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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


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.?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

New ADT: How We Fool Ourselves

Oct 22

This week’s “Arming the Donkeys” podcast is in How We Fool Ourselves

Several recent studies show that we not only deceive others to further our own ends, we also deceive ourselves about our dishonesty. This week i talk with Zoe Chance of the Yale School of Management about our research into the psychological harm of self-deception and the means by which we can decrease our self-deception in the future.


The podcast is posted on Duke’s iTunes U site. Here’s the link:









The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: RSA Animate Version.

Oct 20

I’m excited to share the RSA Animate version of my latest book. I love this approach to sharing research, first and foremost because I love the visual metaphors the artist uses to demonstrate ideas (particularly the blend of Sherlock Holmes as the Rational Man, and fairy tales as the opposite). Many of them are just brilliant. Second, who wouldn’t prefer to watch a cartoon version of a person (in this case, me) explain something rather than the real thing? It’s so much more engaging, and who doesn’t miss Saturday morning cartoons?

I was pretty thrilled to make the cut to be in an RSA: I hope you enjoy it as well.

New ATD: The Crooked Path to Wealth

Oct 16
This week’s “Arming the Donkeys” podcast is now posted on Duke’s iTunes U site. Here’s the link:
And here’s a blurb for the program:
The Crooked Path to Wealth

Award-winning author and satirist Jeff Kreisler joins me to explain why it makes sense to cheat in business. Kreisler, who regularly delivers programs on cheating for MBA students and corporate leaders, explains why, ethics aside, there’s simply no good reason not to cheat.

Ask Ariely: On Nicknames, the Stock Market, and Justifying Dishonesty

Oct 13

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 sweetheart often calls me by a term of endearment which, though flattering, is one that his ex-girlfriend called him during the four years they were together. The floweriness of the term does not fit his personality or mine (it’s sort of Shakespearean and we’re nerds), and every time he says it I think of her, though I appreciate his sweet intentions and hold no ill will against her. Is there an inoffensive way to bring this up and get a new “nickname” that feels more personal? I kept hoping it would go away by itself, but we’ve been together for five years and are now engaged. Help!


“Not Guinevere”


What your sweetheart is doing, of course, is connecting a term with positive associations for him to someone he loves—you. It would be nice if you could accept this for what it is, but judging by your letter, I don’t think that this is in the cards.

So now we have to think about how to eradicate his habit. One approach is to give him a negative punishment (a light punch on the shoulder, a sad look, etc.) every time that he uses this unfortunate term and to use a positive reward (a quick neck rub, a compliment) every time that he uses other terms of endearment. This approach would probably work, but I would recommend even more a variant of it that the psychologist B.F. Skinner called random schedules of reinforcement.

The basic idea is to alternate unexpectedly among ignoring this term of endearment, giving him a slight positive feedback for using it and responding from time to time with a dramatic negative punishment (a strong punch on the shoulder, hysterical crying, etc.).

Not knowing what to expect, coupled with the potential for a large negative response, would substantially increase his fear and would make even thinking about this nickname a negative experience for him. Good luck, and keep me posted on your progress.


Dear Dan,

How can I control myself when I feel the irresistible need to break my own rules about how to invest in the stock market?


You are asking, I suspect, about what we call the “hot-cold-empathy gap,” where we say to ourselves: “The level of risk that I want to take is bounded on one side by gains of up to 15% and on the other by losses up to 10%.” But then we lose 5% of our money, we panic and sell everything. When we look at such cases, we usually think that the colder voice in our head (the one that set up the initial risk level and portfolio choice) is the correct one and the voice that panics while reacting to short-term market fluctuations is the one causing us to stray.

From this perspective, you can think about two types of solutions: The first is to get the “cold” side of yourself to set up your investment in such a way that it will be hard for your emotional self to undo it in the heat of the moment. For example, you can ask your financial adviser to prevent you from making any changes unless you have slept on them for 72 hours. Or you can set up your investments so that you and your significant other will have to sign for any change. Alternatively, you can try to not even awake your emotional self, perhaps by not looking at your portfolio very often or by asking your significant other (or your financial adviser) to alert you only if your portfolio has lost more than the amount that you indicated you are willing to lose.

Whatever you do, I think it’s clear that the freedom to do whatever we want and change our minds at any point is the shortest path to bad decisions. While limits on our freedom go against our ideology, they are sometimes the best way to guarantee that we will stay on the long-term path we intend.


Dear Dan,

In your most recent book, you argue that most people are capable of dishonesty. Are you worried that people will use this as a justification for dishonest behavior?


A colleague told me that a student at her university was doing just that. During a trial dealing with an honor-code violation, the student in question brought my book to the honor court and argued that “everyone cheats a bit,” so he should not be judged harshly.

The honor court was more annoyed than impressed with his argument, and they pointed out to him that if everyone cheats, maybe this suggests that extra harsh and public punishments should be used to make it clear that such behavior is outside the norms of the acceptable and will not be tolerated.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

New Arming the Donkeys

Oct 08
Children and Cheating
This week’s “Arming the Donkeys” podcast is now posted on Duke’s iTunes U site. Here’s the link:
And here’s the blurb:
In this week’s program, I talk with Mike Norton, associate professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, about children and cheating. Mike wonders whether kids are any more trustworthy than the rest of us, or simply not as good at concealing their dishonesty.  

Bogus Bonuses and C.E.O. Salaries

Oct 06

One of the most common justifications for hefty C.E.O. compensation packages is that if the leaders of industry are not paid well, the so-called best and brightest will no longer flock to fill the corporate ranks, and will instead go elsewhere. High salaries (and bonuses, etc) are said to both motivate and retain these brilliant minds.

While this sounds somewhat plausible, as it turns out, a new study shows that it’s just not true. One driver of executive pay, called the peer-group benchmark, compares the salaries of executives among ostensibly similar companies as a way of keeping salaries competitive and within reasonable market limits. The problem is, this measure assumes that a C.E.O. at one company could pick up and leave for greener pastures at another, which, as it turns out, is a false presumption.

The study, conducted by Charles M. Elson and Craig K. Ferrere, shows that many of the skills C.E.O.s possess are specific to the company in which they are acquired, and are not readily transferable to other companies. Their analysis shows that almost every attempted transplant at the top ranks has resulted in failure.

What this means is that all this benchmarking makes the market of C.E.O.s seem like a market with high mobility, allowing for C.E.O.s to move to other companies when in fact a C.E.O. who manages one company well is unlikely to be successful in another.  Therefore, a company looking for a C.E.O. cannot actually consider all C.E.O.s as potential candidates. Benchmarking, then, is little more than a way to inflate executive salaries by comparing jobs in markets that are essentially incomparable.

Ultimately this study shows that determining executive salaries needs to be reevaluated and reconfigured with an eye to empirical data, even if that means reducing C.E.O. pay. After all, we are all shareholders in these companies and they are giving away our money for what turns out to be no good reason.

New survey!

Oct 02

I just posted a new study that should take you about 5 minutes to complete. If you would like to take the survey (and I would appreciate it very much), please look to the right sidebar under “Participate” and click on the “Take a quick anonymous survey” link. Thanks in advance for your help.

Irrationally Yours,


Ask Ariely: On Sports, Giving, and Convenient Accounting

Sep 29

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 am an avid football fan. When the team I am supporting is leading by, say, seven points, it doesn’t seem like a lot (we are leading by JUST one touchdown). On the other hand, when we are trailing by seven points, it seems like a lot (we are trailing by ONE touchdown). The same thing happens with runs in baseball and points in basketball. As a result, I’m always nervous while watching close games! Why do I feel this way? Is it just me?


I must admit that I don’t follow sports, but as luck would have it, I recently had a chat with Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks. We talked about various links between behavioral science and basketball, including the idea of loss aversion. Loss aversion means that our emotional reaction to a loss is about twice as intense as our joy at a comparable gain: Finding $100 feels pretty good, whereas losing $100 is absolutely miserable.

When your team is ahead, you think that the game is yours, so you largely focus on dreading that it might be taken away from you. On the other hand, when you are behind, all you can do is look forward to a positive change in the lead.

As this suggests, we might benefit in other areas of life, beyond sports, by adopting the perspective of being behind and looking for the upside.


Dear Dan,

Several years ago I gave my 90-year-old mother $5,000 to pay off the bank loan for her 2007 Honda Civic. She recently decided she didn’t want to drive anymore and would sell the car, for which she should receive $6,000 to $8,000. She had originally planned to give the car to my nephew (her grandson), but since he can’t afford the upkeep, she was going to sell the car and give him the proceeds. My finances have improved significantly since the time I gave her the $5,000, but she also offered to give me back $5,000 from the sale, which would leave my nephew with very little money. What should I do?


When we face such questions, we usually engage in what is called a cross-personal utility comparison. We ask ourselves how much we would benefit from this amount of money and compare this to how much the other person (your nephew, in this case) would benefit. When we carry out this comparison we naturally have a somewhat egocentric view of the world, which means that we usually over-weigh our own benefits and under-weigh the benefits of the other person.

However, recent research by Elizabeth Dunn and Mike Norton (their forthcoming book is called “Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending”) shows that giving money away has tremendous benefits for the giver. In their studies, whether people buy a cup of coffee for a friend or give up their yearly bonus to help a nonprofit, the givers experience happiness beyond their expectations, and it remains high for longer than they anticipate.

In your case, the giving would be particularly powerful because both you and your mother are involved. You would feel happiness because you facilitated the gift, your mother would feel happy because she is helping her grandson, and you would feel further happiness for making your mother feel good. With all of this good feeling around, is there any doubt that you should help your nephew?


Dear Dan,

I just paid for yoga classes for the next six months, but the studio mistakenly credited me for a year. They have made many past billing errors in their favor. Should I correct the mistake or just see it as the universe making things more even?

—Random fan

Of course, it is the world restoring karma—but why did it take so long?

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

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