Ask Ariely: On the Perks of Pickup Lines, Puppy Problems, and Probing Personality

Jul 19

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

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Dear Dan,

I 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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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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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.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Sports and Loss Aversion

Jul 12

I got this question about the World Cup and I can’t put it in my WSJ column, but I still think it is worth while answering, and particularly today.

 

 

Dear Dan,

You have mentioned many times the principle of loss aversion, where the pain of losing is much higher than the joy of winning. The recent world cup was most likely the largest spectator event in the history of the world, and fans from across the globe were clearly very involved in who would win. If indeed, as suggested by loss aversion, people suffer from losing more than they enjoy winning — why would anyone become a fan of a team? After all, as fans they have about equal chance of losing (which you claim is very painful) and for winning (which you claim does not provide the same extreme emotional impact) – so in total across many game the outcome is not a good deal. Am I missing something in my application of loss aversion? Is loss aversion not relevant to sports?

Fernando

Your description of the problem implies that people have a choice in the matter, and that they carefully consider the benefits vs the costs of becoming a fan of a particular team. Personally, I suspect that the choice of what team to root for is closer to religious convictions than to rational choice — which means that people don’t really make an active choice of what team to root for (at least not a deliberate informed one), and that they are “given” their team-affiliation by their surroundings, family and friends.

Another assumption that is implied in your question is that when people approach the choice of a team, that they consider the possible negative effects of losing relative to the emotional boost of winning. The problem with this part of your argument is that predicting our emotional reactions to losses is something we are not very good at, which means that we are not very likely to accurately take into account the full effect of loss aversion when we make choices.

In your question you also raised the possibility that loss aversion might not apply to sporting events. This is a very interesting possibility, and I would like to speculate why you are (partially) correct. Sporting events are not just about the outcome, and if anything, they are more about the ways in which we experience the games as they unfold over time (yes, even the 7-1 Germany vs Brazil game). Unlike monetary gambles, games take some time, and the time of the game itself is arguably what provide the largest part of the enjoyment. To illustrate this consider two individuals N (Not-caring) and F (Fan). What loss aversion implies is that N will end up with a neutral feeling with any outcome of the game, while F has about equal chance of being somewhat happy or very upset (and the expected value of these two potential outcomes is negative). But, this part of the analysis is taking into account only the outcome of the game. What about the enjoyment during the game itself? Here N is not going to get much emotional value watching the game (by definition he doesn’t care much, and he might even check his phone during the game or flip channels). F on the other hand is going to experience a lot of ups and downs and be emotionally engrossed and invested throughout the game. Now, if we take both the process of the game and the final outcome into account — we could argue that the serious fans are risking a large and painful disappointment at the end of each game, but that they are doing it for the benefit of extracting more enjoyment from the game itself — and this is likely to be a very wise tradeoff that maximizes their overall well-being.

This analysis by the way has another interesting implication — it suggests that the value of being die hard fans is higher for games that take more time, where the fans get to enjoy the process for longer. Maybe this is why so many sports take breaks for time outs and advertisements breaks — they are not only doing it to increase their revenues, but they are also trying to give us, the fans, more time to enjoy the whole experience.

Ask Ariely: On Misplaced Cars and Memory, Forgotten Loans, and The Mystery of Marriage

Jul 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.

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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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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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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.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Sticking to Stocks, Stopping the Struggle, and Stifling Smoking

Jun 21

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

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Dear Dan,

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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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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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.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Anticipating Adventure, Watching it Work, and Overpriced M&Ms

Jun 07

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

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Dear Dan,

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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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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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.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

StartupOnomics 2014

Jun 04

StartupOnomics is an annual gathering to help startups think about human behavior. At the end of the weekend, attendees will walk away knowing how to move the needle on their biggest customer problems…and with some tangible ideas to test and implement immediately.

 

Apply to StartupOnomics if you are at a company that is trying to improve people’s lives in these ways:

  • Helping people live better financial lives (save money, make money, pay off debt)
  • Improving our education system, specifically early education system
  • Addressing any of the variety of health issues facing society

 

Our ideal applicant:

  • Smart
  • Handsome *Good-looking ;)
  • Good sense of humor
  • Interested in applying principles of human behavior to help solve big problems
  • The company is doing consumer focused products or services
  • You are a product leader, designer, marketing manager or data analyst.   Two people from your team should plan on attending if you are accepted.

*Please not that the term “handsome” was not meant to exclude females, and that we would be happy with both good-looking males and females.

 

Apply Here by July 7th

Ask Ariely: On Double Trips, Price Puzzlement, and Rationalizing Rolex

May 24

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

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Dear Dan,

I 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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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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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.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Creed Fatigue, Souls for Sale, and Defying Gravitas

May 10

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

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Dear Dan,

I 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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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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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.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Introducing The Truth Box

May 05

The Truth Box is a traveling story booth where we invite participants to share the truth about a lie they’ve told. These personal stories will be recorded and ultimately shared online. The Truth Box installation recently premiered at the Games for Change Festival, and is now in YouTube’s reception area in the Chelsea Market (75 9th Avenue) in New York City. If you are in the area, stop by and share your truth!

IMG_3395

 

photo - Version 2truthbox2a

Ask Ariely: A rejected Q&A

May 02

Sometimes the Wall Street Journal does not like my responses, but I would like to share this one with you, my loyal readers. You will not find this in the official Ask Ariely column.

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Dear Dan,

What do you make of the recent boycotts of Israeli Academics by organizations such as the American Studies Association?

—Karen

I want to make sure that I am careful and not too emotional in this response, so please forgive me if I am extra cautious in expressing my underlying feelings. With this disclaimer, here it goes: I think it is one of the most stupid and counter-productive moves imaginable (yes, this was reserved).

In my mind, academics represent the best example of a functioning international community. Academics cross social, economic, cultural, political, and ideological boundaries. We teach students from all over the world, we work with colleagues from all over the world, we build our work on the research of other colleagues, and we often work on problems that are global in nature.

With this in mind, when an organization such as the American Studies Association comes out with a call to boycott all Israeli academics – myself included – I am left with the feeling that I have severely underestimated the potential for human stupidity.

 

Hoping for a better day and more wisdom

Irrationally yours,

Dan

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