards only to your good friends. I don’t think anyone left off the list will be offended, and you will also reduce their feeling of obligation to send you a card next year. And if you really want to eliminate the Christmas-card frenzy, there is always Judaism.
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On Airborne Electronics

Dear Dan,
Delta Air Lines recently announced plans to start distributing thousands of Microsoft Surface 2 tablets to its pilots to spare them lugging around heavy documents, maps and flight plans. As a passenger, I always suspected that flight attendants sometimes ask us to turn our gadgets off not because they might harm the plane’s instruments but because some airline employees get a kind of twisted satisfaction from making passengers suffer a bit more. What do you think? Is the whole issue of turning electronics off just a way to make the passengers realize that the flight attendants are really in control?

—Adam

In fairness, the unpopular (and rapidly fading) ban on using personal electronics during takeoff and landing was a Federal Aviation Administration regulation, not a policy by the airlines. Even so, the logic of turning off iPads and Kindles while taxiing was never clear to me either, and the joy that some flight attendants took in commanding passengers to turn their devices off could make one suspect that your “control theory” is right. Nevertheless, I suspect that this was just one more regulation set up without much thought that the poor flight attendants were forced to follow—and that in fact, they most likely suffered much more from having to enforce a rule that annoyed passengers and lacked logic many times a day.

I do worry about another aspect of your question: making airplanes too reliant on tablet technology. A crash of the less dangerous type could translate into a more harmful one.
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On a Mistaken Masseuse

Dear Dan,
I recently had a massage when I was very tired, and I fell asleep repeatedly. Every time I dozed off, the masseuse moved me particularly vigorously and woke me up. This left me a bit embarrassed, and it wasn’t fun to be woken up so many times in one hour. What should the masseuse have done—let me sleep through the massage, or woken me up to experience it?

—Merve

The person giving you the massage was wrong. More generally, this is really a question about different types of pleasure and their building blocks. In general, you can think about the pleasures you get from anticipating a massage, experiencing it, and remembering it after the fact.

The interesting thing about remembered and anticipated pleasure is that they capture some aspects of the experience—but not all of them. That’s why, for example, you might remember an experience that was great for 15 minutes as better than an experience that was great for the first 15 minutes and then merely good for 15 more. In essence, the longer experience had more goodness in it (30 minutes), but the remembered pleasure wasn’t as large because it also involved some less exciting moments.

I suspect that the masseuse wanted you to have more moments in which you experienced the massage—but by doing so added some less pleasurable parts and decreased your remembered pleasure, which will also decrease the anticipatory pleasure you’re likely to feel before your next session on the table.

This lesson, by the way, applies to many other domains of life. Think about a presentation to clients, a dinner party, or a discussion with a friend—it’s the quality, not the quantity, which influences our remembered and anticipated pleasures.
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On Friends who Post Bail

Dear Dan,
My kids are spending much of their time on social networks such as Facebook. Are they really being social with their friends or just wasting time?

—Dafna

Here’s my test for real friendship: Would your friends bail you out of jail if you needed them to? My sense is that spending face-to-face time with friends is likely to increase the likelihood of bail, while following someone’s status updates won’t. If your kids aren’t increasing their odds of getting real help when they need it, they probably aren’t being social in a meaningful way.
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On Pointless Gaming

Dear Dan,
I waste about two hours each day playing stupid games on my iPhone. It feels so innocent, but it actually makes me lose focus at work and takes up time I should be spending with my wife and kids. Do you have an idea for how I can ditch this bad habit?

—Arianna

One way to fight bad habits is to create rules. When you start a diet, for example, you can set yourself a rule such as “I won’t drink sugary beverages.” But to be effective, rules need to be clear and well defined. For example, a rule such as “I will drink only one glass of wine a day” is unlikely to work. With this type of rule, it is not clear what size of glass we are talking about, or if we can drink more today and reduce our drinking next week. In essence, if the rule is not clear-cut and unequivocal, we are likely to break it while deceiving ourselves that we are actually following it.

In your case, you could decide that, from now, on you won’t be playing the iPhone between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. And to help you follow this rule, you should let your loved ones know. Or you could set up game bans for weekdays or working hours. Good luck.
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On Topics and Teachers

Dear Dan,
I am in middle school, and there is one topic in school I really love and one I really dislike. There is also one teacher I really love and one teacher I am not very excited with. Would I be better off if the teacher I love taught the topic I love, and the duller teacher taught the topic I dislike? Or would I be better off if the teacher I love taught the topic I dislike, and the duller teacher taught the topic I love?

—Tima

What you are really asking me about is the accumulation of pleasure and pain. On the one hand, you might argue that having one class with a great teacher and a great topic, and one class with nothing going for it, would give you at least one class to look forward to. You might also argue that, if a class isn’t going to be good, it doesn’t really matter how bad it is—adding a good teacher to a bad topic, for example, wouldn’t help much.

On the other hand, you might argue that a class with a bad teacher and a bad topic is going to be too much to bear. In this case, the combined pain might pass your tolerance threshold and color the entire semester.

I should say, first, that I am delighted you like some of your teachers and topics, and I don’t want you to stop thinking of school as joyful. But I do think that the mixing approach would be better for you.

I suspect that having a class with a bad teacher and a bad topic will be too much for you to handle. And I suspect that in the class with the teacher you love and the topic you don’t, you will learn to focus on the teacher and pay less attention to the topic, while in the class with the teacher you dislike and the topic you love, you will learn to focus on the material and pay less attention to the teacher.

I wish you many years of joyful (or at least not torturous) learning.
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On Getting Over It

Dear Dan,
What do you think is the best psychological approach to getting over a girlfriend? Should you cut off seeing her completely? Continue getting together for coffee, etc.?

—Jason

I suggest that you cut it off completely. Meeting an old girlfriend over and over, while wondering if you should have ended things or not, is just going to prolong the pain—and without any real value.
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On Feeling Gypped

Dear Dan,
I am the president of a local union that represents many federal workers. We are dealing with an interesting complaint stemming from the days during the government shutdown when employees were furloughed. Staffers who were furloughed are getting back pay for the days they were off, and because of this the employees who were designated as exempted from the furloughs (who originally felt special about their status and contribution) now feel gypped: Some of them expressed feeling like “a fool for working while others got to stay home.” Any advice?

—Robert

The current approach is clearly the wrong way to design paybacks after a furlough. Since we are likely to experience more government shutdowns in the years to come, maybe we should have a strategy for handling such situations.

I would suggest creating small groups composed of both furloughed and exempt employees and letting each furloughed worker decide how much of their back pay he or she is willing to contribute to the exempt workers in that group. A lot of research shows that people care to some degree about the welfare of others and about fairness, and we do so even at a cost to our own pocket. This kind of social utility should get the furloughed employees to act fairly, and they are even likely to be extra fair if the amount that they would give is going to be posted publicly and contribute to their reputation.

It’s possible that the government at some point will step in and do something to correct the issue. But while this local approach won’t completely fix the problem, it should make the distribution of income more equitable and, just as important, increase camaraderie among employees.
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On Dishing out for Wine

Dear Dan,
I love drinking good wine. Each time I go to a restaurant I wonder what is the ideal amount of money to spend on a bottle. What do you do?

—John

A recent experiment suggests an answer. Ayelet and Uri Gneezy from the University of California, San Diego, teamed up with a winery owner in their state to figure out, experimentally, the best price for his Cabernet. On some days they sold the wine for $10, on others for $20 or $40. Demand fell off at $40, but the winery sold more bottles of its Cabernet when the price was $20 than $10. On top of that, the customers who paid more indicated that the wine tasted better!

Uri and John List describe that experiment in their new book “The Why Axis,” in which they use field experiments as a method to look at many of life’s questions, from wine to love to the workplace. Their main advice is that we should all do more experiments.

So, the next time that you go to a restaurant, order two glasses of the same varietal of wine, one rather basic and one fancy, and tell the waiter to write down which is which and not to tell you. Then see if you can tell the difference. Of course, trying this experiment with just two wines is bad science, because you could be correct by chance, so you need to repeat the experiment many times. My guess? Your ability to tell the price difference will be indistinguishable from random guesses.
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On Dressing Down

Dear Dan,
I recently watched your presentation at a professional conference and was wondering why an Israeli guy telling Jewish jokes is wearing an Indian shirt?

—Janet

In general I am not someone who should be asked for fashion tips, but this might be an exception. I like to dress comfortably, but in many professional meetings there is a code of uncomfortable dress: suits. My solution? I figured that as long as I am wearing clothes from a different culture, no one who is politically correct would complain that I’m underdressed. After all, the critics could be offending a whole subcontinent. Now that I think about it, maybe I should start giving fashion tips.
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On the Lottery

Dear Dan,
A strange thing happened to me a few days ago. One of my employees came into my office holding a few lottery tickets and asked, “You in? It’s 45 bucks.” I never play the lottery, but I felt an inexplicable urge to say yes–and I did. Was I being grossly irrational?

—Itay

You were indeed irrational, but in a very common way. Usually, when you are considering whether or not to buy a lottery ticket, you take into account how your life would change if you won and contrast this with the cost of the ticket and the slim chance of winning. After making this quick computation, you decide not to buy a ticket.

But when another person asks you to “go half” with them on a tickets that they’ve already purchased, another factor comes into play: regret. Now you can’t help thinking how you would feel if that other person won. You quickly conclude that it would make you feel terrible and you also realize that you would keep on thinking about this forgone fortune for a very long time.

I think that too many people are currently losing too much money on various lotteries (often state sponsored), and I wouldn’t want more people to keep losing money this way. But if I were looking for a way to get more people to gamble, I would certainly try to play on our capacity for regret.
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On Corporate Charity

Dear Dan,
On a recent flight, the attendants declared it was “Breast Cancer Awareness” month and asked for donations from the passengers for this worthwhile cause. I give to a multitude of breast-cancer organizations, but this approach offended me. Maybe if the airline had offered to match my contribution dollar for dollar it would have made me feel we were partnering in this effort, but the way it was handled just annoyed me. Is it just me or were they doing this the wrong way and actually hurting the cause they are trying to help?

—Rob

I suspect that many companies trying this approach to corporate responsibility don’t get much of a boost from it in terms of internal morale or customer loyalty. It turns out that companies get the most credit for donating to charity in two cases: One is when they give first and then tell the customers, “Look, we’ve already given on your behalf, now you can contribute as well.” The second is when they empower their customers to give themselves (“here is a $5 voucher for you to give to any organization you value”). The approach you describe, where the company simply says, “We have a charity that we like and want you to give to it,” is ineffective in every way.
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On Maternalism

Dear Dan,
It seems to me that any reading of social science research implies that we are all less capable in making our own decisions and that as a consequence we need help. Yet, it seems that Americans are emotionally against any hint of paternalism. Any idea how we can overcome this barrier?

—Tom

I agree with your general position. I think that part of the problem is that, while we see irrationalities and bad decision-making in those around us, we don’t see these mistakes as readily in our own behavior. Because of this partial blindness, we are not as interested in limiting our freedom to make our own stupid decisions. I’m not sure what we can do to fix this part of the problem. But perhaps we can think about how to market paternalism in a better way. As a first step, I would change the term and call it maternalism. After all, who could object to listening to a mother figure?
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On Tesla

Dear Dan,
I was thinking about buying a Tesla electric car, and I was very excited about it, but given the recent news, I am not sure this is a wise decision. Is it too risky?

—Karl

Indeed, earlier this month a Tesla Model S drove over a large metal object, and the object punched a hole through the plate protecting the battery, and the battery pack caught on fire. But this is only one part of the story. In August, the model S received five stars in all test categories—an unusually high rating—by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. In the two days after we all learned about the crash test ratings, the stock of the company went up by 2%.

We now need to add one more data point to this body of evidence: The fire happened on Oct. 1. The share price fell by 10% over the next two days. By the way, this means that the effect of one small piece of bad news can be four times more effective than good news based on much more data. (A rare downgrade of the stock by the R.W. Baird brokerage from “outperform” to “neutral” probably also contributed to the drop.)

Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, pointed out in a statement Oct. 4 that no one was hurt, that the car warned the driver to pull over, and that gas cars are in no way safer. After the statement, the stock price increased by 3%, making the overall losses 6.2% from the day before the accident.

From a psychological perspective, this overreaction to one very salient (and very sad) accident is nothing new. It is a consistent way that we react to salient news, and it is perfectly irrational.

And after all of this, my suggestion to you? If you had decided to buy a Tesla before this accident, get one now—because the event didn’t add much to the information you used to make your original decision. In fact, given that other people might have an irrational fear of buying a Tesla, maybe the prices will go down a bit.
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On To-Do Lists

Dear Dan,
Why do people love to write to-do lists?

—Joe

I suspect there are rational and irrational reasons for the very large amount of list-making activity we see around us. On the rational side, lists help us with faulty memory and allow us to share tasks with other people simply and efficiently. On the irrational side, making lists and checking items off these lists give us the false sense that we are actually making progress. The term for this by the way is “structured procrastination.” It’s an attempt to capture the momentary feeling that we are progressing—whereas in fact when we look back at the end of the day on what we achieved, we realize that we did not get much done. I also suspect that all the apps that help us make lists and then make it fun for us to check things off are reducing our collective productivity, by replacing real work and focus with structured productivity.
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On Knowing the News

Dear Dan,
I am always upset by bad news online when I turn on my computer. But negative news is pervasive, so what can I do to make myself feel better and get down to work immediately?

—Liz

One approach is to start each day with the most depressing set of news around for about five minutes and then move to the regular news. The idea here is that contrast between the highly depressing and the regular will make you feel good in comparison.
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On Wasted Time

Dear Dan,
Often when I meet with a group of my closest friends, the discussion goes something like this: “Where do you want to go?” “Not sure.” “Where do you want to go?” “Not sure.” Etc. These discussions are frustrating and waste time. Any advice on how to move them forward and get to a decision faster?

—Matthew

When someone asks “What do you want to do tonight?” what they often are saying implicitly is: “What is the most exciting thing we can do tonight, given all the options and all the people involved?”

The problem is that figuring out the best solution is very difficult. First, we need to bring to mind all the alternatives, next our preferences and the preferences of the people in the group. Then we have to find the one activity that will maximize this set of constraints and preferences.

The basic problem here is that, in your search for the optimal activity, you are not taking the cost of time into account, so you waste your precious time asking “What do you want to do?”—which is probably the worst way to spend your time.

To overcome this problem, I would set up a rule that limits the amount of time that you are allowed to spend searching for a solution, and I would set up a default in case you fail to come up with a better option. For example, take a common good activity (going to drink at X, playing basketball at Y) and announce to your friends that, unless someone else comes up with a better alternative, in 10 minutes you are all heading out to X (or Y).

I would also set up a timer on your phone to make it clear that you mean business and to make sure that the time limit is kept. Once the buzzer sounds, just start heading out to X (or Y), asking who wants to come with you and telling everyone else that you will meet them there. After doing this a few times, your friends will get used to it and perhaps bring an end to this wasteful habit.
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On Framing Failure

Dear Dan,
I’d like to understand something I see in my own life and in billion-dollar companies: the switch from aiming to succeed to aiming not to fail. You see this in companies such as Microsoft, but even the National Aeronautics and Space Administration went from the ambitious 1960s-’80s era to its current conservative program. What can we do to overcome this problem?

—Alex

Assuming this is indeed a generalized pattern (and it would be interesting to collect data on the question), it might be a simple outcome of the endowment effect: basically, once we own something, we get used to it and are very reluctant to see it go away. When you are just starting out, you have nothing, so you look at potential gains and losses to some degree on an equal footing. But once you experience some success, you start thinking more carefully about what you have, and you don’t want to give it up, so you become much more conservative. In the process, you give up the things that made you successful from the get-go. Nor are companies alone in this: I suspect that the tendency to switch to a do-nothing defensive posture is just as common in the behavior of our public officials and governments.
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On Matrimonial Gambling

Dear Dan,
Someone once said to me that marriage is like betting someone half of everything you own that you’d love him or her forever. Do you agree?

—Shane

From the perspective of an outside observer, there are some things in life that can be described as a bet or a gamble—while for the people directly involved, looking at it that way will be a very bad idea. Marriage is one of these cases. It might be fun and interesting to think about other peoples’ marriages in such terms, but don’t be tempted to think about your own relationship this way. And certainly don’t mention these odds to your significant other.
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On Economic Drinking Games

Dear Dan,
I’m turning 30 in December, and I want to have a “nontraditional” celebration. I’m thinking about re-creating some economics experiments at my party.

Here’s the plan: Lots of alcohol and yummy appetizers at a fancy place here in Dallas. Computers scattered across the room with small apps, each running a different experiment. After all, how many parties do you go to where you get to have fun, have too much to drink and learn something about economics? Any advice?

—Virginia

I really love your idea—and here is a suggestion for an experiment relating to dishonesty. Give each of your guests a quarter and ask them to predict whether it will land heads or tails, but they should keep that prediction to themselves. Also tell them that a correct forecast gets them a drink, while a wrong one gets them nothing.

Then ask each guest to toss the coin and tell you if their guess was right. If more than half of your guests “predicted correctly,” you’ll know that as a group they are less than honest. For each 1% of “correct predictions” above 50% you can tell that 2% more of the guests are dishonest. (If you get 70% you will know that 40% are dishonest.) Also, observe if the amount of dishonesty increases with more drinking. Mazel tov, and let me know how it turns out!
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On Regulating Relationships

Dear Dan,
My daughter started dating a lazy, dumb guy. How can we tell her gently that he is wrong for her without preaching to her, causing her to ignore us or go against our advice?

—Concerned Mother

It seems that you are experiencing the same reaction most mothers around the world have toward their daughters’ boyfriends. Let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that you are, in fact, correct, and that your daughter’s new boyfriend really is dumb, lazy and up to no good. Nevertheless, don’t tell your daughter your opinion and instead ask her questions. Naturally, people tend not to ask themselves certain questions. But if someone else asks them, these questions get planted in their minds, and it is hard to keep from thinking about them. So thoughtful questions can make people think differently about what they want and how they view the world around them.

For example, you can ask, “How do you and your boyfriend get along? Do you ever fight? What do you love about him? What do you like less about him?” I admit it’s a bit manipulative, but I hope it will get her to think about her relationship in more depth. And maybe she will reach the same conclusions you have.
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On Wedding Ring Woes

Dear Dan,
My wife-to-be really wants to get a two-carat ring, but I’d rather get a smaller ring and spend the rest of the money for future expenses—house, wedding, etc.

Her view is that most of her friends have big rings, plus she’s been dreaming about this for a long time. What do you think about this irrational behavior? Any advice?

—Jay

First, there is a difference between irrational and difficult to understand, and for sure it is irrational to call your future wife irrational in public. If you get her a ring, realize that comparison to her friends is part of the game you are buying into and try to get her a ring that will make her happy with this comparison.

At the same time, what if you could switch to a different jewelry category—maybe a wedding necklace or bracelet? In this case comparison will not be as clear, and you could probably get away with spending much less.

Finally, has it occurred to you that she may want this so much because you are so against it?
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On Audiobooks

Dear Dan,
From time to time, people around me discuss a book they have read recently. While I know the book well, and I want to participate in the conversation, I hesitate because I listened to the book on tape. My first question is why am I embarrassed to say that I listened to the book? My second question is what can I do about it?

—Paula

We learn how to listen and comprehend at a young age and therefore we don’t really remember how difficult it was for us. On the other hand, we learn how to read and write at a later age and we all remember the difficulty of the early struggles with reading and writing. Because of that, people associate greater difficulty with reading than listening. As a consequence, we take greater pride in reading than listening.

My first suggestion is that you realize that it isn’t necessarily the case that reading is more difficult. It’s just that we forget how difficult it is to learn to comprehend. When I got your question I purchased an audio book and I listened to it on a long flight–and for what it is worth, I find it is harder to focus when listening to a book than when reading one.

A second suggestion is that you to find a different word to describe your experience. For example, for books you loved, maybe you can say: “I inhaled that book.” For more difficult books, maybe you can say: “I struggled with it,” or some other phrase.

If these don’t work, perhaps it is time to change the meaning of the word “read.” Maybe we should acknowledge that today there are many ways to get information — audiobooks being one of them. This might seem dishonest, but you might be able to start a revolution, and help lots of people who listen to audiobooks feel more comfortable with what they’re doing. Good luck!
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On Idle Waiting

Dear Dan,
I noticed that when I drive around the block looking for parking I spend a lot of time too far away from my destination (I live in Chicago, and hate the cold), so instead, I just wait until somebody leaves and take the spot. It proved to be more efficient, but my friends can’t seem to stand it, and I can’t do it when I’m not alone in the car. My question is why my friends find in intolerable waiting for someone to leave.

—Danny

The phenomenon you’re encountering is aversion to idleness. There was a story a while ago about an airline that tried to optimize which carousel that the luggage would come out of. There was an engineer with this airline that realized that some carousels were close to some gates, and others were close to other gates. He wrote an algorithm to try to figure out which carousels to send the luggage to so that it would be closest to where the plane was landing. Before this algorithm was created, travelers would get out of the plane, walk for a while and get to the carousel. Sometimes it was such a long walk that their luggage was waiting for them already, and they would pick it up and go home. In the new system, the carousel was much closer and people would walk a little bit, find the carousel and wait for their luggage. People hated this new system because they were standing in one place to wait for their luggage. This idleness was so unpleasant that people complained and the airline rejected this algorithm. My understanding is that they have not gone the whole way in the reverse and tried to get the luggage in the farthest carousel possible, but maybe it is something they are still working on.
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On Public Transportation

Dear Dan,
Many people justify evading paying for public transportation by rationalizing that “public transportation services aren’t value for money,” that “it’s a victimless crime,” and that “as a tax paying passengers, we’ve already paid for my journey once.” Do you have any advice on counteracting these rationalizations?

—Julian

Make these people buy some shares of the public transportation company.
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On Cross-cultural Obesity

Dear Dan,
I just got back from a trip to Europe, and although I knew that Europeans were much less obese than Americans, it was still shocking to see the difference. It is also not true that they don’t have fast food joints. Can you shed some light on these national differences?

—Alvin

Some think that the key factor is the European diet: more homemade food and less prepackaged food, smaller portion sizes, less sugar and corn syrup, etc. I have no doubt that there is some truth to this, but I would propose that our differences in weight also have to do with the fact that Europeans use kilograms while Americans use pounds.

Here is my proposed logic, using me as an example: I weigh 170 pounds, which is also 77 kilograms (well, the truth is that right now I might be closer to 174 pounds, but my real weight is 170). Depending on the time of day and what we eat, our weight fluctuates by a pound or more, as most of us know. This kind of fluctuation lets us convince ourselves that when the scale shows 172, our real weight is still 170, even if it has not shown 170 for a while.

If one day our weight is 174, would we say to ourselves “I am gaining weight, and I need to change what I eat” or would we be able to justify this as part of the random fluctuation around our supposed real weight of 170? By contrast, if we were using the kilogram system, the fluctuations would be much smaller, and when we learned that we were one kilogram heavier, we might act on this change more quickly.

My suggestion: Switch to kilograms (and while we’re at it, maybe we can move to the metric system more generally).
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On Taking Time for Exercise

Dear Dan,
There are people in my office who have a hard time focusing for even 20 minutes on their jobs. Nevertheless, they seem perfectly capable of exercising for long stretches, and they are quite persistent in that. Can you explain this contradiction?

—Michael

This might actually not be a contradiction but rather, as I learned recently, two faces of the same mechanism. A few weeks ago, I flew to California for some meetings. I left home at 4:30 a.m. and got to San Francisco at 10 a.m. I had a few meetings, and by 5 p.m. was exhausted. I had a lot of work-related tasks and was determined to get at least some of them done, but I felt devoid of energy. So I went for a run.

Ordinarily, I go for a run maybe once every 10 years. But this run was fantastic! I ran a bit, walked a bit, listened to music along the way. It was challenging, and I ran out of breath, but in no way was it even close to the mental exhaustion of doing the things I was supposed to work on.

Here is my new understanding: I think that people who either don’t enjoy what they’re doing for work or don’t have the mental stamina to focus on it can take long breaks for exercise. On top of that if your co-workers took a two-hour book or movie break, they would be seen as selfish slackers, wasting time. But because society tells us that exercising is good for our health, it is a perfectly good excuse to escape work. Now that I have discovered this way to take time for myself and not feel guilty about it, I am going to do more of it.
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On Smoking Surcharges

Dear Dan,
The health-care benefits provided by my employer have just been updated to include a hefty monthly surcharge to smokers. I put little effort into quitting smoking, although I know this is the right thing to do. This smoking tax might motivate me to quit, but at the same time it infuriates me that my employer has the power to charge me for smoking. What is your opinion?

—Anonymous

The smoking rate in the U.S. is about 20%, and companies that add such smoking surcharges usually find that the smoking rate drops overnight to less than 10%. Or, more precisely, they find that the smoking surcharge dramatically reduces the number of people who say that they smoke.
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On Deadlines

Dear Dan,
From personal experience, I know that some people delay making a choice as long as possible, while others make quick decisions. What differentiates these two types and what advice would you give to get people to make decisions faster and to feel better about them?

—Amy

In my own studies, we hardly ever find large differences among individuals. In the social sciences in general, individual differences are usually smaller than people expect and matter less than the environment. So if we look at your question, I would phrase it slightly differently and ask, “What kinds of things get people to delay decisions and what kinds of environments get people to take immediate action?”

I would suggest that things like deadlines are incredibly helpful. One British granting agency used to have two deadlines for professors to submit grant applications. When this system was in place, everybody was rushing to submit papers and proposals in time for those grant deadlines. Then the agency let people submit proposals whenever they wished, with decisions on grants made twice a year. No more rushing! But the number of proposals submitted dropped dramatically. Why? Because deadlines allow us to clarify our thoughts and create an action plan. They are good at getting people to perform a particular act, like submitting a grant proposal.
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On Getting Promoted

Dear Dan,
I work in high tech but can’t seem to get ahead. A good friend of mine on the police force gets promoted all the time. He claims that it has to do not with him but with the lower quality of the people working there. Would it be better to choose a line of work where everybody is mediocre and I’m the best, instead of a high-profile workplace?

—David

The problem has to do with the joy people derive from feeling that they are advancing and developing in their careers. This sensation really is important. It provides gratification, self-esteem and recognition from your peers.

Widespread recognition of this need explains why so many companies have invented titles and intermediate positions for senior executives, vice presidents and deputy CEOs. They want managers to experience the gratification of moving ahead even when they have reached the top of the ladder.

At first, this trend only affected management—engineers remained engineers, even when their salaries increased and responsibilities expanded. But over the years, companies made up new titles for lower-level employees as well. And for clear and justified reasons, it seems that you are in need of such a title.

Your predicament is whether to be a small fish in a big pond, as you are now, or a big fish in a small pond, like your friend—a situation that would seem easier and more gratifying.

But before you quit your job for one where the people aren’t as good, I would advise you to try two things: First, see if you can receive, or even create, a promotion. Speak to your boss. Try for a change in your responsibilities and thereby your feeling of accomplishment. Second, talk to more friends, maybe even find some new ones who are not doing as well as your policeman friend. You may find that you are extremely successful compared with some.
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On the Art of Multitasking

Dear Dan,
I spend a lot of time in not-very-interesting conferences calls using Skype and Google Hangout. I try to get things done during this time by using my computer to answer emails: I turn off the video capability, so that no one can see me, and try to type quietly, so that no one can hear. But the sound of the keyboard seems to vibrate through the computer, and the person on the other side knows I am not paying attention. Any advice?

—Kristen

This is exactly what tablets are for.
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On Commuting

Dear Dan,
We recently got married and are having a hard time deciding where to live. Should we live in the city, close to where we work? Or would we be better off finding some place cheaper, greener and farther away from the city?

—A Couple from the Center

Your decision should take a few things into account. First, most of us can get used to most things: houses of different sizes, for instance, or a neighborhood that is green or drab. And we adapt to most changes faster than we expect. Many years ago, for example, I suffered a serious injury that changed my life dramatically. But over time I got used to these changes, and now my life is much better than I would have expected.

But there are some things that we don’t get used to, at least not that easily. One of these, sadly, is commuting—that annoying daily trip from the small neighborhood where we live to our place of work in the big city. We don’t get used to such trips because we never know what’s in store for us in traffic. If we know that we can leave home each day at 7:30 a.m. and arrive at 9 a.m., we can live with that. But because of traffic and bottlenecks, we never know when we might arrive. And this uncertainty makes it difficult to get used to commuting, making each day start out so badly.

This is why I suggest that you take distance from work into account as a significant factor in deciding where to live. It will play a larger role in your life than you think.
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On Being One’s Own Advisor

Dear Dan,
What is the best way to inject some rationality into our decision-making?

—Joe

I am not certain of the best way, but here is one approach that might help: When we face decisions, we are trapped within our own perspective—our own special motivations and emotions, our egocentric view of the world at that moment. To make decisions that are more rational, we want to eliminate those barriers and look at the situation more objectively. One way to do this is to think not of making a decision for yourself but of recommending a decision for somebody else whom you like. This lets you view the situation in a colder, more detached way, and make better decisions.

For example, in one experiment we told people, “Imagine you went to your doctor and the doctor recommended a very expensive treatment. You’ve been seeing this doctor for 10 years. Would you go for a second opinion?” Most people said “no.” We asked another group to imagine a friend in the same situation. Would they recommend that a friend seek out a second opinion? Most people said “yes.”

This suggests that when we think about other people, we take our emotions out of the picture and are able to recommend something more useful—such as going for a second opinion.

But when it’s us, and we have a longtime commitment to a particular doctor, it’s hard to ignore this relationship and our feeling of obligation. Taking the advice approach may not be the best way to inject some rationality into your decision-making (and it’s certainly not the only way), but it is useful to imagine how you would advise another person, particularly someone you care about.
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On Democracy

Dear Dan,
What do you think about democracy, since everybody gets the same right to vote, whether they are smart or less smart? Because the number of the less smart is so large, in a democracy they end up having greater influence. Is this kind of equality in choice good for society?

—Dina

Churchill answered this one: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (from a speech in the House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)
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On Traffic Tension

Dear Dan,
As you creep along in a traffic jam, someone inevitably tries to enter your lane from the side. Now here is the issue: If I let the car in, I feel good about it. But when I see others in front of me let someone in, I feel cheated, because I’ve been waiting longer than the car entering the lane, and I am upset with the driver who acted kindly at my expense. Any idea why I feel so different about these two situations?

—Walt

The issues here are control and credit. When you let someone into your lane, you’re the one making the decision—and you’re the one getting the nod or the hand-wave as an expression of gratitude. In contrast, if someone else is letting the needy car in, you have no control over the decision, and you’re not getting the credit—you only see the downside of the increased delay.

Consider a more moderate version of this case, one where you simply keep a large distance between you and the car in front of you. By doing this, you’re allowing the cars from the merging lane to come into your lane at will, but it doesn’t require a separate act of generosity on your part (you aren’t slowing down to let them in).

My guess is that this version of accommodating other drivers also would not feel very good for you, not to mention that you’re not going to get any credit for your kindness.

What‘s the conclusion? First, to feel good about the good fortune of someone else, we need to feel that the positive outcome is a result of our own actions. Second, we want other people to recognize how wonderful and helpful we are.

Still, given how many other people are stuck in traffic ahead of you and that they’ll keep on letting other cars merge, maybe you should start thinking that real altruism consists of allowing good things to happen both directly and indirectly—and even when other people are getting the credit for it. Taking this attitude won’t be easy, but if you manage it, good things will follow.
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On Handshaking

Dear Dan,
I’m reading your book “The Upside of Irrationality.” As I read your description of the burn injuries you suffered as a teenager, I wondered the following: If you and I were ever to meet, and we shook hands, would it hurt you? My own hand was injured many years ago, and people can cause me pain by squeezing it when shaking. Basically, I worry when shaking hands with a new person. Do you have a similar worry? How would you like people to shake your hand?

—Donni

For me, the question of shaking hands is a mix of potential pain and the feeling that I am not part of normal society. If people shake my hand too strongly, it is painful, and if they shake too loosely, it reminds me of my injury and how I am still perceived by the outside world as someone who looks different. With this trade-off in mind, I prefer that people shake my hand, even if it causes me some pain. It may be irrational, but I like being able to share in this ritual of greeting. It lets me feel that I am part of the wider society.

Taking a different approach, I have started to switch from handshaking to hugs, which are not only less painful on my hands but more personal, more enjoyable and maybe even less likely than handshakes to transmit germs—so maybe this is a good direction for society as a whole.
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On Manipulating Stock Markets

Dear Dan,
Are the stock markets manipulated or are they truly a mathematical outcome of buyers and sellers?

—Dave

Markets are a mathematical outcome of the interaction between buyers and sellers—some of whom successfully manipulate the prices.
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On Disappearing Socks

Dear Dan,
I have a question that has been bothering me for a very long time: Why is it that socks always get lost in the laundry?

—Jamie

This is a deep and important question, and I actually looked into it some time ago with one of my Israeli friends, Ornit Raz.

We discovered that belief in the supernatural is very strong when it comes to the disappearance of socks. Otherwise reasonable people, who think that they have a strong grasp of the forces of nature, feel at a loss when it comes to this universal mystery, and it deeply shakes their faith in the laws of physics.

We also found one mechanism that can explain this mystery—the overcounting of missing socks. You have many socks, and if you see one of them and don’t immediately find its partner, you say, “Oh! A sock has been lost!” You remember that a sock is missing, but you do not exactly recall its type or color.

Later on, you see the matching sock, but you don’t remember that it forms a pair with the first sock, and you say to yourself (again): “Another sock is missing. Where is its partner? I can’t believe so many socks go missing.”

So we often count as lost each sock in a pair—even though neither is really lost. At the end of the day, the mystery is not due to the suspension of the law of physics but to the much larger puzzle of how our memory works (or doesn’t work). Yet I still feel that, at the back of my laundry machine, there may be a black hole that is suitable just for socks.
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On Grandparents with an Agenda

Dear Dan,
Our daughter has been married to a bullying control freak for the past five years. We have no sympathy for her; she is an admitted gold-digger, and her hubby has boatloads of money. Knowing our feelings about the marriage, they have shut us out. My wife and I would like to see our grandson, but grandparents have no visiting privileges in our state. Any advice?

—Reg

It is hard to give advice on this complex issue, but here are a few suggestions. First, try calling your daughter and her husband and simply saying that you’re sorry about previous negative encounters. You don’t sound sorry to me, but that’s OK—just say it and say it repeatedly. In experiments, we found that saying sorry works rather well, and it works even if people don’t mean it. It works even if the person from whom you ask forgiveness knows you don’t really mean it.

The point is that, when someone says he or she was wrong and asks forgiveness, it’s hard to keep on being mad at them. You might find it hard to swallow your pride, but think about this relationship as a game of chess. You really care about the king (seeing your grandson), and pride is just a pawn in the game (well, maybe a bishop)—so it’s OK to sacrifice it.

If this approach doesn’t work, and if you’re serious about getting access to your grandson, I would recommend that you move in next door. This will force some interaction between you, and hatred is going to be harder to maintain—particularly if you are nice to your grandson (what parents can hate people who love their kids?) and if your grandson wants to spend more time with you (what parents can resist their kids?).

Finally, I should mention that my personal experience is that living next to my parents-in-law is not only incredibly helpful, meaningful and useful, but that the pleasures of an extended family have been beyond my expectations.
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On Arming Teachers

Dear Dan,
With the recent debate over gun control and protecting school children, should we arm schoolteachers to make schools safer?

—Ron

Hard to know from the point of view of policy, but here’s one thing that is clear to me: If my own schoolteachers had been armed, I would not have survived middle school.
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On Tipping

Dear Dan,
I work as a waiter in Waikiki, and sometimes to pass the time I conduct mini-experiments with customers, altering my behavior and attitude from day to day and seeing if it increases tips (in case you were wondering, seeming sad nets the most tips).

I have noticed that those paying with credit cards leave bigger tips, but it varies by card: American Express users tip the most, those with Visas a little less. Discover card users are by far the worst. I can’t quite figure this out.

—V

One possibility is that wealthier people get American Express cards, the less affluent Visa, and the least well-off Discover—and they tip accordingly. You should be able to test this hypothesis by looking at their spending patterns—for example, how much they spend on wine.

Another possibility is that credit cards have a priming influence. If a person takes out an American Express card and looks at it, its reputation as a premium card might make the owner feel richer and therefore more generous. These feelings would diminish with a Visa card and be present even less with a Discover card (which generally is of more modest repute).

My guess is that both of these hypotheses play a role in what you’ve observed. To be sure, we would need to experiment by having a group of people with multiple kinds of credit cards pay in similar situations using different cards. Then we’d see if and how they change their spending.
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On Attachment

Dear Dan,
I work with many entrepreneurs in their early innovation stage and am always intrigued by the strong (irrational) attachment they develop to their idea, often leading to their being blind to reality and to wasting time and money. How quickly do we get irrationally attached to our ideas? Is it based on elapsed time or on specific actions we take (such as presenting the idea to others)? What can be done to cure this?

—Omer

The problem, of course, is not just with entrepreneurs. From time to time we all experience someone in a meeting who says something random, and not particularly smart, but then insists that we follow up on his or her brilliant suggestion.

A few years ago, Daniel Mochon, Mike Norton and I conducted experiments about what we called “the IKEA effect”: As the instructions to build something become more challenging and complex, we love even more what we have created. We also showed that this effect takes place rather quickly. In perhaps the most interesting and irrational part of the whole story, we found out that we also mistakenly think other people will share in our excitement over our inferior creations.

What can we do about this? We could try to create an environment where ownership is less powerful or less associated with particular individuals. But if we manage to reduce or eliminate the feeling of ownership, are we also eliminating commitment and motivation? Maybe we should try to increase this sort of proprietary attachment. (And by the way, now that I have finished, I love my answer and think that it is very insightful.)
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On Hoarding

Dear Dan,
After I’ve bought an expensive or limited-edition scotch, I worry about drinking the bottle too quickly or being unable to find more once it’s gone. So partly opened bottles in my closet keep accumulating. Any advice on how to enjoy my scotch rather than hoarding it?

—Jonathan

The problem with hoarding (collecting) is thinking about it as one decision at a time. I would either try to think about such questions from a broader perspective (“Would I be interested in getting 24 more bottles?”) or set up a rule for the number of bottles that you can have in your house at one time (let’s say 10). Then you’d have to finish a bottle or give it away before you acquire another.
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On Happy Money

Dear Dan,
I have worked very hard for most of my life, and I am getting to feel more secure and comfortable. But I don’t feel as happy as I expected, given all my achievements and financial success. I am not one of those hippies who think that money is not important, but it feels like something is missing. What am I doing wrong?

—Matt

Don’t worry. The fact that your financial achievements have not brought you contentment does not mean that you’re a hippie. Social scientists have long been troubled by the finding that people basically think money will bring them happiness but it does so less than they expect.

There are two possibilities: First, that money cannot buy happiness. Second, that money can buy some happiness, but people just don’t know how to use it that way. The good news is that this seems to be the correct answer.

In their fascinating book “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending,” Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton say there are two ways to get more happiness out of our money. The first is to buy less stuff and more experiences. We buy a sofa instead of a ski trip, not taking into account that we will get used to the sofa very quickly and that it will stop being a source of happiness, while the vacation will likely stay in our minds for a long time.

Second, and more interesting, Drs. Dunn and Norton demonstrate that we just don’t give enough money away. Which of these would make you happier: buying a cup of fancy coffee for yourself, buying one for a stranger, or buying one for a good friend? Buying a cup of coffee for yourself is the worst. Buying for a stranger will linger in your mind and make you happier for a longer time, and buying for a friend is the best—it would also increase your social connection, friendship and long-run happiness.

So money can buy happiness—if we use it right.
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On Splitting Bills

Dear Dan,
I’m going to an out-of-town concert next month with friends and, as usual, I ended up organizing everything, booking a hotel room and fronting the money. When I’ve done this with groups in the past, I always end up spending the most on shared expenses, because they are never divided up evenly.

Perhaps I’m afraid to ask for large amounts of money, even though these are the true expenses that should be shared by everybody. What can I do to make sure that the bill for this upcoming show is split fairly?

—Scott

This is a question, in part, of how much you care about splitting the expenses evenly and how much responsibility you’re willing to take to improve the situation. I assume you’re willing to take this responsibility, so I suggest that you collect money from everyone in advance and pay all bills from this pool of money (and add 20% just in case, because we often don’t take all contingencies into account).

This way, everyone will pay the same amount, and bill-splitting will never come up. If there’s extra money, keep it for next year, or buy everyone a small gift to better remember the vacation.
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On Unintended Stalking

Dear Dan,
I have sometimes found myself walking behind a woman at night in an unsafe place and going in the same direction. Even though there is some distance between us, I can feel the doubt and worry in her mind. How do I handle this situation? Should I stop or say something? I have places to be, too, but clearly I don’t want the woman to feel unsafe.

—Steve

Simply pick up your cell phone and call your mother. In the world of suspicion, nobody who calls his mother at night could be considered a negative individual.
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On Sealed Bids

Dear Dan,
My parents are about to put their house on the market in Scotland, where there’s a system of setting an asking price and having interested parties make sealed bids. Any advice on how to get the highest sale price?

—Moses

In auctions there are usually two forces: what people think the starting price of a house should be and how intense the competition gets between the bidders over time. Establishing a starting price for the bidding, it turns out, has an opposite effect on these forces.

If you set a high starting price, there’s a good chance that people will start thinking about the house from that point and offer a higher bid. On the other hand, if you set a low starting price, more people will get into the auction, the competition will be fiercer—and the outcome is likely to be a higher final price. (By the way, have you noticed that in auctions—on eBay, for example—the person who pays for the item at the end of the auction is called “the winner”? This suggests that competition is indeed a very strong driver.)

So if you have a sealed-bid auction in which people can submit a bid only once, go with a high starting price. But if there are multiple rounds of bidding, think of the starting price as a lure for getting many bidders involved at the get-go.

Last week I met with a friend in San Francisco (let’s call him JC) who is house-hunting. He said that the houses he has bid for sold for about 30% to 40% more than the asking prices. The competition has been intense, the process very frustrating, which brings me to a final point: A bidding frenzy might be good for a seller, but since we are all going to be buyers and sellers at some point, it’s not clear that the overall market for housing is better off with this procedure.
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On Netflix

Dear Dan,
I am a longtime Netflix customer. Recently, Netflix removed about 1,800 movies from its service, while adding a few very good ones. I know I probably never would have watched those 1,800 movies, but I am upset and am seriously considering leaving Netflix. Why do I feel this way?

—Kristine

As a movie man myself, I appreciate your perspective. The basic principle at work here is loss aversion: the idea that losing something has a stronger emotional impact than gaining something of the same value. Even though the deleted movies were probably not that great and the current library of Netflix may be, objectively, much better, having movies taken away from you feels like a painful loss.

One way to think about this is to contrast new and old Netflix users. A new one would just look at the overall quality of the movie collection, which may be better than it used to be. For the old user, however, the current collection is just one part of the experience, while the loss of all those movies is another. As a result, the longtime member may be much less happy.

My suggestion is for you to try thinking about Netflix as a service that provides you not with particular movies but with an optimal, curated variety of films. Compare it to a museum: We don’t think of ourselves as owning any of the art, so we aren’t upset when it changes what’s on view from its collection. If you can reframe your perspective this way, my guess is that you will enjoy Netflix more.
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On Laughing at Your Own Jokes

Dear Dan,
A friend once chided me for laughing at my own joke. Is it wrong to laugh at your own jokes? After all, would I tell a joke that I didn’t think was funny?

—Norma

Jokes often hinge on a surprise ending, so laughing at a joke though you know the end seems to be a great endorsement for it (please send me the joke!). The only negative connotation I can imagine is that maybe your friend assumed the laughter was not genuine and you were trying to manipulate her into a higher level of enjoyment. In that case, you might want to look for a different friend.
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On Dog Droppings

Dear Dan,
My partner and I live in a pretty 250-townhouse condo development, but we have a problem with people who don’t clean up after their dogs. Some are residents of our condo, but others are just passing through. Our condo fees pay someone big bucks to clean up after the dogs, and there’s a $50 fine when owners fail to clean up after their dogs. But you have to know who the dog owner is, catch him in the act, and report him to the condo corporation. This policy is not working. What can we do?

—Rachelle

We need to consider two forces in this situation: the positive force of social norms and the negative force of deterrence.

In terms of social norms, a great deal of research shows that what people do is less a function of what’s legal than of what they find socially acceptable. So if dog owners see a lot of droppings around the condo area, they will find it perfectly acceptable to continue in this tradition, but they would feel guilty leaving some doggy souvenirs behind if the grounds were pristine. So what is the lesson from social norms? For one, it means that violators are not only acting selfishly but are also making it more likely that others will follow. It also means that you should work extra hard to establish a better social norm—because once the social norm is set to clean up after the dogs, the good behavior will maintain itself.

In terms of deterrence, you can’t do much about outsiders, but I think you should try something more exotic with your condo neighbors. The way I see it, in the current “game” the dog owners try to hide the droppings, and the managers try to catch and punish the owners. I would try to alter the game so that it’s among the condo dog owners.

What if the condo management put money in a community fund to pay for a droppings-cleaner, as needed, and used whatever was left at the end of the month for a get-together for all dog owners and their dogs? If lots of money remained each month, the party would include food, drinks and doggy treats; if there was no money, it would just be water. This way, failing to clean up after the dogs would damage the community—the personal and social cost of these actions would increase—and people would be more careful.
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On Working Late

Dear Dan,
My friend recently started working at a consultancy. We’d both heard about the brutally long working hours, but what surprised us was how people prized the number of hours they clocked, even when this went up to a ridiculous 16 hours a day. In this age when people are almost forced to have varied interests to define themselves, why would the consultants be shouting their boring lifestyles from the rooftops?

—Tushna

This kind of behavior might seem odd, but there are a few ways to reason about it. First, I suspect that in the world of consulting it is hard to estimate directly how good any particular individual is. If you worked in such a place, you would want your managers to know how good you are—but if they couldn’t directly see your quality, what would you do? Working many hours and telling everyone about it might be the best way to give your employer a sense of your commitment—which they might even confuse with your quality.

This is a general tendency. Every time we can’t evaluate the real thing we are interested in, we find something easy to evaluate and make an inference based on it. I often hear people complain, for example, about the cleanliness of airplane bathrooms. The reality is that we don’t really care about the bathrooms—what we should all care about is the functioning of the engines. But engines are hard to evaluate, so we focus on the bathrooms. Maybe people reason that if the airline is taking care of the bathrooms, it is probably taking care of the engines a well.

Another possibility: Your friend could be using the long working ours to keep score in some competition with his friends at work. This may not be the smartest contest, but people are highly motivated to win in almost every aspect of life—just look at the range of dares and ridiculous competitions on TV. From this perspective, maybe this is not the worst sort of competition for your friend to get into.
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On Trying Out Girlfriends

Dear Dan,
In your last column you gave advice about the need to experience other people’s kids in order to decide if you should or should not have kids of your own. Does that advice hold for deciding if I should or should not marry my current girlfriend?

—Nick

In general, it is advisable to carry out experiments in a way that matches as much as possible the circumstances that you want to understand (in this case, how it would feel to be with this person for decades to come), so I would recommend spending two weeks with your girlfriend’s mother.

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On Flashy Cars

Dear Dan,
I don’t care about cars, never have. But I’m a sales executive, and people tell me I should own a nice car (BMW, Mercedes, etc.) to enhance my credibility to both my customers and sales team. I can afford either but would rather save the cash and buy a Honda. Does it matter?

—Cody

The topic here is signaling. The large and colorful tail of the male peacock tells the female peacock about his strength and virility (if I can run around carrying this large and difficult tail, just imagine how strong I am). In the same way, we humans are concerned with the signals we send the people around us about who we are. Signaling is part of the reason we buy large homes, dress up in designer clothes and buy particular cars. So the answer to your question is yes. The car that you drive communicates something about you to the world. Does it matter? Yes again, because we are constantly reading these signals and making inferences about the senders.

But some questions remain. What kind of signal do you want to send? The BMW signal or the Prius signal? Maybe the signal that you buy American-made? Maybe you want to get a really old car and show people that you take really good care of it (a more subtle signal, but an interesting one). Another question is whether the cost of the signal (the cost of the car) is worth its signaling value. This depends on the nature of the people you deal with, how well they know you, how often you make first impressions, etc.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I drive a minivan—but now that I am thinking about it, maybe I should go and stick a Porsche logo on it.
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On Playing Parents

Dear Dan,
My wife and I are in our late 30s, and we are debating whether or not to have kids. Any advice?

—Henry

The decision on whether or not to have kids is very complex. It depends on many factors, including your financial situation, your preferences and your relationship with your significant other. So, sadly, I can’t provide any direct answer to your question. Obviously, though, this is one of the most important decisions you will ever make—and given its magnitude, you should spend a substantial amount of time trying to get to the bottom of it.

The question about having kids, like many other questions, is all about what you might get from this experience and what you might have to give up. The problem is that before you have kids, it is hard to estimate both the benefits and the costs. So what should you do? You need to try to simulate the kid-experience in order to have a better understanding of what it means and how it would fit you.

For example, why don’t you move in for a week with some of your friends who have kids and observe them up close? Next, why don’t you offer to take care of some other friends’ kids for a week? Then try to expand this exercise and take care of kids of different age groups (don’t skip very young kids and teenagers). After 10 weeks of this experiment, you should be in a much better position to figure out if this is for you or not.

If this exercise seems too daunting for you, you probably fall into one of two categories: 1) You’re not really interested in an empirical answer to this question. Perhaps you’ve already made up your mind, and you’re not yet ready to admit it. 2) You’re too lazy to put the effort into figuring this out. And if that is the case, you probably should not have kids.
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On Paying Taxes

Dear Dan,
I hate tax day. Is there any way to make it more pleasant?

—James

When I first starting filling out the 1040EZ form, I loved tax day. It was a day when I got to think about how much money I made, how much I gave the government (another way to think about it is to think about how much the government takes, but I prefer my framing), and what benefits I got in return from the federal and state governments.

Over the years my taxes have become more complex, and my annoyance with the complexity and ambiguity makes it harder for me to focus on taxes as part of my role and duty as a citizen of this amazing country.

So what can we do to make tax day better? The word mitzva in Hebrew means both a duty and a privilege, and one thing I try to do (not always successfully) is to think about taxes as a mitzva.

I also think that the tax code has to change if we are to experience this day as a day of citizenship and not just annoyance. The tax code needs to be much simpler, and taxes need to be more equitable. Finally, there are some nice experimental results showing that if you ask people to take an active role and vote on where a small part of their taxes goes (education, infrastructure, military, health, etc.), this improves their attitude toward taxes.

Happy mitzva day.
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On Stealing Seats

Dear Dan,
I am writing to you from a train in Germany, sitting on the floor. The train is crowded, and all the seats are taken. However, there is a special class of “comfort customers” who can make those already seated give up their seats. This status is given to those (like me) who travel a lot on the train. It would be nice to get a seat and, according to the rules, I deserve one. But I can’t see myself asking one of the “non-comfort customers” to give up his seat. Why is this so difficult for me?

—Frederick

Your question has to do with what we call the “identifiable victim effect.” The basic idea is that when we see one person in need, our hearts go out to them—we care and we help. But when the problem is very large or far away, or we don’t see the person who is suffering, we don’t care to the same degree—and we don’t help.

In your case, I suspect that if the train conductor were the one picking a random passenger to clear a seat for you—and especially if the conductor did it before you boarded the train—you would have been able to enjoy the seat. Taking this a step further, if you knew who that person was (for example, if the conductor pointed him or her out), you would have felt worse. Picking the person yourself is most likely the most difficult, because you would have no choice but to see the effect of your actions on the other person, as well as his or her reaction.

What’s the lesson here? It’s that direct contact with other people makes us care and act accordingly. And when the distance is great, or the actions are taken without our knowledge, we care much less. Now the question is how to get politicians, bankers, CEOs and everyone else to feel more directly the consequences of our actions on the well-being of others.
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On Telecommuting

Dear Dan,
I work for a government agency that is in the early stages of making telecommuting an option for its workforce. The idea is generating a lot of distrust among managers, and Yahoo, of course, just cracked down in this area. I know that managers are supposed to trust their workers, but it seems obvious that employees will work less from home. What is your take on working from home?

—Julisa

There are lots of possible reasons for the recent decision at Yahoo—some benevolent and some malevolent. Let me focus here on just two of them: work and attention. In terms of expected hours, those who work in an office are exposed to two different standards: the 40-hours-a-week official standard and the standard that is set by the people around them. We all know, for instance, that the social standard in the high-tech industry is much higher than the official 40 hours a week. In such cases, people who work in the office will conform to the social standard and work many more hours. For those who work from home, the 40-hour workweek is going to be a highly salient reference, and accordingly they are likely to adopt this as a reasonable commitment to work.

In terms of attention to the work, my own experience tells me that when people are together in the same room, they pay attention and focus on the task at hand with much of their cognitive capacity. But when people are at a remote site, participating via phone or video conferencing, they are not fully engaged and in many cases they even try (unsuccessfully) to multitask during important meetings.

My mother, by the way, always knows when I try to multitask while talking to her, so maybe Yahoo should hire her to monitor their online conferences and to reprimand those who aren’t focusing sufficiently.
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On Saving for Retirement

Dear Dan,
What is the best way to make sure Americans have sufficient funds for retirement?

—Ben

There are basically two ways to help people have enough money for retirement: getting them to save more and getting them to die younger. The easier one by far is getting people to die younger. How might you achieve this? By allowing the citizens to smoke, subsidizing sugary and fatty foods, and making it hard for them to get access to preventative health care. But, when you think about this, it seems like we’re already doing most of what we can on this front.
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On Marriage

Dear Dan,
My boyfriend and I have been together for a while, and people ask us whether we’re going to get married. We get along great and love each other very much, but I just don’t see the point of marriage. Why not just live together in a civil union and be happy the way things are? Aside from the cost, is there any point to this elaborate ritual?

—Janet

I have no research on this topic, but allow me to share a story that might help you to think about the question.

When I was 19 and spending time in a hospital in Israel, recovering from severe burns, I had a friend there named David, who had been badly injured in the army while disassembling a land mine. He lost one of his hands and an eye and also had injuries to his legs and some scars. When Rachel, his girlfriend of several months, broke up with him, the other patients in the department were furious with her. How could she be so disloyal and shallow? Did their love mean nothing to her? Interestingly, David was better able to see her side, and he was not as negative as the rest of us about her decision.

Think about Rachel in the story above. Does her behavior upset you? How might your feelings differ if it had been a longer-term relationship, if they were engaged or in a civil union, or if they were married? And how would you behave if you were in Rachel’s position in each of these relationships?

I suspect that your level of scorn for Rachel will depend to a large degree on the type of relationship she had with David. I also suspect that your predictions about your own decision to stick with a partner who just experienced an awful injury would similarly depend on the type of relationship. If your assessment changes when you stipulate that David and Rachel were married, this suggests that publicly saying “for better and for worse” really means something to you.

Obviously, marriage is not some magical superglue for relationships; the high divorce rate is no secret. But marriage can serve a very real purpose by bolstering commitment and feeling in long-term relationships, all of which inevitably hit rough patches. So while I wouldn’t advocate marriage in all situations, I do think it’s worth thinking about the ways in which it can strengthen the bond between people.
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On Restroom Stalls

Dear Dan,
When I go to a public bathroom, I often think about which stall I should use. Any advice?

—Cathy

I assume that your practical aim is to figure out which bathroom stall is likely to have been used the least. But what you are really asking is what drives other peoples’ choices in this important domain.

If those who patronize public bathrooms usually choose a stall based on which toilet they think is used the least, they will all choose the one they think is used least—which as a result, ironically, would be that most of them would use the same toilet. Therefore, you would be advised to pick the opposite (i.e., the stall that people think gets the most traffic). Following this logic, if people expect the stall farthest from the entrance to be the most popular, they will avoid using it—leaving it relatively more clean and unused than the others.

But what happens if people are more sophisticated than that? What if they come to the restroom with this same understanding and as a consequence pick what they think is the opposite of what other people think, or the opposite of the opposite?

All of this boils down to a more essential question: How sophisticated do you think other people are?

Personally, I believe people generally take about one step in their logical thinking. So I would say: Choose the opposite of the opposite and select the stall that people think will be used the most.
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On Twitter

Dear Dan,
I enjoy Twitter, but I find that some people tweet very frequently, sometime as often as a dozen times an hour. When their face shows up again and again, I begin ignoring their messages. By contrast, when people tweet just once a day, I’m more likely to pay attention to what they say. Is this just me or does it reflect a larger principle?

—Heidi

I suspect that this feeling is very common. I also imagine that very few people have dozens of interesting things to say a day, much less an hour. Perhaps Twitter is a place where a system based on limits and scarcity (maybe two tweets a day) would be better for everyone.

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On Begging

Dear Dan,
I was recently approached by a panhandler who asked me for 75 cents, and I gave him the money. I was late for my train, so I didn’t have time to stop and try to understand why he chose 75 cents. But I wonder: Do you think the 75-cent request could be a “market tested” amount, one that yields a higher overall level of “donations” than asking outright for a buck or more.

—Brad

The panhandler could be trying to make a unique request in order to separate himself from the competition. But my guess is that you were more willing to give him money because you inferred things from the specificity of his request.

When someone tells us to meet them at 8:03, we come to a different conclusion about how seriously they mean that exact time as compared with their telling us to meet them at 8 or 8-ish. In the same way, a request for exactly 75 cents may carry a set of inferences about how seriously the person needs the money. It may lead us to think there is a specific reason for the request, like getting enough for bus fare. Plus, even if he asks for 75 cents, it’s likely that people will give $1 and not wait for change.

You could argue that the same principle would apply if he asked for $1.25, but in this case the size of the request might deter some people, and if they don’t have exact change, giving $2 might be too much. This is just speculation, though. If you are willing to volunteer as an experimenter for a few days, we can gather some real data and get to the bottom of this.

What lessons can we draw from this strategy? First, think about the inferences that people make from the exact way that we request something. Second, asking for general help is unlikely to be as effective as asking for exactly what we need.

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On Bad Waiters

Dear Dan,
In a restaurant where waiters pool their tips, could they actually receive more tips overall by employing a “good waiter/bad waiter” routine, where one waiter is surly and unhelpful, then another waiter steps in who is friendly and goes above and beyond in serving the client? I suspect that the scheme might cause the customer to leave a larger tip for the second waiter, which will ultimately be pooled with the tips of the “bad” waiter.

—David

I agree with your analysis. And for it to work, you don’t even need the waiters to share their tips—they could just alternate roles.

A friend who worked for a large consumer-products company was trying to change the company’s service motto from “we do things right for our customers” to “we mess up the first time, but then we fix it.” His idea (which upper management rejected, by they way) was that when people expect and receive good customer service, it draws no attention, and they just take it for granted (you can think of parallels to romantic relationships as well). But if we give customers a contrast between good and bad service (as at a restaurant), they may start to notice and appreciate good service more.

I suspect that some industries may have already picked up on this idea, and that airport restaurants are leading the charge by providing the training grounds for delivering bad service most effectively.
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On Facebook Blues

Dear Dan,
I graduated from college a few years ago, and since then my social life has been limited to Facebook. And it is far from satisfying.

—James

Facebook has many wonderful aspects, but I agree that it is no substitute for human contact. If you ever feel that nobody really cares whether you’re alive, try missing a couple of student loan payments.
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On Interviews

Dear Dan,
I recently had a job interview on a rainy day, and it went very poorly. I made a point of getting to the interview site early, and I relaxed by buying a cup of tea and sitting down to read at a local coffee shop. The book I was reading at the time was a policy manifesto by two political theorists whose views I strongly disagree with.

Which is more likely to have contributed to my poor job-interview performance: the cold and miserable January weather or spending 20 minutes reading ideas I greatly dislike? Which is more important for job candidates before a big interview: consulting the weather forecast or spending time reading material that makes them happy?

—Jay

Sorry about the outcome of the interview, but the lesson from this episode might be worthwhile in the long term. I suspect that you had some implicit emotions based on the weather and the book, but the way you experienced these emotions was more general and diffuse. In your mind, your mood was connected to everything around you, which made you uncomfortable about everything you experienced—including, unfortunately, the interview. Assuming that you don’t have a perfect poker face, your feelings must have been apparent to the interviewer, and your overall appeal went down.

Though I suspect that both the weather and the book contributed to your negative mood, if I had to guess I’d vote for the book as having the larger impact. For your next interview, take a funny book with you, and with a thick marker write on your underwear “I am the best.” Both of these methods of preparation should put you in a good mood and improve your chances. Good luck.
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On Luck

Dear Dan,
Are there people who are just lucky? I think so—only I’m not one of them.

—Amy

I think some people are luckier, but it’s not the kind of luck that gets you more money at the roulette wheel. Luckier people tend to try more frequently, and by trying more often they also succeed more. Think about a basketball player who attempts to shoot three times in a game, compared with one who tries 30 times. Even if the first one has a better shooting percentage, in absolute numbers, you can’t compare the two.

On top of that, if you notice the successes of other people and don’t pay much attention to their failures, you will basically see the absolute number of successes and not notice the percentage of successes.

So, what’s the advice? First, life is a numbers game—so try more frequently. Second, it’s good to look at the number of things that other people attempt—not just their successes.
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On the Canoe Test

Dear Dan,
In one of the chapters of “The Upside of Irrationality” you suggest a canoe ride as a good indicator of the success of a future relationship, since it often gives one person plenty of opportunity to blame the other for things that go wrong. Here is the question: Would it matter that one of the participants knows it’s a test?

Before my ex-wife and I got married, we did go on a canoe ride, and it was the worst experience ever. Just to add to your statistics…

—Oren

Like most tests in life, the canoe trial works best when the people in question don’t know they are taking part in a test. Tests make us feel that watchful eyes are on us, so we try to put on our best behavior. If your loved one knows about it, the test is not valid.

Now that I think about it, maybe the real trick is to try to persuade your partner that she is often in a test and being watched. I have always suspected that once people have the Nielsen ratings machines installed in their homes they start watching more PBS and fewer reality shows.

Maybe if you persuaded your significant other that you have some “Ariely Romantic Ratings Machine” installed in your house, your domestic life will improve. Perhaps you should start a company to provide such a service?
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On Bag Lunches

Dear Dan,
I’ve struggled with a few major “I wish I could change this” type behaviors for years. Back when I worked in downtown Manhattan, colleagues would religiously bring their own lunch, thermos of coffee, or whatever, and save money on eating out. I often mused that I could probably fund my retirement or at least a few good vacations with all the money I spent on decent but forgettable food.

Well, recently I started a new job at a big company where the only real food option is its own cafeteria—which serves awful food at market prices.

Lo and behold: This cafeteria so insults and annoys me that I’ve been able to fix my long-standing bad habit. Every night before bed, I simply fill up some Tupperware with dinner leftovers. Or I grab a yogurt, make a PB&J—whatever it takes. What lesson can I take from this?

P.S. I’ve been following your podcast, Arming the Donkeys, for years, but I have to tell you the sound could sometimes be better.

—Jennifer

This is a classic case where having all the right information was simply not enough to drive your desired behavior. We know, for example, that telling people about the caloric content of fast food has almost no effect on eating, and that knowing the dangers of texting at the wheel hasn’t exactly moved the needle on safe driving.

We also know that emotions are often much more effective in getting people to behave differently. In your case, disgust and indignation—which can be extremely powerful and motivating.

The good news is that once your emotions instigated this change, you found it easy to change your behavior, and with time this change may even become a habit. At that point, even if you stop being angry at the cafeteria (or you switch jobs), the habit and joy of bringing your own lunch will persist.

P.S. With regard to my podcast, I’ve been thinking about getting a higher quality recorder for a while. Knowing that you’re motivated by anger and revenge, I will get right on it. Thank you.
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On Career Choices

Dear Dan,
As a recent college grad, I often find myself coming up with off-the-wall, out-of-the-box, borderline idiotic ideas of what to do with the rest of my life. One day I’ll be thinking of how much I enjoy my job; the next I’ll be considering dropping everything and running off to another country, starting my own business, launching a singing career or pursing higher education in something unrelated to my field, like behavioral economics. I’ll often stew on these ideas before setting them aside, only to revisit them every few months. How can I tell when my ideas are actually legitimate notions or nothing but half-baked schemes?

—Josh G.

First, I am impressed that you’re considering so many different types of jobs. (And I may be biased, but I agree that a career in behavioral economics would be pretty interesting.) In general it amazes me how few possible career paths people consider before picking one to stick to indefinitely.

As for your question: It’s useful to think about two aspects of your job choices: What will make you happy (which is the only aspect people usually consider) and what jobs will be able to teach you something important. If I were you, I would make a list of possible jobs and rate each one on both measures. Next, figure out what your goal is right now (as a recent college grad, you may want to focus more on what you can learn) and then pick the job from the list that best satisfies this goal. Finally, commit to that job for at least a year without looking back.

What you shouldn’t do is stay in one job and think about how different your life would be if you took another. This is a bit like dating one person but constantly checking Match.com to see what other options you might have. It takes away from the enjoyment of your current relationship or job and your commitment to it. So, whatever you do, sticking to your chosen path of action is key.

And if you do end up switching jobs, please don’t tell your parents that you did it on account of my advice.

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On Shopping for a Loved One

Dear Dan,
As we get closer to Valentine’s Day, I am wondering, why do women like jewelry and flowers? Wouldn’t it be better if they liked the kind of things that men liked to shop for?

—Jon

One way to view this discrepancy is that women like these things exactly because men hate shopping for them. If you purchased something for your loved one that you enjoyed shopping for, this would be nice, but having to overcome your aversion to shopping for these items is a much stronger signal of your love and care. So this year, when you are shopping for jewelry or flowers for your soul mate, remind her what a pain it was for you.

And Happy Valentine’s Day.
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On a Trillion Dollar Platinum Coin

Dear Dan,
Yet another random person on the internet who finds your research interesting and illuminating.

The current bit of economics controversy in the news left me wondering about your take on the trillion dollar platinum coin as a means for avoiding a US default via the debt ceiling. There’s debate on the legality, but there’s also the broader political question of whether or not it’s a “good idea” — which depends on what principles you work from to measure how “good” a consequence is. This leaves me wondering about YOUR expectation about the possible outcomes of such a move.

—abb3w

In my mind, the real issue here is trust. After all, with the amount of debt that the US has right now, we are at the hand of our creditors. If one day they decided to knock on our proverbial door and ask for their money back, we would be in deep trouble. From this perspective, the question is whether such a “trillion dollar platinum coin” would make us appear more trustworthy (as a creative nation that comes up with innovative solutions), or less trustworthy (as a nation that has to resort to shady maneuvers to manage its internal debates). If I had to bet, I would guess that other countries would take the less favorable interpretation of such a move. Moreover, as we know, ones’ initial perspective colors the interpretation of new data, and given the economic hernia that the US has created or contributed to, my guess is that trust in our financial system is not something to write home about.

With all of this in mind, I would try to make the next financial deal one that improves the way that the world looks at our financial health.

(Plus, you can buy a trillion dollar platinum coin for $19.95 on ebay)
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On Chips and Dips

Dear Dan,
While I’m watching sports, I often find myself with the same problem. I will have too many chips for my dip, but if I open up another can of dip I’ll have too much dip for my chips. I don’t want the extra can of dip to go to waste, but I don’t want to have to eat dry chips. What should I do?

—Chris

This is indeed an important problem! What you are experiencing is a problem with ending rules. The chips and dip each provide an experience for you that ends at a different time, making it hard to figure out when to stop.

One solution would be to convince the chip and dip manufacturers to bundle packages that complement each other in terms of size. Another approach would involve pacing yourself from the get-go in terms of the chip-to-dip ratio. A third idea would be to invite a friend who only likes chips (or dislikes the dip you have).

More seriously, the problem you are describing is part of a more general issue, as Brian Wansink shows in his wonderful book “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.” We don’t stop eating when we have had a sufficient amount of food, but when we’ve finished everything on the plate. The best approach may be to think about how much chips-and-dip you want to consume, transfer that amount to small dishes, and stop making decisions based on the size of the packaging.

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On Expectations

Dear Dan,
In “Predictably Irrational,” you wrote about the “Effect of Expectations,” and you demonstrated that we are prone to perceiving things as being more like what we expect them to be than as what they actually are. As an example, you showed that we would experience a glass of wine as better if we had seen positive reviews of it before tasting it. Well, these findings mostly fit with my own experience; however, what you didn’t mention is the possibility of a negative effect for expectations that are too good. In other words, is the effect the same when something is extremely overhyped?

My own observation is that when I passionately recommend a movie to my friends, sometimes their feedback is: “It wasn’t that good. I thought it would be really amazing.” I suspect that they’re experiencing a negative feeling toward the movie because I over-hyped it. Do you think that overhyped expectations can backfire?

—Omid Sani

My intuition is basically the same as yours. When I overhype something, I also feel like people end up with very high expectations (that is, assuming they trust my opinion) and that this can decrease their enjoyment of the experience.

Here is how I view the issue: Heightened expectations can change our experience by (let’s say) 20%, which means that as long as the increased expectations are within this range, the expectation can “pull” the experience and influence it. But when expectations are too extreme (let’s say 60% heightened), the gap with reality becomes too wide, and they may backfire and reduce enjoyment.

If you want your friends to experience something as better than it truly is, go for it and exaggerate. But don’t exaggerate by too much. This kind of “fudge zone” also suggests that in areas of life where people are not experts, you can exaggerate a bit more.

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On Gossip

Dear Dan,
I’m at a loss for understanding the popularity of gossip newspapers and magazines? What is the attraction??

—Dave

I don’t understand it myself, but I suspect that some of the attraction has to do with social coordination.

I have never been in a discussion where people said “I only wish we had more time to talk about the weather / sports / gossip.” But, given the need to find common topics for discussion, these are some of the easiest common denominators to find.

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On Stretching Time

Dear Dan,
My best buddies and I have a tradition of going on a one-week ski trip once a year. We’ve been doing it for most of the past decade. The idea is that it’s just us guys on the mountain, enjoying the good company and snow. We cherish these moments and can’t wait for the week to arrive every year. The problem is that once we land at our ski destination, time seems to go by at light speed. The week ends amazingly quickly and when we look back at our time together it seems even shorter. I know that “time flies when you are having fun,” but is there a way to perceive the week as longer?

—Avi

Given the way you phrased the question, the answer is simple: Take your wives with you. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist.)

But more to the point: I suspect that one of the reasons that your vacations seem so short, both in the experience and in your memory after the fact, is because the days of skiing are so similar to each other that they blend together in your memory into one very long day rather than a weeklong vacation.

On your next trip, try to make the days more differentiated from one another. Try snowboarding one day, take a lesson on another day, or just change your ski equipment from time to time. You could take a day off from skiing and go sledding or meet the locals. The point is that even if some days wind up with activities that you enjoy less at the moment (like bowling, for example), the ability to differentiate that day from the other days will help you categorize the vacation as a series of distinct experiences instead of one big glob of skiing. This way, you will get more joy from the memory of these experiences.

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On Coining Decisions

Dear Dan,
A few weeks ago in your column you suggested spinning a penny as a way to make decisions between two similar options. You argued that having to face the moment of truth makes us realize what we really want as the outcome.
This approach might be useful when deep down inside it is clear which way you want the penny to fall, but what about decisions where what you desire is not good for you? For example, when the decision is between chocolate cake and fruit. In this case, you know very well how you want the coin to fall, and flipping the coin doesn’t seem to be very useful.

—Gavin

You’re right. The coin trick is indeed only useful for cases where the two options are of the same type (two cameras, two movies, etc). In your example, one option is more tempting in the short term (chocolate cake) while the other is better in the long term (fruit). In such cases we should not trust our gut feelings to drive us to the best decisions.

Looking around, it is easy to see that we often succumb to temptation and take the option that has short-term benefits and long-term downsides (in your example, this is the chocolate cake). The basic problem is that when we make such decisions we are often “under the influence” of the chocolate cake. Its closeness blinds us to the comparative long-term benefits of a piece of fruit (or, simply not eating the cake). So what can we do? Every time you face such decisions, pretend that it is not about what to do now but what you would like to do a week from now. For example, think of the choice between chocolate cake and fruit for dessert as a decision that you are making for exactly one week from today. When the choice is framed this way, you might be more able to override the influence of your current emotional state and pick the option with long-term benefits.

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On Gifts of Effort (not money)

Dear Dan,
I just bought a pair of basketball tickets and I plan to treat my friend to an afternoon of slack-jawed wonder as Kevin Durant dismantles our hometown Raptors. Here’s the thing: My friend is very generous and semiwealthy. If I tell him the tickets are on me, he’ll insist on paying…but if I tell him the tickets were free (the only way he’ll let me off the hook about the price), I’ll lose that weird cachet that comes from giving an expensive gift. What to do?

—Gil

Here is what I would do: Take your income per month (for simplicity, say $10,000) and divide it by the cost of the two tickets (again for simplicity, say $200). Now multiply this number by the number of hours you work per month (let’s say 160), and you get the numbers of hours that you need to work to pay for the tickets (3.2 hours in this case). Now, tell your friend “it took me more than 3 hours of hard labor to get these tickets.” (After all, you might not want to tell your friend exactly how much you make.) With this kind of framing, not only will your friend not be able to pay for the tickets, but he will also appreciate your investment in him and your friendship to a higher degree.
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On the Perfect Gift

Hi Dan!
Every year it’s the same problem: My husband and I struggle to get his dad a few perfect gifts, only to see them sit unused for eternity. These are good things, too, expensive and high quality—specialty tools for his car, toolboxes, super-handy gadgets, etc. But years later, the tools sit there unopened and the toolbox has dust on it. He still carries his broken wrenches and stripped screwdrivers around in a ripped plastic sack!

OK, an old story, I know. But would it be so wrong if we just took the gifts back? He doesn’t want them. We could use them ourselves. Since the objects were “ours” at one point, we feel that we still retain some residual interest in what happens to them. Is it because we invested so much thought and effort in acquiring them?

Thanks for all your good works, and happy holidays!

—Veronica

No, you may not take the gifts back. (Note that I didn’t write “your gifts,” because I don’t think you should picture them as yours.)

The sad thing is that you and your husband feel unappreciated because your thoughtful and expensive gifts are not bringing the dear old man the happiness that you hoped to give him. Instead of taking the gifts back, I would try to increase the likelihood that the tools will get used. First, I would take them out of their packaging and replace the old tools in his plastic sack with the new ones—thereby making the act of using them more likely. As for the old tools, just put them in the attic for now.

If your father-in-law protests, I would restore his old tool kit and suggest spring cleaning and the donation of unused household goods to a local charity. He might be willing to give the new tools up for a good cause. And if that doesn’t work, stage a robbery and steal them, leaving cash and other valuables untouched. The added benefit of this approach is that it might also show your father-in-law how valuable your gifts are.

As for this year, buy him something that gets better over time, such as good whiskey or wine. That way, if he doesn’t use it, it will at least grow in value and not bother you as much.

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On the Price of Wine

Dear Dan,
I bought two bottles of wine at a wine store that was running a “Buy one, get another for five cents” deal. The first bottle was priced at $16.99. I bought the second one, a different wine but listed for the same price, for five cents.

If I’m going to take one of the bottles for a holiday dinner at a close friend’s house, which wine should I take? Will the fact that I paid only five cents make me take that one over the full-priced bottle?

—Rags

We’ve known for a long time that there’s a correlation between what you pay for a wine and how good it tastes to you, but this correlation only exists, of course, when people know the price. As Robin Goldstein from http://www.fearlesscritic.com has shown, when people don’t know how much a wine costs, there’s no correlation between the price and how good they think it is.

Taking this into account, the first question you should ask yourself is whether to tell your friends about the cost of the wine or not. If you don’t tell them, then there’s no problem—just take the cheap one. It is true that by knowing the price that you paid for it, you will enjoy it less, but everyone else will be just fine. On the other hand, if you decide to tell them the price, I would suggest bringing the $16.99 Bottle, and maybe even include the cost of driving to the wine store.

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On New Year’s Resolutions

Dear Dan,
Do you believe in New Year’s resolutions?

—Janet

Yes. Every year for about a week: for about five days before New Year’s Day and for about two days after.
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On Whistleblowing

Dear Dan,
I was the whistleblower for a very large corporate disaster. Since the whistleblowing, I have been shocked at the vitriol and social exclusion I have suffered as a result of speaking the truth. What is it about whistleblowers that makes society want to exclude them? Any insights and guidance would be most welcome.

—Wendy

From what I understand, the backlash you are experiencing is very common among whistleblowers.

In thinking about your issue, I reflected on why I want my kids (ages 10 and 6) to solve their problems themselves, without involving higher authorities (their parents). Tattling is considered very negative behavior. Of course, sometimes my kids have legitimate claims that require an intervention from the “authorities,” but my negative reaction to tattling suggests that I’m willing to accept some violations of justice in order to have the problems solved internally.

Perhaps the friends of whistleblowers see them as not truly part of the social circle, since they’ve shown willingness to seek external authorities when conflicts emerge. Maybe your social exclusion is due to a belief that when problems emerge in the future, you will again look for an external authority? If you were Tom Sawyer, you could cut your hand and mix your blood with that of your friends to symbolize your connection, but given that this might not work for your age group, perhaps you need to find a related ritual that will show your commitment to the social group.

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On Zipcars

Dear Dan,
I live in a quasi-urban area near Washington, D.C., don’t own a car and take the metro to work. Near my home is a fleet of Zipcars (a car-sharing system starting at $8 an hour, including gas, insurance and up to 180 miles of driving in a day). If I bought a car, the monthly costs alone (insurance, parking) would amount to about $200; then there’s the purchase of the car, gas and tolls. For that money I could regularly rent Zipcars.

So why don’t I? I could go to different restaurants and entertainment. But each time I think of doing this, I ask myself whether I want to spend the extra money to rent the car and usually decide against it.

This issue comes up the most with groceries. There’s a fantastic supermarket a quick drive away that sells much better and cheaper produce than my local store. In the end, I feel like I’m choosing between (1) overpaying at my local store and feeling cheated and (2) going to the better store but also feeling cheated because I spent $30 on a Zipcar to save that same amount on groceries. What do you suggest?

—Michal

What you’re experiencing is a conflict between your enjoyment of a better supermarket and your cost-benefit analysis. What’s interesting is that if you bought a car, you’d spend much more money overall, but on any given week you wouldn’t feel the pain of paying to get to the supermarket. Because a car can be used for so many different purposes, no single one will feel like the reason for the car, and you’d only focus on the marginal cost of driving a few extra miles, despite the car’s overall expense and inefficiency.

Instead, you could try calling Zipcar and offering to pay them in advance for three hours of car use four times a month for a year. This way you wouldn’t undergo a cost-benefit calculus for every visit to the supermarket.

And if you can’t convince Zipcar to do this, how about putting the money you’re saving by not having a car into a “Zipcar” bank account, and linking the Zipcar use to the money you’re saving? And to make sure you use this money for the Zipcar, commit to giving whatever’s left in that account at the end of the year to a charity you hate.

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On the Rosy Effect of the Unexplored

Dear Dan,
A few weeks ago you told us that in romantic encounters, the heart grows fonder when we know less about a potential mate. Does it also work for job applicants? Do we like people more when they’re hired from the outside rather than from within?

—John

Plenty of lessons from romantic love apply to the rest of our lives, and you’re correct that this is one of them. There’s some evidence showing that CEOs hired from the outside get paid more than those from the inside and that they don’t do as well. I suspect that the reason for this is the same heightened expectations that come with lack of knowledge. The question, of course, is how to combat our natural tendency to be overly optimistic about people we don’t know very well—both romantically and professionally.
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On Moving

Dear Dan,
My son has been in New York since he was 18, when he started attending The Cooper Union as an art student. Now he is 35 and afraid to leave NYC to move West. He hasn’t made the moves he would need to further his career in photography. He has had many successes—but not financial ones. We’ve offered him time here on the West Coast to develop his art (and hopefully a career). He doesn’t like living in NYC and says he would love to move west, but people in New York seem to believe that it is the only place to get a job. Is there any advice or constructive approach you can offer to make his options clearer?

—Barbara

First, it’s delightful that you want your son to move closer to you rather than stay on the other coast, and I am sure that he feels the same.

I suspect your son is suffering from two decision biases. One, the status quo bias, has to do with our tendency to take our current situation as our reference point and to see any change as negative (or at least difficult) and with a high potential for regret. The second, the unchangeability bias, is the idea that when we face large decisions that seem to be immutable (getting married, having kids, moving to a distant place), the permanence of these decisions makes them seem even larger and more frightening. With these two biases combined, it’s only natural that your son is apprehensive about moving West.

Now, if you frame the move as “a trial for just a few months,” this would change your son’s status quo (he would still think of himself as a New Yorker, only temporarily trying out the West Coast), and it wouldn’t seem like a decision that’s so tough to change. Over time, he’ll most likely start feeling at home, get used to the new status quo, and not want to return to New York.

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On Eating

Hi Dan,
Let’s say you’re very hungry and you plan to eat two sandwiches. One is very delicious and the other isn’t as good. Which one should you eat first?

—Pablo

One of my college friends had kids many years before anyone else in our group was even considering children, and he used to give the following advice (mostly unsolicited): “Think,” he used to say, “about how you like to eat. There are some people who like to eat reasonable food three times daily, while others would prefer to save their money and eat mediocre food most of the time but occasionally have an amazing meal.

“If you’re one of the second type, go ahead and have kids, because life with kids isn’t all that fun for the most part, but from time to time they bring incredible joy. And if you identify with the first type, you may want to rethink the kids idea.”

Now, I am not sure that this metaphor bodes well for kids, but in terms of food it certainly works. As a thought experiment, it asks whether you prefer to focus on the maximum amount of pleasure in any given experience or the average pleasure.

In the first case, you should eat the better sandwich first so that the height of your initial joy comes from the combination of your hunger and the superior quality of the sandwich. (As Cervantes wrote in “Don Quixote,” “Hunger is the best sauce in the world.”) Of course, you will sacrifice pleasure at the end of your experience. On the other hand, if you’re aiming for a consistent experience, eat the so-so sandwich first. With this method, the initial joy will be lower, but the end of the experience won’t be as much of a contrast.

Personally, I prefer to focus on the most joyful part of the experience and eat the best sandwich first, ignoring folk wisdom to “save the best for last.” Plus, this way I might be less hungry by the time I get to the so-so sandwich and may eat a bit less.

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On Decision Making

Dear Dan,
Given all your research on decision making, do you now find yourself making better decisions?

—Oded

Maybe, possibly, sometimes. I suspect that my gut intuition hasn’t improved much with my knowledge about bad decision-making. On the other hand, when I get to carefully consider my decisions, I think I’m able to avoid some of the decision traps that I study. I should also point out that much of my research starts with observations of my own irrationalities—so, without my own mistakes, I might have to look for a different career.
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On Lyrics

Dear Dan,
The Korean music video “Gangnam Style” by the pop singer PSY has now been viewed on YouTube over a half billion times. Why do you think this video has become so popular? Most viewers don’t understand what PSY is singing about in Korean, yet they seem to love the video anyway.

I wonder if this is partially because the words are in a foreign language that they don’t have a clue about. It’s the same in my country, Kazakhstan. Although Kazakhstanis usually do not get the content of what they are listening to, they love American pop music and (these days) Korean pop. The closest parallel I can think of is when a woman wearing a miniskirt generates more curiosity than a woman who’s fully undressed.

Recently, PSY announced that his next debut will be in English. Would this be a mistake?

-Nurdaulet

A few years ago, Mike Norton, Jeana Frost and I looked at the question of ambiguity and found exactly the mechanism you’re suggesting—that knowing less can lead to higher liking. Focusing on online dating, we found that when people read online profiles of potential partners that were more ambiguous and imprecise, they liked the profiles more. That’s because when we face new information we try to resolve ambiguity, but rather than do it accurately, we let our minds fill in the gaps in an overly optimistic way. Sadly, we eventually meet the person behind the dating profile, and then our expectations get crushed (which, by the way, happens a bit more to women).

I just tried to understand the PSY phenomenon for myself (in an admittedly unscientific way) by watching 10 YouTube clips of popular songs (in English) without paying much attention to the words. Then I read each lyric carefully, twice. What I found is that the quality of the lyrics was surprisingly low, and this cut down on my appreciation of the videos, which I’d initially enjoyed.

What this suggests is that it might be good for the musicians to get people not to pay attention to the lyrics—maybe by creating very hectic music videos or by singing in a different language, or both. So if I were PSY, I’d switch to a language that almost no one understands—maybe Yiddish.

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On Joint Accounts

Dear Dan,
I recently got married, and my wife and I have been debating the topic of bank accounts. She’d like to combine them, because she wants to know how much is coming in and going out. I think separate accounts would be simpler for taxes, personal spending and budgeting. What’s your take?

-Jonathan

The fact that you’re wondering whether to follow your preferences or your wife’s tells me that you are either a slow learner or very recently married (sorry, my Jewish heritage would not let me pass up that opportunity). But to the point: I think you should have a joint account.

First, there’s no question that in reality your accounts are joint in the sense that anything one of you does has an effect on your mutual financial future. For example, if one of you starts buying expensive cars from your individual account, there’s going to be less money for both of you to spend later on vacations, medical bills and so on.

More important, by getting married you have created a social contract of the form: “I will take care of you, and you will take care of me.” Adding a layer of financial negotiations to this intricate relationship can easily backfire. Think about what would happen if there was “my money” and “your money”? Would you start splitting the bill in restaurants? What if one of you has an extra glass of wine? And what if your wife ran out of “her money”? Would you tell her that if she does the dishes and takes the garbage out for a week, you would give her some of “your money”?

The problem is that once money becomes intertwined with deep relationships, they can start looking a bit more like prostitution than like love, romance and long-term caring. Separate bank accounts do have some advantages, but having them could put unnecessary stress on your relationship—and your relationship is much more important than managing your money efficiently.

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On Dialing Mom

Dear Dan,
My son travels a lot and as a consequence we don’t talk much. Can you suggest a way that I can talk to him more frequently?

-Yoram

I suspect that your son has a busy life and that his lack of calling does not reflect his love or caring for you. This said, maybe you can pick a regular day and time to talk, and this will make your conversations more likely. And I promise to call you and mom the moment I get back from South America.

Love, Dan
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On Planning Ahead

Dear Dan,
I’m shopping for several plane tickets for personal trips over the next couple of months, and I keep running into the same problem: “Current me” wants to pinch pennies by choosing overnight flights, routes with several legs or inconvenient airports that would require me to drive a few hours out of my way. “Future me”—the one that actually has to pick up the rental car at 11 p.m. and drive two hours from Phoenix to Tucson the night before a friend’s wedding—sometimes resents that I wouldn’t just spend an extra $100 to make an already expensive trip more pleasant. Travel-booking websites are getting better and better at predicting what will happen to flight prices, but I don’t seem to have gotten any better at predicting my own preferences.

How can I best determine whether these savings will feel worth it to me in the future? Or, failing that, how can I console myself when I’m pulling into a Tucson motel parking lot at 1 a.m.?

—Ruth

Your framing of the problem is spot on. In your current “cold” state, you focus on the price, which is clear and vivid and easy for you to think about. When you actually take the trip, that version of you will be feeling exhaustion and need for sleep (a “hot” state), which will be very apparent to you at that point—but it is not as vivid right now.

This, by the way, is a common problem that arises every time we make decisions in one state of mind about consumption that will take place in a different state of mind.

Here is what I recommend. In order to make a better decision, tonight at 9 p.m. put in some laundry and spend the next two hours sitting on the washer and dryer (this is to simulate the fun of flight, and if you want to really go all out, supply yourself with a package of peanuts and a ginger ale). When you “land” at 11 p.m., look around for some missing socks (to simulate looking for your luggage) and then, properly conditioned to think about the actual trip, log into the travel website and see what is more important to you: saving a few bucks or getting to bed sooner.

Plus, imagine how you would look in the wedding pictures after a long night of uncomfortable traveling.

Good luck in your decision and “mazel tov” to your friend.

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On Halloween Rationing

Dear Dan,
I was wondering how you allocate candy during Halloween to make sure kids don’t dishonestly take more than they should. I’ve thought of handing each of the children their candy, but that way the kids can’t pick what candies they like best. Also, this method takes more time, which I don’t have, and makes things less pleasant for me.

But if I leave a bowl of candy out without any oversight, I know what will happen: They’re all going to take more than their share until the bowl is empty.

—Mary

Beyond Halloween, this is a general question about honesty. One of the things we find in experiments on honesty is that if people pledge that they will be honest, they will be—and this is the case even if the pledge is nonbinding (or what is called “cheap talk”).

Given these results, I would set up a table with a large sign reading “I promise to take only one piece of candy [or whatever amount you want them to take] so that there is enough left for all the other trick-or-treaters.” Below the sign, place a sheet of paper for your visitors to write down their names (and, given that it is Halloween, use red paint and ask them to sign in “blood”). With this promise to take only one candy, the public signature in blood and the realization that if they take more candy they will deprive their friends of having any, I suspect that honesty will improve dramatically.
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On Flipping Coins

Dear Dan,
Do you have general advice for how to approach difficult decisions? I’ve been thinking about which car to get for a very, very long time, and I just can’t decide.

—John

The poet Piet Hein gave this sage advice some time ago, and I think it will work in your case:

“Whenever you’re called on to make up your mind

And you’re hampered by not having any,

the best way to solve the dilemma, you’ll find,

is simply by spinning a penny.

No—not so that chance shall decide the affair

while you’re passively standing there moping;

but the moment the penny is up in the air,

you suddenly know what you’re hoping.”
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On Nicknames

Dear Dan,
My sweetheart often calls me by a term of endearment which, though flattering, is one that his ex-girlfriend called him during the four years they were together. The floweriness of the term does not fit his personality or mine (it’s sort of Shakespearean and we’re nerds), and every time he says it I think of her, though I appreciate his sweet intentions and hold no ill will against her. Is there an inoffensive way to bring this up and get a new “nickname” that feels more personal? I kept hoping it would go away by itself, but we’ve been together for five years and are now engaged. Help!

—Signed,

“Not Guinevere”

What your sweetheart is doing, of course, is connecting a term with positive associations for him to someone he loves—you. It would be nice if you could accept this for what it is, but judging by your letter, I don’t think that this is in the cards.

So now we have to think about how to eradicate his habit. One approach is to give him a negative punishment (a light punch on the shoulder, a sad look, etc.) every time that he uses this unfortunate term and to use a positive reward (a quick neck rub, a compliment) every time that he uses other terms of endearment. This approach would probably work, but I would recommend even more a variant of it that the psychologist B.F. Skinner called random schedules of reinforcement.

The basic idea is to alternate unexpectedly among ignoring this term of endearment, giving him a slight positive feedback for using it and responding from time to time with a dramatic negative punishment (a strong punch on the shoulder, hysterical crying, etc.).

Not knowing what to expect, coupled with the potential for a large negative response, would substantially increase his fear and would make even thinking about this nickname a negative experience for him. Good luck, and keep me posted on your progress.

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On the Stock Market

Dear Dan,
How can I control myself when I feel the irresistible need to break my own rules about how to invest in the stock market?

—Ganapathy

You are asking, I suspect, about what we call the “hot-cold-empathy gap,” where we say to ourselves: “The level of risk that I want to take is bounded on one side by gains of up to 15% and on the other by losses up to 10%.” But then we lose 5% of our money, we panic and sell everything. When we look at such cases, we usually think that the colder voice in our head (the one that set up the initial risk level and portfolio choice) is the correct one and the voice that panics while reacting to short-term market fluctuations is the one causing us to stray.

From this perspective, you can think about two types of solutions: The first is to get the “cold” side of yourself to set up your investment in such a way that it will be hard for your emotional self to undo it in the heat of the moment. For example, you can ask your financial adviser to prevent you from making any changes unless you have slept on them for 72 hours. Or you can set up your investments so that you and your significant other will have to sign for any change. Alternatively, you can try to not even awake your emotional self, perhaps by not looking at your portfolio very often or by asking your significant other (or your financial adviser) to alert you only if your portfolio has lost more than the amount that you indicated you are willing to lose.

Whatever you do, I think it’s clear that the freedom to do whatever we want and change our minds at any point is the shortest path to bad decisions. While limits on our freedom go against our ideology, they are sometimes the best way to guarantee that we will stay on the long-term path we intend.

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On Justifying Dishonesty

Dear Dan,
In your most recent book, you argue that most people are capable of dishonesty. Are you worried that people will use this as a justification for dishonest behavior?

—Joe

A colleague told me that a student at her university was doing just that. During a trial dealing with an honor-code violation, the student in question brought my book to the honor court and argued that “everyone cheats a bit,” so he should not be judged harshly.

The honor court was more annoyed than impressed with his argument, and they pointed out to him that if everyone cheats, maybe this suggests that extra harsh and public punishments should be used to make it clear that such behavior is outside the norms of the acceptable and will not be tolerated.
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On Sports

Dear Dan,
I am an avid football fan. When the team I am supporting is leading by, say, seven points, it doesn’t seem like a lot (we are leading by JUST one touchdown). On the other hand, when we are trailing by seven points, it seems like a lot (we are trailing by ONE touchdown). The same thing happens with runs in baseball and points in basketball. As a result, I’m always nervous while watching close games! Why do I feel this way? Is it just me?

—Jaydeep

I must admit that I don’t follow sports, but as luck would have it, I recently had a chat with Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. We talked about various links between behavioral science and basketball, including the idea of loss aversion. Loss aversion means that our emotional reaction to a loss is about twice as intense as our joy at a comparable gain: Finding $100 feels pretty good, whereas losing $100 is absolutely miserable.

When your team is ahead, you think that the game is yours, so you largely focus on dreading that it might be taken away from you. On the other hand, when you are behind, all you can do is look forward to a positive change in the lead.

As this suggests, we might benefit in other areas of life, beyond sports, by adopting the perspective of being behind and looking for the upside.

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On Giving

Dear Dan,
Several years ago I gave my 90-year-old mother $5,000 to pay off the bank loan for her 2007 Honda Civic. She recently decided she didn’t want to drive anymore and would sell the car, for which she should receive $6,000 to $8,000. She had originally planned to give the car to my nephew (her grandson), but since he can’t afford the upkeep, she was going to sell the car and give him the proceeds. My finances have improved significantly since the time I gave her the $5,000, but she also offered to give me back $5,000 from the sale, which would leave my nephew with very little money. What should I do?

—Anastasia

When we face such questions, we usually engage in what is called a cross-personal utility comparison. We ask ourselves how much we would benefit from this amount of money and compare this to how much the other person (your nephew, in this case) would benefit. When we carry out this comparison we naturally have a somewhat egocentric view of the world, which means that we usually over-weigh our own benefits and under-weigh the benefits of the other person.

However, recent research by Elizabeth Dunn and Mike Norton (their forthcoming book is called “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending”) shows that giving money away has tremendous benefits for the giver. In their studies, whether people buy a cup of coffee for a friend or give up their yearly bonus to help a nonprofit, the givers experience happiness beyond their expectations, and it remains high for longer than they anticipate.

In your case, the giving would be particularly powerful because both you and your mother are involved. You would feel happiness because you facilitated the gift, your mother would feel happy because she is helping her grandson, and you would feel further happiness for making your mother feel good. With all of this good feeling around, is there any doubt that you should help your nephew?
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On Convenient Accounting

Dear Dan,
I just paid for yoga classes for the next six months, but the studio mistakenly credited me for a year. They have made many past billing errors in their favor. Should I correct the mistake or just see it as the universe making things more even?

—Random fan

Of course, it is the world restoring karma—but why did it take so long?

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On Nighttime Activities

Dear Dan,
My husband and I are childless. We’ve lived in the same house in the same town for 17 years. Each day he comes home and says, “What do you want to do tonight?” I think we’ve tried every restaurant in a five-mile radius. Neither of us enjoys shopping or watching movies at a theater. His hobby is aviation, and I don’t fly. I work from home and would love to go somewhere in the evening occasionally, but we usually end up watching TV. And we don’t even like TV! Can you shed some light on this problem?

—Charleen

The basic challenge you are facing is what economists would call a problem of coordination, where both you and your husband have to agree on a course of action. This is no easy thing to do when your preferences don’t align. On top of that, you have the suboptimal default option of watching TV—something that neither of you enjoys but is a simple resolution to your coordination problem.

One approach is to switch from a simultaneous coordination issue to a sequential one—that is, agree up front on a plan that will make only one of you happy on a given night but, ultimately, will let both of you do more things you enjoy. On a set of cards, write down activities that each of you wants to do, mix the cards and draw one card every evening to pick that night’s activity. This approach should lead to higher enjoyment overall. After all, it’s better to have some enjoyment on some nights of the week than to have no joy on every night.

Here’s one final suggestion: Add a few wild cards into the mix (singing, poetry, pottery, volunteering, square dancing, etc.), activities that you aren’t sure you will like (or even things you suspect you will dislike), and you both might just find some new activities that you enjoy.

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On Alibis

Dear Dan,
I recently stumbled upon a website offering customers help with creating alibis—and even manufacturing corroborating “evidence” for their absences (for example, to reassure your wife when you were really with your mistress). Other sites offer married people help finding paramours for extramarital affairs. Do you think these sites are increasing dishonesty?

—Joe

The basic answer to your question: Yes. I think that these websites do increase dishonesty.

Many of these websites are constructed to look like any basic service provider. In one case, there are pictures of smiling people with headsets, waiting to fill your order, and tabs for services ranging from producing and sending fake airline tickets, to impersonating hotel reception. The testimonials are positive and very general. And the slogan—”Empowering Real People in a Real World!”—is downright uplifting, until you realize that by “empowering” people, they mean lying on their behalf.

I suspect that all these trappings help people to rationalize their actions as socially acceptable. And with all the testimonials from so many regular people, why not you?

I also think that the “real world” rhetoric may further lull people’s objections; the idea is that this is how things work in the real world, not a fairy-tale land of perfect honesty.

For my part, I’m left feeling a little worried about what kinds of ads might pop up in my browser after looking at this page…

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On Political Dishonesty

Dear Dan,
Is there any correlation between political party affiliation and whether someone is more or less honest?

—Karen

Of course. The politicians you and I support are much more honest. You can’t even compare them to the crooks on the other side of the aisle. How can they even say those things with a straight face?
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On Spending

Dear Dan,
In your answer last week about splitting checks at restaurants, you noted that there is a “diminishing sensitivity as the amount of money paid increases.” I’ve noticed this in my own spending. I’ll go out of my way to save a buck and then spend an ungodly sum on some purse. Why is that? And how can I control it?

—Lembry

Diminishing sensitivity is a very basic way that our minds work across many domains of life. For example, imagine that you light up one candle in the middle of the night. This small amount of light will dramatically change your ability to see your surroundings. But what if you already have 10 lit candles and you add one more? Now it would not have much of an effect. The basic idea of diminished sensitivity is that our minds tend to register relative increase; we take any additional amount of stuff as if it were a percentage gain, not an absolute one.

Now, when it comes to money, we should think about it in absolute terms ($10 is $10 regardless of whether we are saving it from a dinner bill or from the price of a new car), but we don’t. We think about money in terms of percentages, too.

What can we do about it? It’s not easy, but we should try to fight this natural tendency. One method that I use from time to time is to take the amount of money that I am thinking about spending and ask myself what else I could get with it. For example, since I like going to the movies (and let’s say that the price of two tickets and popcorn is $25), I ask myself whether a given $25 of spending on a prospective purchase is worth more or less than the pleasure of going to the movies.

When framed this way, it doesn’t matter if the savings come from a dinner bill or a new computer—and it helps me to ask the question “What would I enjoy more?” in a more concrete way. So, the next time you are shopping for a new purse, try to measure its price in terms of another use for that money that you might value more.

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On Vacations

Dear Dan,
I have been on vacation for the last few days in New York City, and while reading your most recent book, on dishonesty, I have been wondering whether people behave more or less honestly on vacation.

—Julie

This is an interesting question, and (sadly) I don’t have any data to share with you on this topic. But here are a few ideas to consider:

Why might people on vacation be more honest? While on vacation people seem to be more relaxed with spending money, which suggests that the motivation to be dishonest for financial gain might be lower. On top of that, people on vacation are more often in a good mood, which they might not want to spoil by behaving badly.

Why might people on vacation be less honest? On vacation, the actions we take are in a new context. As they say, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” Also, the rules on vacation might seem less clear: What are the regulations for parking in San Francisco? How much should you tip in Portugal? Is it OK to take the towels from this hotel? This sort of wishful blindness can make it easier for us to misbehave while still thinking of ourselves as generally wonderful, honest people.

On balance, then, are vacationers more or less honest? I suspect that they are less honest—but I would love to be proven wrong.

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On the Internet

Dear Dan,
What is it about Internet communication—Facebook, Twitter, email—that seems to make people descend to the lowest common denominator?

—James

It’s easy to blame the Internet, but I think we see such behavior mostly because people generally gravitate toward trafficking in trivialities. Consider your own daily interactions. How much is witty repartee—and how much is the verbal equivalent of cat pictures? The Internet just makes it easier to see how boring our ordinary interactions are.
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On Parking

Dear Dan,
What should I do about parking? I have trouble deciding whether I should go for a paid parking lot straight away or drive around in the hope of finding free parking—but at the risk of wasting time.

—Cheri

This is a question about the value of your time. You need to figure out how much money an hour of fun out of the house is worth to you and compare that cost with the time it takes to find a parking spot. For example, if an hour out of the house is worth $25 to you, and searching for parking takes 30 minutes on average, then any amount less than $12.50 that the parking lot charges you is worth it. As the number of people in your car rises, the value of parking quickly also rises because the waste of time and reduction of value accumulate across all the people in your group.

Another computational approach is to compare the misery you feel from paying for parking with the misery you feel while seeking a spot. If the misery from payment isn’t as great as the unhappiness from your wasted time, you should go for the parking lot. But if you do this, you shouldn’t ignore the potential misery you would feel if you paid for parking and then found a free spot just outside your destination. Personally, the thought of time wasted is so unbearable to me that I usually opt for paid parking.

Yet another approach is to put all the money that you intend to spend on going out in an envelope in advance. As you’re on the way to the restaurant or movie theater, decide whether that money would be better spent on parking or other goods. Is it worth it to forgo that extra-large popcorn if paying for parking will get you to the theater on time? That makes the comparison clearer between what you get (quick parking and more time out) and what you give up.

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On Splitting Checks

Dear Dan,
When going to dinner with friends, what is the best way to split the bill?

—William

There are basically three ways to split the bill. The first is for everyone to pay for what they’ve had, which in my experience ends the meal on a particularly low point. Every person has to become an accountant. Given the importance of endings in how we frame our memories of experiences, this is a particularly bad approach. Rather than remembering how delicious the crème brûlée was, you may be more likely to remember that Suzie ate most of it even though you paid for half.

The second approach is to share the bill equally, which works well when people eat (more or less) the same amount.

The third approach, my favorite, is to have one person pay for everyone and to alternate the designated payer with each meal. If you go out to eat with a group relatively regularly, it winds up being a much better solution. Why? (A) Getting a free meal is a special feeling. (B) The person paying for everyone does not suffer as much as his or her friends would if they paid individually. And (C) the person buying may even benefit from the joy of giving.

Let’s take the example of two friends, Jaden and Luca, who are going out to their favorite Middle Eastern restaurant. If they were to divide the cost of the meal evenly, each would feel, say, 10 units of misery. But if Jaden pays, Luca would have zero units of misery and the joy of a free meal. Because of diminishing sensitivity as the amount of money paid increases, Jaden would suffer fewer than 20 units of misery—maybe 15 units. On top of that, he might even get a boost in happiness from getting to buy his dear friend a meal.

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On Putting

Dear Dan,
I play in a weekly nine-hole golf league. There’s one individual who constantly talks on his cellphone, moves around while others are putting and mostly ignores the courtesies of golf. He’s been asked to stop this behavior but continues with a bully attitude. How do I handle it?

—Wally K.

Though you might be tempted to rip the phone from his hands, throw it on the ground and bash it with your 9-iron, I would suggest another solution.

You could implement a new rule, whereby everyone else playing with you earns a mulligan (a “do over” shot) each time the bully talks on the phone. Getting constant negative feedback (in addition to giving everyone a performance boost) would probably whip him into shape. Just be sure to take the mulligans consistently, every time he’s on the phone, so that his behavior is reliably punished and the message sticks.
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On Dieting

Dear Dan,
This is a question you probably get asked a lot, as everyone seems to be on a diet. The question is: Why do we let the immediate pleasure of eating overwhelm our long-term considerations? Why do we sabotage our health? And how can we overcome it?

—Dafna

As you basically said, dieting goes against our inherent nature. It’s often the case that we have fantastic ideals about our future selves. But when it comes to everyday decisions, often the short-term considerations prevail. When you’re not hungry and someone asks you how many desserts you will eat over the next month, you might say maybe one or two. However, when you’re at a restaurant and the waiter brings out the dessert tray, you get a very different idea about the importance of having dessert right now. You see the triple chocolate cake, and your priorities suddenly change. In behavioral economics, we call this “present bias.”

On top of that, a diet is really a difficult thing to stick to — much more difficult than quitting smoking, for example. Why? Because with smoking, we are either smokers or not smokers. With dieting, we can’t separate ourselves into “eaters” and “non-eaters.” We have to eat, and so the question becomes: How much do we eat and when exactly do we stop? And because there are no specific stopping rules, it becomes very hard to stick to any particular diet.

So what can we do about this? The simplest approach is to avoid exposing yourself to the types of foods that may be detrimental to your diet. If you’ve no cake at home, you’ll probably eat much less cake. And if you replace that cake with fresh bell peppers, you’ll eat peppers because they’re available. Another approach: apply strict, religious-type rules to dieting, for example that dessert is just not acceptable — or maybe that it’s acceptable only during the Sabbath.
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On Passion

Dear Dan,
I’ve been in a relationship with a girl for almost six years. The passion of those first days, when oxytocin levels were extremely high, is long gone. But I still feel comfortable with her. I don’t know if it’s time to stop this all and leave her. Should I go? Or should I stay and hope to bring the passion back?

—Justin

I suspect that you are experiencing the standard fluctuation of relationships, where initial passion and attraction die off and the questions are: whether something else comes instead of it, and is what you have already sufficiently positive. Sadly, given your description of your current state as “comfortable,” I suspect that what has emerged is not sufficiently beneficial for you — and given this, I would say get out.

As the economist Tibor Scitovsky argued in “The Joyless Economy,” there are two kinds of experiences, pleasures and comforts, and we have a tendency to take the comfortable, safe and predictable path way too often. This is particularly sad, Scitovsky argues, because real progress comes from pleasures. It comes from taking risks and trying very different things.

So, perhaps this is a good opportunity to give up your comfort and give pleasure a chance.
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On Tip Timing

Dear Dan,
Should we give tips before or after we get service?

—Tom

The answer mostly depends on the size of the tip. Where I’ve been, people always tip at the end of the service, and I suspect the assumption is that people in the service industry will work harder for an uncertain reward. But tipping upfront could create a commitment toward the customer who has shown trust in the service worker. However, I wouldn’t try this if you’re planning on being stingy.
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On Voting

Dear Dan,
What is the best way to get myself, and other citizens, to be more motivated to vote in elections for public office? I realize this is a loaded question, but there must be some behavioral component behind the motivation and initiative required to vote.

—Randy

The best way to get people to vote is to get them to the voting place for another reason (free ice cream, for example) and then to make the extra effort needed to vote as minimal as possible. This is not, of course, an answer to your question, because it tells you how to get people to vote, not how to get them motivated to vote.

For people to be motivated to vote, they would need to care about the outcome of the election and the people whom they are voting for—and that is a very big challenge, indeed.
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On Quitting

Dear Dan,
Should I quit my job? I’m unhappy with it, but I’ve been with the company for eight years, and there are several practical/financial reasons to stay: I make a good salary, including stock options and grants; I get several weeks of vacation each year; and I have a pension. There is a lot of uncertainty with starting over in a new job, and there is no telling whether I would be any happier. Should I stick with what I know and look for fulfillment outside of work?

—KP

You are asking the right question. Will you be happier in a different job? The problem is that it is hard to predict whether a few weeks into a new job you will be just as unhappy as you are now. And there is no good way to predict this. So what can you do?

I would suggest that you take your next vacation (let’s say three weeks) and use the time to volunteer at the kind of a company to which you would consider switching. See how it feels to be there for a few weeks. Now, of course, a few weeks as a volunteer would not give you the full sense of working at that company for a long time, but it would give you some sense of the place, which is much better than going in blind. If you don’t think that this is a good way to spend your three weeks of vacation, it probably means that you are not really that unhappy and that you should stay where you are.
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On Graduating

Dear Dan,
I’m about to graduate from college next year, and I really want to go teach English in Spain afterward. There’s still a market for this, despite the economy over there, but I’m wondering if I should do it or not. It would give me an unforgettable experience—one I don’t think I’ll be able to have when I’m settled at a job with a husband and kids. But, at the same time, it could delay the start of my career, which I want to have on track before I settle down. Is the experience worth delaying the start of my “real life”?

—Gabriella

When I graduated, I asked Ziv Carmon—one of my academic advisers—where to take my first academic job. His answer was that I should go to the place where, five years down the line, I would be most likely to emerge as a very different person. He explained that life is about learning and improving, and that I should take advantage of my relative flexibility (no wife and kids at the time) and invest the next few years in my own growth. I took his advice seriously, took my first job in a place that was not the best fit with what I knew already, and over the next few years I learned a lot of new things. Thanks to this experience, I think that I became a better researcher and maybe even a better person.

Since then, I have been a fan of thinking of the early years of life as an opportunity to collect lessons and experiences, so that we will be better people down the line. The reality is that we don’t know what life lessons and education will be useful for us in the future, but there is a good chance that some of them will become highly useful. Maybe you can think of this as gambling with your own time now for a future benefit, but since the seeds you sow now can yield fruit over many, many years, I would go for it.
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On The Planning Fallacy

Dear Dan,
I am opening a new business. We’re two months behind schedule due to construction delays, and we won’t be ready to open until the second week of July. Summer is traditionally a dead time in our field. Should we have a soft opening for the summer (and only hire a fraction of the staff we intend to) or go all out and open as we intended to all along? Or should we stay completely closed until after Labor Day?

—Karol

I suspect that your two-month delay is a result of what we call the “planning fallacy.” Imagine that you asked a contractor how long it would take to renovate a bathroom under the best of circumstances, and he told you that it would take three months. Then you asked another contractor how long it would take to do the same task under the worst circumstances, and he responded nine months. Now, if you went to a third contractor and asked him to estimate how long it would take for real, what do you think the answer would be? Close to the middle?

Sadly, no. Many experiments have shown that we don’t take into sufficient account the possibility that things will go badly, and so we typically estimate that things can get done in about the time necessary under the best circumstances. We tend, in short, to have overly rosy expectations. And when there are many tasks, and they depend on each other, even slightly exaggerated optimism can translate into a large delay.

With this in mind, just because the construction will be done soon does not mean that this is the end of your over-optimism or the planning fallacy. Most likely, other things will go wrong as well and with a higher frequency than you expect. So take your time, do a soft opening and use this time to correct for your optimism bias. This would also be a good opportunity to gauge the extent of your habitual over-optimism by writing down your predictions of how long different tasks will take and later comparing these estimates with reality. With this figure at hand, you can start adding an over-optimism buffer to your estimates going forward–my guess is that it will be about 30%.
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On Wine

Dear Dan,
I couldn’t help noticing : Why does a behavioral economist have a publicity photo that shows him drinking a glass of wine and smirking?

Just wondering in Greenville, S.C….

—Bob Knight

For me, wine illustrates several different aspects of irrationality. It is a clear case of something about which we know little but pretend to know much more. It is an experience that is very sensitive to external influences (type of glass, cost of wine, label on the bottle). And it is something for which we are willing to pay more based on the most ludicrous of reasons–say, if the wine list includes some very expensive wines. Finally, it is a delivery vehicle for alcohol–which causes lots of irrational behaviors. With all this, you can see why wine is my bread and butter.
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On Tithing

Dear Dan,
Should Jews tithe?

—O.

Simple answer–of course! Everyone should.

And one of the best ways to give money is to donate to university professors so that they can continue with their important and illuminating research (call me if you want to talk about a giving plan).

More seriously, rules such as tithing are very useful because they are strict and clear (though I am never sure if tithing should be calculated before or after tax).

Fuzzy, ill-defined rules (I will eat better, spend more time with my kids, drink less) give us an easy way out. They let us rationalize our misbehavior and hope that in the future we will behave better. By contrast, rules that are clear and strict (no desserts, read to the kids every night) keep us from fooling ourselves and make it more likely that we will behave in our long-term best interest.

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