Category: Uncategorized

Arming the Donkeys is Back!

Mar 18

Hello hello,

I’ll be starting a new round of my “Arming the Donkeys” podcast on Duke’s iTunes U site.

The first in the series, Handwashing and Healthcare, can be found here.

Handwashing and Healthcare
Handwashing is one of the simplest and most effective ways to reduce the risk of infections in hospitals. Yet doctors and other healthcare workers still regularly fall short of compliance guidelines. Dan Ariely talks with David Hoffman of the University of North Carolina about the reasons for low handwashing rates in hospitals and what can be done to improve hand hygiene.

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

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 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 :)

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?


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.

The third annual StartupOnomics

Jul 12

I’m excited to announce our third annual StartupOnomics (August 23-25).

This is an opportunity for companies that are seeking to make world a better place to hang out with experts in behavioral economics. We’ll spend an intensive weekend at the end of August in San Francisco learning about how people make decisions so that your product can have a bigger impact.

In years past we’ve had great companies join us. LumoBack, Warby Parker, Etsy, LearnUp, Basis and more.

This year we’re keeping teams overnight at a beautiful location right under the Golden Gate bridge – Cavallo Point. Epic sunset pictures are all but guaranteed. We’re also excited to include follow up sessions this year, to ensure the learning sticks.

If you’re a company in health, finance, education or green, please apply here by July 25. 



  •        Product adoption and growth
  •        Increasing active usage
  •        Building loyal customers that love you
  •        Payment strategies
  •        Building a team that loves what they do
  •        Measuring what matters
  •        Testing approaches and best practices

Looking forward to this




Arming the Donkeys’ new spot

May 04

Good news! Arming the Donkeys, my (almost!) weekly podcast, will now be available on Tunein Radio, a website and mobile app for music and radio broadcasts. If you’re unfamiliar with the podcast, as close to weekly as possible I interview a different researcher as we explore a topic connected to behavioral economics (self-deception, corruption, will power, you name it). And if you haven’t ventured into the world of Tunein, it’s a fantastic platform worth exploring—you can listen to local stations, broadcast shows, sports, news, and any music genre you could want (Polka, anyone?). And now, Arming the Donkeys! I’m excited to be joining the line up, and hope you’ll visit ATD’s new home.

Thoughts on Lance Armstrong

Jan 18

Book tour talks – June 2012

May 29




Barnes & Noble @82ND and Broadway @7:00pm



Brattle Theater @6:00pm



Politics & Prose @1:00pm



The Booksmith @7:30pm



Oshman Family JCC @7:30pm




Live Talks Los Angeles @7:45am

For tickets:



Town Hall @6:00pm



St. Louis County Library Headquarters @7:00pm



Regulator Bookshop @7:00pm



Quail Ridge Books @7:30pm

A quick new survey!

Feb 15

Now that love is less in the air post-Valentine’s Day, we’d appreciate it if you’d take 5 minutes to fill out this survey.


Thanks very much!

Why we really are distracted by shiny objects.

Feb 10

Choosing Brighter Instead of Tastier Candies May Be Good For You:

How Visual Properties of Choice Options Influence Our Decisions

by Mili Milosavljevic, Ph.D.

In 2009, Tropicana redesigned the packaging of its orange juice in an attempt “to reinforce the brand and product attributes [and] rejuvenate the category.”  The company said that “for the first time, Tropicana… will be branded ‘100% orange’, which will be featured as a bold, new graphic on all packaging… [A] proprietary fresh cap… will be another visual signal of the brand’s natural, health benefits.”  Less than 2 months after the redesign, dollar sales of Tropicana orange juice had dropped about 19% or $33 million, with competitors picking up Tropicana’s lost market share.  The company’s response was to immediately bring back the previous version of packaging and determine what went wrong.  Some of the surveyed consumers complained that they missed the old packaging and Tropicana was quick to attribute the flop to messing with the usual suspect: emotional bond that consumers had with the old packaging.  Other consumers, however, noted that the redesign had made it more difficult to spot Tropicana on a store shelf or to differentiate it from other brands.  This alternative explanation suggests that replacing the familiar, prominent, dark-green Tropicana brand name on the packaging, with a sleek, bright-green, 90-degree tilted version dwarfed by an enormous glass of orange juice that replaced the orange with a straw coming out of it caused some consumers to miss the brand and simply pick up another instead.

Is it plausible that simple visual features of choice options, such as a package’s color or brightness, influence consumers’ choices?  Mili Milosavljevic, together with a team of vision scientists and neuroscientists, recently conducted a series of eye-tracking studies in which consumers made real choices between snack food items whose brightness of packaging was systematically varied.  When consumers chose between items they prefer (such as a Snickers bar) and visually enhanced, i.e., brighter, but less preferred options (such as Sour Skittles), a significant portion of their choices was biased toward choosing the brighter, less liked, item. This visual saliency bias, or bias toward brighter-colored items, was even stronger when consumers made choices while being engaged in another cognitively demanding task, akin to talking on a cellphone while shopping in a grocery store.  Finally, the bias toward visually brighter items was especially strong when consumers did not have a strong preference for one item over another (i.e., choosing between Snickers and KitKat bars, which consumers stated they like almost equally).  The latter two variations of the experiment is highly representative of today’s competitive market place and consumers’ tendency to multitask.

So where does this visual saliency bias come from?  The explanation lies in the way that our brain processes information.  When making a simple choice, the brain has to process both visual information that allows us to perceive the choice options, and preference information that estimates how much we like these options.  The brain must reconcile all these signals (and more: memory, expectations, goals) in order to arrive at a decision.  So what this research shows is that sometimes the visual information wins over the preference information – a finding that again shows that choices are driven by many forces aside from actual preference.

So is this visual saliency bias good or bad?  More specifically, is it bad for consumers to rely on something as trivial as the brightness of packaging when making a decision?  Not necessarily.  The visual saliency bias is less likely to occur if you are buying a car or a house, or are engaged in other high-stakes decisions.  The bias is more likely to kick in when the decision is less consequential, less costly, you have less time or capacity to fully engage in it, or the options from which you are choosing are liked just the same.

Dr. Milosavljevic and her colleagues showed that when making such simple choices, consumers can spot and choose most of their preferred items in as little as a third of a second.  Granted, the visual saliency bias may, in some instances, lead us to make suboptimal choices, but that may be a small price to pay in order to go about our daily lives making rapid, mostly good, decisions.  After all, who wants to spend an entire afternoon in front of the store shelf choosing between Snickers and Sour Skittles?

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