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Ask Ariely: On whistleblowing, Zipcars, and the rosy effect of the unexplored

Dec 10

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


Dear Dan,

I was the whistleblower for a very large corporate disaster. Since the whistleblowing, I have been shocked at the vitriol and social exclusion I have suffered as a result of speaking the truth. What is it about whistleblowers that makes society want to exclude them? Any insights and guidance would be most welcome.


From what I understand, the backlash you are experiencing is very common among whistleblowers.

In thinking about your issue, I reflected on why I want my kids (ages 10 and 6) to solve their problems themselves, without involving higher authorities (their parents). Tattling is considered very negative behavior. Of course, sometimes my kids have legitimate claims that require an intervention from the “authorities,” but my negative reaction to tattling suggests that I’m willing to accept some violations of justice in order to have the problems solved internally.

Perhaps the friends of whistleblowers see them as not truly part of the social circle, since they’ve shown willingness to seek external authorities when conflicts emerge. Maybe your social exclusion is due to a belief that when problems emerge in the future, you will again look for an external authority? If you were Tom Sawyer, you could cut your hand and mix your blood with that of your friends to symbolize your connection, but given that this might not work for your age group, perhaps you need to find a related ritual that will show your commitment to the social group.


Dear Dan,

I live in a quasi-urban area near Washington, D.C., don’t own a car and take the metro to work. Near my home is a fleet of Zipcars (a car-sharing system starting at $8 an hour, including gas, insurance and up to 180 miles of driving in a day). If I bought a car, the monthly costs alone (insurance, parking) would amount to about $200; then there’s the purchase of the car, gas and tolls. For that money I could regularly rent Zipcars.

So why don’t I? I could go to different restaurants and entertainment. But each time I think of doing this, I ask myself whether I want to spend the extra money to rent the car and usually decide against it.

This issue comes up the most with groceries. There’s a fantastic supermarket a quick drive away that sells much better and cheaper produce than my local store. In the end, I feel like I’m choosing between (1) overpaying at my local store and feeling cheated and (2) going to the better store but also feeling cheated because I spent $30 on a Zipcar to save that same amount on groceries. What do you suggest?


What you’re experiencing is a conflict between your enjoyment of a better supermarket and your cost-benefit analysis. What’s interesting is that if you bought a car, you’d spend much more money overall, but on any given week you wouldn’t feel the pain of paying to get to the supermarket. Because a car can be used for so many different purposes, no single one will feel like the reason for the car, and you’d only focus on the marginal cost of driving a few extra miles, despite the car’s overall expense and inefficiency.

Instead, you could try calling Zipcar and offering to pay them in advance for three hours of car use four times a month for a year. This way you wouldn’t undergo a cost-benefit calculus for every visit to the supermarket.

And if you can’t convince Zipcar to do this, how about putting the money you’re saving by not having a car into a “Zipcar” bank account, and linking the Zipcar use to the money you’re saving? And to make sure you use this money for the Zipcar, commit to giving whatever’s left in that account at the end of the year to a charity you hate.


Dear Dan,

A few weeks ago you told us that in romantic encounters, the heart grows fonder when we know less about a potential mate. Does it also work for job applicants? Do we like people more when they’re hired from the outside rather than from within?


Plenty of lessons from romantic love apply to the rest of our lives, and you’re correct that this is one of them. There’s some evidence showing that CEOs hired from the outside get paid more than those from the inside and that they don’t do as well. I suspect that the reason for this is the same heightened expectations that come with lack of knowledge. The question, of course, is how to combat our natural tendency to be overly optimistic about people we don’t know very well—both romantically and professionally.


See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

New ATD: Cultures of Corruption

Dec 04
Arming the Donkeys this week features Ray Fisman of the Columbia Business School. Ray and I discuss his research on political corruption and parking fines, and wonder how likely U.N. representatives are to use their diplomatic immunity to avoid paying these fines themselves.

The Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure…

Dec 01

Wondering whether you can ask someone to give you a PhD in exchange for a kickback? Curious whether you can get away with stuffing ballot boxes? Allow me to introduce you to the Encyclopedia of Ethical Failure. Every couple years the Department of Defense publishes the Encyclopedia (Word doc), which is likely the most sarcastic government document out there. Interestingly, golf and taxes seem to turn up a lot.

Of course, ethics for U.S. government employees and military includes a number of rules that most citizens don’t have to abide by, such as not endorsing candidates for office while in uniform. However, it doesn’t take a law degree to recognize the problems with many of these incidents. Here’s a tiny sample:

– “For a period of several years, two top executives at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center had an astonishing work record—they took nearly no vacation time at all. The reason, investigators soon discovered, was that the executives had been taking “religious compensatory time” instead. Curiously, the executives’ absences seldom fell on any traditionally observed religious holidays. Instead, investigators found that the pair’s so-called religious observances took place on days when they had medical appointments, sightseeing trips, and golf tournaments. Asked whether golf tournaments could be considered religious observances, one executive replied, “They could be for some people.”

– A Forest Service employee decided that while she was fulfilling payments for the Service using government checks, she would write a couple to her boyfriend, who had contracted with the Forest Service once upon a time. The checks she wrote under the guise of payment for firefighting services totaled over $600,000, and apparently went to pay for general expenses and, fittingly, for gambling.

– And in the quintessential story of government corruption, two VA employees are in jail for accepting more than $100,000 in kickbacks for red tape. Yes, actual red-colored tape.

The Encyclopedia shows not only that cheating (in all its myriad forms) is wrong, but also that it carries substantial repercussions; the size of the document serves as an indication that getting caught is fairly probable. The question I have is whether over time readers of the Encyclopedia will remember the instances as examples of what people do, forget where these examples came from, and perhaps start thinking of them more as clever and daring schemes than cautionary tales….

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:

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


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?


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.


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?


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.


Dear Dan,

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


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:

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:

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


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?


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.


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?


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.


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?


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:

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