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New ATD: License to Cheat

Nov 26

Arming the Donkeys this week features Nina Mazar, assistant professor of marketing at the University of Toronto. Nina and I speak about her research on psychological licensing, or how we may be more likely to cheat after doing something good.

Here’s the link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/license-to-cheat/id420535283?i=125252000

Ask Ariely: On Moving, Eating and Decision Making

Nov 24

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

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

Barbara

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

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

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

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Hi Dan,

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

—Pablo

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

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

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

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

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

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Dear Dan,

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

 —Oded

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

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

New ATD: Gluttons for Self-Punishment

Nov 19

Arming the Donkeys this week features Yoel Inbar, assistant professor of social psychology at Tilburg University. Yoel and I speak about how we sometimes punish ourselves when we feel guilty about things we’ve done, and how this behavior may not be the healthiest solution to our problems.

Here’s the link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/gluttons-for-self-punishment/id420535283?i=124887958

On Aging Gracefully.

Nov 17

Somewhat recently I’ve noticed that I’m losing a bit of hair. I say somewhat recently because as many of us do with discoveries of this nature, we put off fully accepting them for as long as possible. (In fact, not long ago, I spent several months with bad vision because I wanted to delay getting glasses until after I turned 45.)

I’ve been asking people’s advice about my hair situation, and many tell me to conceal the change for as long as possible until baldness, should it come to that, becomes inevitable. This seemed reasonable enough, but then I came across a study that suggested the opposite might be a better idea. The study showed that men with shaved heads are thought to be more dominant than men of similar stature and looks with full heads of hair. In fact, when people viewed photos of men whose hair had been digitally shaved, they reported that the men were taller, stronger, and more dominant than the unaltered photos where the men had hair. While I don’t think I’m ready to shave my head just yet, I’m sure I wouldn’t mind the extra height, imaginary or not.

The moral of the story is that we should always question prevailing opinion. And maybe it’s best to think of aging as Mark Twain did: “Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.”

One thing is certain though: never, ever attempt a comb-over.

New ATD: Why Willpower Doesn’t Work

Nov 12

This week, the Arming the Donkeys podcast features Roy Baumeister, professor of psychology at Florida State University. Roy and I speak about ego depletion, and how the longer we resist temptation, the more likely we are to give in later.

Here’s the link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/why-willpower-doesnt-work/id420535283?i=123767041

Ask Ariely: On Lyrics, Joint Accounts, and Dialing Mom

Nov 10

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

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

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

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

-Nurdaulet

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

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

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

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Dear Dan,

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

-Jonathan

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

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

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

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

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Dear Dan,

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

-Yoram

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

Love, Dan

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

New ATD: Teddy Bears and Truthfulness

Nov 06

Arming the Donkeys this week features Sreedhari Desai, assistant professor of organizational behavior at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at UNC-Chapel Hill. Dan and Sreedhari discuss her research utilizing childhood memories and toys to curb dishonesty in adults.

Here’s the link: https://itunes.apple.com/us/itunes-u/teddy-bears-and-truthfulness/id420535283?i=123580705

How to Stop Illegal Downloads

Nov 03

Three days after publication of my new book , The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, I was able to find electronic copies on a few websites that specialize in illegal content. These were high quality versions of the book, including the images of the cover, the references, and—my favorite part—the copyright notice.

I was flattered. On one of the sites, the book had been very popular, downloaded over 20,000 times in just a short period of time before my publisher shut it down.

I was also amused.  The irony of illegally downloading a book on dishonesty was painfully obvious.

But mainly I was curious, as is my wont. As someone who has been studying dishonesty for many years, what could I learn from the theft of my own book?

My first insight came with a personal conversion. Before it was my book being illegally downloaded, I was more on the “Information wants to be free” end of the spectrum. The sudden, though predictable, shift in my feelings when I found my own work being downloaded for free was a jarring experience. Maybe Information finds complete freedom too threatening, I thought, and maybe it would rather be a bit more protected. It was a very clear example of how my own views of morality are biased – as are everybody’s — based on our immediate perspective.

Recently in a lecture on dishonesty in San Francisco I was explaining, as I always do, that dishonesty is largely founded on our ability to rationalize, and a young guy stood up and argued that downloading music was actually the right thing to do. He said that the companies make lots of money while artists don’t (they make the music for the public, not for profit). And either way, he wouldn’t buy the music anyway so it wouldn’t make a difference. “My friend,” I said, “thank you for proving my point about rationalization.” Then I asked him to imagine if the product in question represented several months or even years of his life. All that time he was creating, writing, editing, and marketing this thing in order to fund his next project. And then everyone downloaded it, illegally, for free. At which point he sat down.

My second thought, after realizing my popularity in the “download for free” category, was about the potential for moral deterioration on a broader scale. Once people start seeing a particular behavior—such as illegally downloading books, music, and movies—as a very common behavior, there is a chance that this sense of social proof will translate into a new understanding of what is right and wrong. Sometimes such social shifts might be desirable—for instance, being part of an interracial couple used to be considered illegal and immoral, but now we see such couples all around us and it helps shape our understanding of social approval. However, the behaviors we most often observe and notice are ones that are outside of the legitimate domain (e.g., doping in sports, infidelity by politicians, exaggerated resumes by CEOs) and in these cases the social proof can change things for the worse.

And then I had an insight about confession.  How can we stop such trends toward dishonesty (in this case, broader acceptance of illegal downloading)? The problem is that if someone has acquired 97% of their music illegally, why would they legally buy the next 1%?  Would they do it in order to be 4% legal?  It turns out that we view ourselves categorically as either good or bad, and moving from being 3% legal to being 4% legal is not a very compelling motivation.  This is where confession and amnesty can come into play.

What we find in our experiments is that once we start thinking of ourselves as polluted, there is not much incentive to behave well, and the trip down the slippery slope is likely.  This is the bad news.  The good news is that in such cases, confession, where we articulate what we have done wrong, is an incredibly effective mechanism for resetting our moral compass.  Importing this religious practice into civic life was effective in the Truth and Reconciliation Act in South Africa, where acknowledging the many abuses and violations of the apartheid government allowed the South Africans to forgive past sins, and start fresh.

I think that this same approach could be effective in preventing people from illegally downloading music and books. Why don’t we offer young people (because let’s face it, most of them have some illegally downloaded material on their computers) the opportunity to admit and apologize, receive amnesty for the material they already have, and start fresh.

In the meantime, until we adopt this course of action, I am hoping that the New York Times will create a Best Seller list for a new category – the Most Illegally Downloaded Books.

New ATD: Fighting Feelings of Guilt

Oct 30
Fighting Feelings of Guilt

When we do something immoral, we have different ways to deal with feeling guilty. Maybe we apologize. Or maybe we try to balance an immoral act by doing something good. Perhaps we punish ourselves for our dishonesty. This week, I talk with Tom Gilovich, a professor of psychology from Cornell University, about some of the constructive and destructive ways we try to alleviate guilt.

Ask Ariely: On Planning Ahead, Halloween Rationing, and Flipping Coins

Oct 27

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

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

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

—Ruth

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

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

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

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

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

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Dear Dan,

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

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

—Mary

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

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

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Dear Dan,

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

—John

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

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

And you’re hampered by not having any,

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

is simply by spinning a penny.

No—not so that chance shall decide the affair

while you’re passively standing there moping;

but the moment the penny is up in the air,

you suddenly know what you’re hoping.”

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

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