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.

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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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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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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.

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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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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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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.

Ask Ariely: On the Bordeaux Battlefield, Irrationality Impact, and Ruminating while Running

Aug 16

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 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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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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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.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Reservation Reservations and the Psychology of Parking

Aug 02

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 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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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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See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Why you should watch football until the very end

Jul 22

By Wendy De La Rosa, Dan Ariely, and Kristen Berman

During the last month, the World Cup has captivated the globe, including our team at Irrational Labs. We have watched all 64 games and rejoiced / suffered through each of the 171 goals (not counting penalty kicks).  This  2014 FIFA World Cup turned out to be an entrancing tournament: Eight of the “Round of 16” matches went into overtime, four went to penalty kicks, and the final match ended with Germany scoring in the 113th minute!

When we watched the now infamous Germany – Brazil game, we couldn’t help but come up with some interesting behavioral questions.  When German midfielder Thomas Mueller scored the first goal against Brazil 11 minutes into the game, many of our Brazilian friends said this is just the start of the game.

And while we all know what happened, we started thinking: Were our Brazilian friends onto something – are there more or less goals and attempts late in the game?

One would stipulate that there is no difference in scoring between the first and the second half.  Every goal matters equally, regardless of when it is scored, and players should attempt to score with the same amount of effort and success over time.

Another hypothesis is that fewer goals are scored in the second half as players fatigue  Unlike basketball, where players are often substituted in and out, most of the football players are on the field for the full 90 minutes of play (sometimes 120 minutes if it goes to overtime).

Yet another hypothesis is that players score more goals in the second half as they are closer to the end of the game.  Motivation research suggests that agents are more motivated as they near the end of their stated objective, whether a marathon or a life altering championship.

It turns out our Brazilian friends were right; more goals are scored in the second half!  Of the 171 goals scored in the World Cup, 39% of the goals were scored in the first half, 57% in the second half, and 61% in the second half when we include overtime.

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After learning that players score more goals in the second half, we wanted to know why. There are two ways to increase goals scored: increase attempts or increase skill (measured as goals / attempts).  Which one is at play here?

The skill hypothesis stipulates that players are “super humans” who perform best when they are under pressure.  Consider German Mario Gotza, a substitute midfielder, scoring the game winning goal against Argentina just seven minutes before the end of the match.

To answer this question, we compared a team’s skill in the entire game to a team’s skill in the last 15 minutes of a game.  Our analysis showed that there is no statistical difference in skill when you compare  these 15 minutes. This is consistent with an interesting study done by Dan Ariely and Racheli Barkan, where they studied the shooting percentages of “clutch players.”  Clutch players are NBA players who are widely regarded as “basketball heroes who sink a basket just as the buzzer sounds.”  As it turns out, clutch players do not become better basketball players as the pressure increases in the last few minutes of critical games. Basketball players, like our football players, do not increase in skill towards the end of the game.

So if it’s not a question of increased skill (% conversion), it must be a question of effort (number of attempts).  Given this finding, we decided to analyze the number of attempts made by players, and whether they increase as the game wears on.  Which team is attempting the most goals at the end of the game?  One hypothesis is that the leading team increases their attempts as they are more confident and have strong momentum behind them.  The other hypothesis is that the trailing team would attempt more goals at the end of the game because the cost of losing is more salient to them.

We can see loss aversion playing out in golf green.  According to researchers, Devin Pope and Maurice Schweitzer, “Golf provides a natural setting to test for loss aversion because golfers are rewarded for the total number of strokes they take during a tournament, yet each individual hole has a salient reference point: par (the typical number of shots professional golfers take to complete a hole).”  After analyzing PGA Tour putts (the last shot before a hole), they noticed that golfers are extremely loss averse.  Golfers make putts for birdie (one shot less than par) significantly less often than identical-length putts for par (getting to par).  The researchers estimate that this loss aversion costs the average pro golfer about one stroke per 72-hole tournament, and the top 20 golfers about $1.2 million in prize money a year.

Does this theory hold true in football? After analyzing the data, we found that during the last 15 minutes of each game, number of attempts made by the trailing team (as a percentage of their total attempts made during the game) increase, while the number of attempts made by the winning team decreases.

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Why is this? We believe we can explain this phenomenon with loss aversion.  Loss aversion is the behavioral economic concept that states that we value losses more than we value commensurate gains.  The other stipulation in loss aversion theory states that we are risk seeking in losses and risk averse in gains.  In other words, our risk appetite increases when we are losing.  This phenomenon is known as “risk shift.”

The feeling of loss aversion is heightened in football.  Think about the cost of a goal in football compared to the cost of a basket in basketball.  Because goals are so difficult to make, the cost of giving up a goal is greater than the cost of not making a goal.  Thus, teams are naturally more defensive, focused on avoiding “a goal” or a “loss” much less than “scoring” or “gaining” for most of the game.

Loss aversion is a powerful concept, and we are all susceptible; even world class football players.  So to go back to our Brazilian fans, expecting more effort as the game continues is a reasonable expectation.  Unfortunately, and as the Brazilian fans found out, sometimes effort is not enough. 

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.

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