Ask Ariely: On the Black Friday Binge

Nov 22

Dear Dan,

Thanksgiving is around the corner, including Black Friday, the largest shopping day of the year, when many people spend way too much money. How do we stop this insanity?

—John

People do spend a lot of money on Black Friday, but is that really so irrational? To figure that out, we need to ask which state of the world we should compare this tradition to. If you assume that we could get people to blow less money on Black Friday and decrease overall irresponsible spending, then of course the world would be a better place without Black Friday.

But what if canceling Black Friday just spurred people to start living beyond their means every month of the year? And what if this extra increase in monthly splurging turned out to be larger than the spending increase on Black Friday itself? If all this were true, we would be better off with Black Friday.

Let’s think about dieting as an analogy for shopping. Many diets allow for a “cheat day” because they realize that without the permission to indulge sometimes, people are likely to give up dieting altogether. So the people who design diets have figured out that allowing people to go wild from time to time helps them behave well most of the time. What if Black Friday is the shopping equivalent of the cheat day?

I don’t endorse wasting money, but perhaps we should all figure out how much money we are willing to splurge with, take it in cash and indulge—but only at decent intervals.

Ask Ariely: On Erasing Email and Placebo Performance

Nov 22

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Recently, the German auto maker Daimler gave employees the option of automatically deleting all emails that arrive while they’re on vacation. Senders get a note suggesting that they resend their email later or write to other colleagues who are still in the office. This way, employees don’t have to face overflowing inboxes when they return. Is this a good idea?

—Kathleen

Not having to worry about email while you’re on vacation sounds wonderful, and this policy will probably boost employees’ well-being—though, of course, some will still wonder what they might have missed.

That said, the Daimler approach seems pretty extreme, and it deals with the symptoms rather than the root problem. In my experience, email stresses people out constantly, not just during vacations. We get too much email every day of the year; we spend too much time responding to it and worrying about it. Email correspondence in many corporations is so out of hand that it leaves almost no time for any actual work.

If the bosses at Daimler really care about their employees’ welfare, why not tackle the inefficiencies of this communication channel—and work to reduce their overall email load? How about announcing that no email is allowed between 9 and 11 a.m. and again between 1 and 3 p.m.? Or what if they limited people to just 10 emails a day? (Does anyone really have more than 10 important things to say in a day?)

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I’ve read a lot about the placebo effect. Does that mean it won’t work on me?

—Marco

It turns out that placebos operate to some degree outside of our awareness—which means that even when we know a particular medication is a placebo, we can still benefit from it. So don’t worry about knowing too much. Just take two placebos and call me in the morning.

______________________________________________________

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On the Last Drop of Toothpaste, and Real Scars

Nov 05

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,
 
I went to brush my teeth this morning and found that I had to carefully, meticulously roll the tube from the bottom up before it would yield enough toothpaste. I wound up squeezing the tube so hard that my hands hurt and that I briefly considered buying one of those “toothpaste squeezers” you can find online. As I finally brushed, it occurred to me that my frugality behaviors are terribly inconsistent: I did whatever I could to squeeze as much toothpaste as possible from the tube, not daring to waste a gram of a cheap product—but as I continued with my grooming ritual, I wasted water, soap and many other scarcer, pricier products. 
 
Why is my frugality so inconsistent? And why is there a market for some frugality products, such as those toothpaste squeezers, but not others?
 
—Darin
 
I stopped aiming for consistency a long time ago, and I suggest that you also drop it as a standard for behavior. 
 
Consistency aside, your toothpaste behavior suggests how important attention is to our decision making.  At any moment, we could, in principle, carefully consider all our potential courses of action and all the ways we could save money and time.  But we don’t. We tend to consider only things that are front and center, and thus these aspects of life wind up driving our behavior. This is why, for example, people sometimes drive far out of their way to fill up their car with cheaper gas—wasting time and increasing the wear and tear on their car just to see the number on the pump drop a bit. 
 
More generally, all this implies that if we want people to waste less, we should make the waste clear, salient and visible. Perhaps we could position electrical meters at the center of our kitchens, add a water-measurement device to every faucet or equip cars to measure their total driving cost. And if we really want people to pay attention to these measures, maybe these numbers should be automatically posted to Facebook and Twitter.   

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,
 
Many years ago, I was badly burned, and since then, I carry many visible scars. Recently, at a Halloween party, somebody pointed to the scars on my face and told me what a wonderful costume I had. I tried to correct her and explained that I was really very badly burned, but she burst out laughing.
 
At this point, I had two choices: make her feel guilty or let it go. What should I have done? I must admit that it colored the Halloween party for me, and I no longer felt like I belonged.
 
—Dan (Ariely)
 
 
You should have let it go. The person pointing out your scars clearly had only good intentions, and trying to correct her once was sufficient. This was probably one of hundreds of comments that she made during the party, and while her remark was central for you, if you asked her in 48 hours about her memories from the party, she probably wouldn’t even remember you, your scars or her comment. You had already stopped enjoying the party after her comment; my guess is that having made her feel bad about her remark would only have intensified your negative feelings.
 
P.S. One more lesson from this unfortunate episode: Sometimes, putting yourself in the position of an external advisor and asking yourself what advice you’d give to someone else in the same situation can be a useful way to reason more calmly and make better decisions. Good luck using this approach next time.

______________________________________________________

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Buying Beer, Realizing Wrong, and Productive Periods

Oct 25

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I’m about to buy a new laptop—definitely a larger than usual purchase for me. I’ve found that when the base item is expensive, I’m much more likely to indulge in complementary ones, such as a new laptop case or software that I don’t really need but would be fun to play with. Why is it that I think twice about buying good beer on a night out but have no problem spending another $60 on a computer mouse I don’t need?

— Andrew

Here’s another example to help think through your question. Imagine that you’re going to buy a new car for $30,000, and the salesperson tells you that you can get leather seats for $2,000 more. How expensive would those luxurious seats seem to you? And how likely would you be to go for the upgrade?

Now imagine that instead of going to buy a car, you’re buying a new chair for your home office, at a cost of $500—and the furniture store tells you that you can get the chair in leather for $2,000 more. How likely would you be to go for it?

Most people would feel much better about the car upgrade than the chair upgrade. That’s because we think about money in relative terms: Relative to $30,000, that $2,000 doesn’t look that bad, but the same amount feels outrageous relative to $500.

Of course, money isn’t relative, and we should think about it in absolute terms, but this isn’t the natural way we make financial decisions. All this doesn’t make your tendency to shop for items you don’t need after a large purchases any more rational—but it should remind you that it’s very human.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

My husband is incapable of admitting that he is wrong, and it’s driving me crazy. What can I do to get him to acknowledge it when he’s wrong?

— Lisa

I suspect that many of the times that you most want your husband to admit that he’s wrong occur in large and central debates—which could be a mistake on your part.

One of the main problems with admitting error is reputation. Your husband may think that if he admits once that he was wrong, it will indicate that he could be wrong in other cases as well. If this is the case, a better way to fight his denial of wrongness will be to try to get him to admit once to a trivial mistake, maybe even in front of other people—and then hope that with that first step out of the way, the path to admitting other blunders will be more open.

Or here’s a less ambitious approach: give up on having him admit error and focus on just having him say that he’s wrong. For many years, psychologists used to recommend that married couples engage in something called “active listening”—telling the other person that we feel their pain and asking them to describe their annoyance in vivid color and detail. But psychologists have figured out that active listening was actually not very good advice. As it turns out, simply saying “Yes dear” is a much better strategy for a happy marriage. If your husband believes in science, perhaps sharing this sage advice with him will convince him that, despite his difficulty admitting that he’s wrong, agreement is often the best approach.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

When are people most productive? In the morning? At night? Are different people more productive at different times of day?

— Jacob

No question about it: For all kinds of people, the most productive time is tomorrow.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Capricious Cavities, Burning Bills, and Pursuing Pronoia

Oct 11

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

______________________________________________________

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.

______________________________________________________

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?”

______________________________________________________

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.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Some new studies on power and corruption

Sep 28

John Antonakis and his colleagues just came out with a new paper on power and corruption (and Testosterone). 

Important and fascinating — and for sure worth the 14 min of this video

Ask Ariely: On Technology’s Painless Payment, Email Equilibrium, and TP Tribulations

Sep 27

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

______________________________________________________

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.

______________________________________________________

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.

______________________________________________________

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.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

My attempts to reduce email overload…

Sep 23

As some of you might know, in addition to the general problem we all have with email overload, my specific issues are exacerbated by my disability (mostly limitations to moving my hands and some pain). I am not pointing my disability out to complain, but I do think that sometimes disabilities can act as a magnifying glass, letting us focus with more intensity on a problem we all have.  And I think that email overload is one of these problems

One of the main reasons for email overload is that email has become the one gateway for many different types of communications. We get email that are quick questions from co-workers, communications with family members and friends, mass communications, things we need to act on now, things that just keep us informed, invitations, discussions, and of course a lot of things we are not interested in.

With these various types of communications flooding one place—our inbox—and often interrupting us throughout our workday, is it any wonder that we feel frustrated and unproductive? That we are developing a collective ADHD, and that people look forward to sitting in an uncomfortable chair for a long time during flights just because there is no internet and no source for distraction (of course more and more flights are losing this advantage).

While complaining about email one day over breakfast with Dominik Grolimund—we came up with one partial solution to this problem: Why not ask the people who write email to be a bit more explicit about the type of email that they are sending and use this classification to redirect the email at the client side?  This way email will will behave differently based on its purpose and origin.

We used me as a case study, Dominik created the system, and I started asking people to email me using http://shortwhale.com/danariely by linking to it on my website and using it in my email signature.

Using this system I inform people how I prefer to get my email, I provide links to my online schedule, and I answer some questions I am most often asked. Most importantly, this simple contact form asks those who write me to choose their request type from a menu, the timeframe they want a response by, and if they need a response at all. With this classification system on the front end, my own email makes more sense and is less distracting. In my email client (Apple Mail) I have filters that redirect the email based on these tags and their requested timeframe.  For example, urgent emails appear in red in my inbox, while email that require a response by the end of the week find their way into a folder with that name. This sorting procedure allows me to stop my workday only to deal with important and urgent requests, and keep the rest of the email for the evening, weekend, downtime, and flight delays.

What has been incredibly satisfying about using Shortwhale for a few months is that it improves my use of time and it helps me respond more effectively to more people. After using Shortwhale for a while it was interesting to discover that the number of emails that are tagged “no response necessary” is rather large, and on top of this, I have also learned that a lot of people are happy to wait a week or even a month for an answer. Another feature of Shortwhale is that it allows people to easily create multiple choices within the email, and I find that providing people with this opportunity helps them get right to the point and saves me time.

Underlying all of this is the idea that while we we call a lot of things email, there are, in fact, different types of email and they each serve different purposes. The different types of email have different levels of importance, and we need to figure out how to differentially interact with them if we don’t want to continuously stop everything to check our inbox.

It is true that as it stands now, Shortwhale puts more demands on the sender. However, I think that the gains on the receiver’s side, coupled with the ability to respond quickly more than compensate for this extra initial hassle.

And, if you are under heavy email load, I’d love to hear what you think about this. You can contact me on Shortwhale :)

Ask Ariely: On Staying in School, Balancing School with Family, and Two Things about Consultants

Sep 13

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

______________________________________________________

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.

______________________________________________________

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.

______________________________________________________

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.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Mandatory Meetings, the Meaning of Free Will, and Macroeconomist Musings

Aug 30

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

______________________________________________________

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.

______________________________________________________

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.

______________________________________________________

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.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

« Older Entries   

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 106,991 other followers