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Investment Survey

Sep 08

Do you manage at least a portion of your own investments? If so, we have a survey studying investor behavior and could use your help. The survey contains questions about financial decision-making that’s part of a research study at Duke University. Please open the link below in a new window to take the survey. The survey should take you about 30 minutes. We would appreciate your full attention and careful consideration of each question. Participation is voluntary and your answers will remain anonymous. Thanks for participating!

You can access the survey here:

Ask Ariely: Firing Failures, Deceptive Deals, and Noisy Neighbors

Sep 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


Dear Dan,

Is it smart to fire someone for failing? We often hear about politicians, generals and executives who blow it and then lose their jobs, but how can anyone gain experience if failure means their dismissal?


This problem is worse than you might think. Organizations that don’t tolerate failure not only stop their employees from learning from their mistakes but also create a risk-averse culture that fears trying anything new. A related problem is that organizations generally reward (and punish) people based on the outcomes of their decisions, not on the quality of their decisions. In general, you’d hope that good decisions would lead to good outcomes, but that causal link rests on probabilities, not certainties—so reward and punishment are often misapplied. Imagine, for example, the manager of a chain of seafood restaurants who invested in five new branches along the Gulf Coast—six months before the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The chain lost money, its share value plummeted, and the manager got sacked. But should he have been? What if the manager had meticulously analyzed the market and made the best decision given the information available at the time? Should the company have punished him—or rewarded him for making a sensible, thorough decision? Obviously, we should reward and retain people who know how to make good decisions, but most of the time, we just reward good outcomes. As long as organizations behave this way, we will be stuck with conservative, risk-avoiding behavior, and we will keep firing some of the wrong people.


Dear Dan,

My son wants a Nerf football. I found a real bargain online—just $2.50 on Amazon, but with a $7.50 shipping charge. The combined price of $10 is a really good deal, but paying three times as much for shipping as for the product itself seems like a rip-off. I know that what really matters is the total amount paid, but I somehow feel that the cost of delivery ought to matter too. Am I being irrational?


This is exactly why Amazon introduced Amazon Prime back in 2005. For only $99 a year, you get “free” shipping on your orders.  Of course, the shipping isn’t really free, but it gives you the feeling that you aren’t paying for it. One other clever aspect of Amazon Prime is that once you have paid for it, every additional purchase on Amazon further amortizes your investment, thereby helping you further justify your initial decision.


Dear Dan,

A friend of mine and her husband live in an apartment building, and their upstairs neighbors often have noisy sex between 3 and 8 a.m. My friend’s husband has no problem sleeping through the raucous romping, but my friend is being woken up every night. Should she let her neighbors know that their early morning love sessions aren’t as private as they might think (without embarrassing them or herself) so she can get her beauty sleep again?


Maybe she could start with a compliment, explain the problem and offer a solution. How about, “I’m very impressed with your level of energy during the early hours of the day. How do you stay so passionate after so much time together? I’m a bit jealous.  And by the way, we got a heavy carpet for the bedroom to help give us more privacy.”

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Denied Desserts, Trusted Faces, and Biased Brokers

Aug 22

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


Dear Dan,

I’m a single guy in my early 30s, and I often take potential romantic partners out for dinner. When the question of dessert comes up, I’m never sure what to do. To be polite, I always ask my date if she’s interested in dessert, and the answer is almost always no. I then feel bad about ordering dessert myself, so I turn it down as well. Is it impolite to have dessert even if my date has decided not to?


It is most likely impolite not to order dessert. I’m basing that on two assumptions: first, that everyone enjoys at least a bit of dessert, and second, that your date may well be worried that, by ordering dessert, she would be signaling that she doesn’t care about her weight (which is a pity, of course, but it’s part of the reality of dating). With these assumptions in mind, I’d suggest that you ask her instead which dessert she loves most—and order one of those, with two spoons.


Dear Dan,

Lots of candidates are running for president. Some are proven liars, backstabbers or double-dealers; others are arrogant and self-important; still more break their promises. I wouldn’t want to hang around any of these people, but many Americans would vote for them. Don’t we care about honesty and trust?


Americans certainly care about trust—but in a slightly different way than you might think. We often care most about the trustworthiness of candidates’ faces.

Alex Todorov, a Princeton psychology professor, has done some wonderful experiments on this topic. In one, he showed some Princeton undergraduates pictures of people running for local office in Canada and asked them to rate the trustworthiness of the candidates. The Princeton students had never seen these people before and knew nothing about local elections in Canada.

Dr. Todorov then examined the number of elections won by the candidates in the photos and found that the students’ ratings of trustworthiness predicted more than 90% of the election results. It would appear that Canadian voters made basically the same judgment: They evaluated their politicians through simple, superficial judgments based on their faces.

We like to think we assess candidates based on their policies, experience, honesty and so on, but it doesn’t seem to be the case. Just a Canadian thing? I don’t think so. I suspect that even in important domains such as politics, we all make these sorts of rapid, emotional judgments. Maybe we need to go back and read what politicians are saying rather than just watch them perform on stage.


Dear Dan,

Can financial advisers, brokers and others in the financial industry truly follow their fiduciary responsibilities when they are paid on commission?


If you’re asking whether they can act in their customers’ best interests and give objective advice, the answer is no. Even more depressing, it seems humanly impossible to be paid more for some outcomes than others—to get more money if the client invests in stock A rather than stock B—and avoid bias.

I’m not saying that financial advisers do this intentionally. We all do it when our interests motivate us to see the world in a particular way: We use our tremendous brainpower to convince ourselves that what is good for us is also objectively good.

That’s why we must eliminate (or at least reduce) conflicts of interests in the markets—and why you should always try to figure out whether your service providers have conflicts of interests. Luckily, in the U.S., we understand these pitfalls and don’t allow our politicians to be corrupted by special interests or money.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Seeing Solutions, Emotional Actions, and Fun Foods

Aug 08

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


Dear Dan,

My girlfriend hates wearing contacts and has been talking about getting laser eye surgery ever since I’ve known her. But she’s never taken the first step of getting an evaluation. I had the surgery a few years ago, and it was like magic: One day I couldn’t see—and the next day I could. It took me about two years to get my act together, do the research and take off time for the procedure. How can I help my girlfriend to shorten this timeline?


I’d suggest various forms of encouragement. For an incentive, offer to pay half the bill. To add a deadline, say that your offer to pay only holds if she has the procedure within the next two months. And to add social pressure to the mix, ask some of her friends to chip in for the effort but ask them to condition their gifts on the same two-month timeline. That should do it.

Of course, if you do this, you should expect that at some point she will set up some incentives for things that she wants you to do. Try to accept these cheerfully in the spirit of making your relationship more exciting and productive.


Dear Dan,

Last week, two different stories about senseless murders were all over the news. The first was about Cecil, Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, who was hunted down and killed as a trophy by a dentist from Minnesota. The second was about Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black motorist shot dead by a police officer in a routine traffic stop. Guess which story received more attention and outrage? Do we really care more about lions than people?


Your question hinges on what we mean when we use the term caring. When you look at the volume of public outrage and the amount of ink spilled, it can sometimes seem that the loss of an endangered animal matters more. Sadly, that’s because, at least for some of us, the news of an animal’s death can have more emotional impact than the news of a person’s death.

Of course, this isn’t true for those who were close to the deceased, have personally experienced similar tragedies or have worked to fight similar injustices. But for those who experience such tragedies only via the news, the human loss sometimes doesn’t pull as much at their emotional strings.

This tendency has limits, though. If you gave most people two buttons, told them that pressing one would kill an endangered animal and pressing the other would kill a random fellow citizen, and ordered them to push one, very few would press the kill-a-person button. In this sort of direct comparison, I’d predict, almost everyone would prefer to kill the animal. Comparing lives more directly engages our cognition, not our emotions—and so the type of caring that emerges reflects our higher empathy for human beings and their families.

In other words, when we really think about it, we care more about humans—but we are often called to act based on our emotions, where our caring works quite differently.


Dear Dan,

How can I get my kids to eat more vegetables?


How about trying a new version of Popeye the Sailor, who used to gulp down spinach at moments of crisis and instantly grow stronger? You could modernize the Popeye approach by changing the language at the dinner table and talking about passing the Iron Man (kale), the Green Lantern (peas), the Superman (tomatoes), the Penguin (Oreos) and the Joker (soda). (My pairing of characters and foods may reflect some of my parental biases.)

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

A Modified Introduction to “Irrationally Yours:”

Jul 30

In 1984, as a 17-year-old high-school student in Israel, I was a member of a youth movement that focused on study, civic work and preparation for military service. Our graduation ceremonies often featured big fires, intended to dramatize our patriotic fervor. That year, some of our leaders had brought back military supplies to help make the blaze especially intense.

One Friday afternoon, as we began putting away these materials, there was an accident. Nobody knows exactly what happened, but a spark must have been struck somewhere. A large magnesium flare—the kind that the Israeli military uses to light up a battlefield—exploded right next to me. In a moment, I was engulfed by flames.

The fire nearly killed me. About 70% of my body was covered in third-degree burns. In a matter of seconds, my life had changed irreversibly. Looking back now, more than three decades later, I realize that my awful new situation had one unexpected and positive effect: It began my career as a serious observer of the peculiarities of human behavior.

The explosion marked the start of a three-year period of hospitalization and surgeries—first in the emergency department of Beilinson Hospital, then in Tel Hashomer Hospital, both near Tel Aviv. I’ll never forget the day, perhaps four months after my injury, when I first saw myself in a full-length mirror. Before the accident, I had been a decent-looking teenager. But that day, I saw something completely different. My eyes were pulled severely to the side. The right side of my mouth and my nose were both charred and distorted. So was my right ear.

Was this really me? It was hard to see, believe or accept. Why was I still here? What would my future be, looking like this?

The burns and their treatment caused me extreme pain over a long period—a kind of pain that is more intense and lasting than almost any other medical condition. But since I had little else to do and badly needed distraction, I began to notice and record things.

For example, every day, I had to have a soaking bath that involved removing my bandages and scraping off my dead skin and flesh. The nurses would rip off the dressings all at once, without a break. It was excruciating, but the nurses insisted that tearing the bandages off was the best way.

One day, one of the nurses allowed me a bit of control over the process, and I found the treatment somewhat more tolerable. This made me wonder if having more control over the process would be better in general, but given my helpless position, I had little influence over the way I was treated.

After years of treatment, I left the hospital and went to Tel Aviv University. I decided to study psychology. My harrowing years had left me deeply interested in understanding how we experience pain and in the experimental method.

So I carried out laboratory experiments on myself, my friends and volunteers, using moderate (and safe) physical pain induced by heat, cold water, pressure and loud sounds—even the psychological pain of losing money in the stock market—to probe for answers. I learned that there are better and worse ways to deliver pain—and that my nurses’ methods hadn’t been the best ones. (One should remove the bandages slowly, not rip them off, and one should start from the most painful parts, then move toward the least.) If my nurses, despite all their experience with burn victims, had erred in treating the patients they cared so much about, other professionals might also be misunderstanding the consequences of their behaviors and make poor decisions.

Soon, I found, my personal and professional lives had become intertwined. For years, I felt the burden of my scars: the unending pain, the odd-looking medical braces, the pressure bandages that covered me from head to toe, the feeling of having gone through some kind of weird door and of living separately from the day-to-day experiences of my previous self and other “normal” people. I’d become an observer of my own life, as if I were watching an experiment on someone else—and I looked anew at other people as well.

This new approach became central to my work. Remembering the placebos given instead of medications during some treatments, I conducted experiments to explore the effects of expectations on painful treatments. (They can dramatically change our experiences—and even the intensity of the pain we feel.) Remembering how it felt to be given difficult information in the hospital, I tried to figure out how best to break bad news to patients. (Slowly, and in steps.) I kept finding topics that crossed the personal/professional boundary, and over time, I learned more about my own decisions and the behavior of those around me.

I saw people who managed their suffering and triumphed, and I saw others who caved in to fear and terror. I tried to take apart mundane daily activities—about why we shop, drive, volunteer, interact with co-workers, take risks, fight and behave thoughtlessly. And I couldn’t help noticing the intricate fibers that entwine our romantic life. (Fortunately, I never lost my sense of humor.)

All these questions began to weave their way into my research. I grew increasingly adept at observing how people went about their daily lives, prone to wonder about human habits, eager to explore the reasons for our behavior and motivated to find ways to make us behave slightly better.

My accident happened more than 30 years ago, and if any good came out of it, maybe it is this: I like to believe that the disaster and its aftereffects made me better able to understand myself and others. Maybe I’m rationalizing. We human beings do that exceptionally well: By trying to see something awful in a more positive light, we’re able to make sense of it, or at least make it more tolerable.

After years of writing scholarly papers on these topics, I started writing about my research and its implications in a more conversational, less academic way. And perhaps because I described how my research grew out of my own struggles, many people started sharing their personal challenges with me. With experience (warning: second rationalization coming), I got better at answering their questions. And I would like to believe that my advice was even helpful sometimes.

Don’t get me wrong: I don’t think that my injury was worth it. I have spent every day of my adult years in varying degrees of pain. I have endured, over and over, the dysfunction of the medical system. I have been exposed to an astonishing number of medical procedures and odd human interactions. I am more comfortable in public these days, but my scars still make me feel out of place in most social circumstances.

But—whether I’m rationalizing or not—I did learn important lessons from my injury, my time in the hospital, the years that followed, the research that emerged from my ordeal, and the questions and challenges that people have shared with me over the years. These have become my microscope on life.

My latest book, Irrationally Yours, which is based on my Wall Street Journal column “Ask Ariely,” was recently published by HarperCollins. See this article on the WSJ here.

Ask Ariely: On Reading Labels, Regulating Risks, and Reproducing Compliments

Jul 25

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


Dear Dan,

Whenever I go to the pharmacy or the supermarket, I find myself veering almost uncontrollably toward products that say “All Natural” on the label. Why?


Some time ago, my Duke University colleagues and I carried out experiments on the appeal of natural medications. The results showed that when we see the word “natural,” we don’t necessarily think that the product works any better, but we do tend to believe that it works more harmoniously with our bodies, with fewer side effects. By contrast, when we tested this preference with other products (such as glasses, cars or desks made from natural materials), people clearly preferred the artificial versions. This suggests that our preference for the natural applies largely to things that go into our bodies, such as food and medications.

Such findings can be explained by what I call the “cave man theory,” which holds that, no matter how technologically advanced we may become, many of us still believe that our bodies were designed to function best in a long-ago era. So we try to eat what our ancestors ate and shun engineered products.

But this is just a belief, and it has little to do with reality. Some synthetic components are less harmful than their natural equivalents, and quite a few natural products (sugar, salt, cholesterol, saturated fats) are dangerous for us. Still, when we hear that a product is “natural,” we see it as part of the way that things should be.


Dear Dan,

Why are so many people reflexively opposed to the regulation of capital markets when the government strictly regulates so many other industries?


Consider an industry that is subject to much closer U.S. government regulation: pharmaceuticals. Since the early 1960s, when the morning-sickness drug thalidomide caused major birth defects in thousands of babies, drug companies have been required to prove a drug’s efficacy and safety before marketing it. The following decades have brought even more federal regulation of drugs.

Pharmaceuticals and capital markets have substantial similarities. Both industries make complex products that are hard to understand, both employ aggressive sales tactics, and both let consumers bear most of the risk.

So why are many more people opposed to regulating capital markets than pharmaceuticals? I suspect it has to do with our emotional reactions when things go wrong. A calamity with a new drug can mean illness and death, and we react powerfully against the perpetrators. By contrast, blunders in the financial markets produce, at worst, bankruptcies. The blame in these cases is more diffuse and the harm less emotionally charged—which means that we tend not to feel the same anger toward those responsible for the damage.

Of course, regulations should be based on the actual potential for harm, not on our emotional reactions, which is why I think we should more strictly regulate the financial markets and give more freedom for innovation to the pharmaceuticals market. ______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Recently, a friend told me that she wants to have my child. She meant it as a compliment, but I’m not sure if I should take it as one. What do you think?


It sounds excellent on first blush, but what she’s really telling you is that she likes your genetic makeup, which you have very little to do with. She’s also telling you that your genes are the main thing that interests her. Give this particular compliment back to her, and ask for a different one.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Minding the Gap, Making Contact, and Meaningful Kisses

Jul 09

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


Dear Dan,

I do lots of research online for work. I’ve noticed that, as more and more information sources become available, I’m less and less sure about my research’s quality. Is my trust in online information dwindling?


I suspect that the real reason isn’t trust. During my first years at university, I took many introductory classes and felt that I knew a lot about all the topics I was studying, from physiology to metaphysics. But once I got to graduate school and started reading more academic papers, I realized how large the gap was between what I knew and what I needed to learn. (Over the years, this gap has only widened.)

I suspect that your online searches have a similar effect on you. They show you the size of the gulf between what you know from online research and the other knowable information still out there.

The magnitude of this gap can be depressing, maybe even paralyzing. But the good news is that a more realistic view of how little we really know—and more humility—can open the door to more data and fewer opinions.


Dear Dan,

I am a saleswoman working at a major company. Recently, we’ve been told to try to make physical contact with customers—for example, by touching their arm when stressing an important point. I don’t like this approach. Do you know if it has any scientific basis?


You might not want to hear the answer, but we do have some evidence suggesting the efficacy of physical touch. Perhaps someone at your company read about a study by Jonathan Levav of Columbia University and Jennifer Argo of the University of Alberta published in Psychological Science in 2010. They found that individuals who experienced physical contact from women—a handshake or a touch on the shoulder—felt calmer and safer, and consequently made riskier financial decisions.

Another study published two years later—by Paul Zak and his team, in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine—found that after receiving a 15-minute massage (especially the females) were more willing to give their money to others. Dr. Paul also found that their blood contained elevated levels of oxytocin, a hormone linked to trust and intimacy.

More research backs these findings up. One 2010 study, carried out by researchers at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, found that 45 minutes of Swedish massage reduced the levels of hormones that are released during stress and tied to aggressive behavior.

And why stop there? Armed with this information, you could go to your boss and suggest that massaging the customers is inefficient: There are lots of them, and they stay in the store for only a short time. Why not massage the employees each morning instead to make them more friendly and trusting?


Dear Dan,

Why does a first kiss feel so magical? Is it because of the law of decreasing marginal utility, according to which the utility derived from every ensuing kiss decreases, or is it because (besides the fun of the clinch itself) the kiss provides you with so much new information—notably, that the other person feels the same way about you, which in most cases offers a huge relief from the anxiety that you were on a one-way road?


I suspect that the reason first kisses are special isn’t related to waning marginal utility or rising familiarity—and certainly not because they’re better. (The technique, strategy, approach and objective performance of a smooch probably increases over time.) The key is that a first kiss has tremendous meaning attached to it. It provides a transition to a new kind of relationship and a new way for two people to think about themselves, separately and together. Maybe it is time to try to imbue our other kisses with more meaning?

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.


Jul 05


by John Cleese – British writer, actor and tall person

The English are feeling the pinch in relation to recent events in Syria and have therefore raised their security level from “Miffed” to “Peeved.” Soon, though, security levels may be raised yet again to “Irritated” or even “A Bit Cross.” The English have not been “A Bit Cross” since the blitz in 1940 when tea supplies nearly ran out. Terrorists have been re-categorized from “Tiresome” to “A Bloody Nuisance.” The last time the British issued a “Bloody Nuisance” warning level was in 1588, when threatened by the Spanish Armada.

The Scots have raised their threat level from “Pissed Off” to “Let’s get the Bastards.” They don’t have any other levels. This is the reason they have been used on the front line of the British army for the last 300 years.

The French government announced yesterday that it has raised its terror alert level from “Run” to “Hide.” The only two higher levels in France are “Collaborate” and “Surrender.” The rise was precipitated by a recent fire that destroyed France ‘s white flag factory, effectively paralyzing the country’s military capability.

Italy has increased the alert level from “Shout Loudly and Excitedly” to “Elaborate Military Posturing.” Two more levels remain: “Ineffective Combat Operations” and “Change Sides.”

The Germans have increased their alert state from “Disdainful Arrogance” to “Dress in Uniform and Sing Marching Songs.” They also have two higher levels: “Invade a Neighbour” and “Lose.”

Belgians, on the other hand, are all on holiday as usual; the only threat they are worried about is NATO pulling out of Brussels .

The Spanish are all excited to see their new submarines ready to deploy. These beautifully designed subs have glass bottoms so the new Spanish navy can get a really good look at the old Spanish navy.

Australia, meanwhile, has raised its security level from “No worries” to “She’ll be alright, Mate.” Two more escalation levels remain: “Crikey! I think we’ll need to cancel the barbie this weekend!” and “The barbie is cancelled.” So far no situation has ever warranted use of the last final escalation level.

A final thought – ” Greece is collapsing, the Iranians are getting aggressive, and Rome is in disarray. Welcome back to 430 BC”.

Ask Ariely: On Fun Money, Santa, and Feeling Old

Jun 20

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


Dear Dan,

My parents, both over 60, have retired from careers in government service, with good retirement funds plus a decent monthly pension. When they were young, they faced a lot of financial difficulties, so over the years, they have turned into misers. They don’t go on holidays, dine out or indulge in any way; they buy substandard groceries, take public transportation to save on gas and fret over even petty expenses. I want them to enjoy the rest of their lives without such worries. What should I do to change their behavior regarding money.


Your parents’ problem comes bundled with substantial benefits. Saving early in life and living modestly are key to a healthy retirement, and I wish that more people in the U.S. behaved this way. You probably owe much of your own financial well-being and your mind-set toward money to this exemplary behavior.

That said, now that your parents are comfortable, it would be good if they were able to enjoy life to a higher degree. If I were you, I would sit with them and go over their monthly balance sheet to try to figure out how much money is coming in every month and how much they are spending on necessities.

With these numbers in hand, I would look at how much extra income they have every month—and call these funds “fun money.” Next, I would get them two prepaid debit cards and set up an automatic monthly transfer of the fun money from their checking account to the cards. In this way, the fun money will be set aside from the beginning, with a different physical identity and declared purpose—a little like chips in a casino. If you want to further drive the point home, put large red stickers on the cards and write “Fun” on them.

Finally, for the first few months, you could go over the statements with them to make sure that they are indeed spending the money in ways that make them happy.


Dear Dan,

Do you think it’s acceptable for parents (and society in general) to lie to young children about the existence of Santa? I don’t, but I seem to be in the minority.


My research center recently completed a documentary on dishonesty in which we interviewed individuals who had committed misdeeds, from insider trading to doping to infidelity. Many people, we found, take one wrong step, then rationalize it, then take another—and soon they’re on a slippery slope.

All of which is to say: It is wrong to lie to kids about Santa. You might start with a fib about Santa, but next it could be the Tooth Fairy, and after that, maybe it’s Superman, the Avengers and who knows what else.

More seriously: Your children will find out at some point, and when they do, it could cause a loss of trust that could be very unhealthy.


Dear Dan,

When I was a teenager and my parents were in their 40s, they seemed old to me. Now I am almost 40, and I still feel young. Is it true that we stay young for longer these days? In the 21st century, when do people start feeling old?


Despite our amazing advances, we don’t stay young for longer. The difference is your perspective. We look at ourselves as the standard, paying less attention to differences that we consider positive and overemphasizing ones we see as negative. As for your question about when we start feeling old, that’s simple: We start feeling old when we look forward more to a good night’s sleep than to a night of passion.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Funny Decisions, Security Insecurity, and Anthrax Horn

Jun 06

To celebrate today’s Ask Ariely column, I’d like to share the final Reader Response video. (But don’t worry, you can always check out the rest of the collection in this album.)

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


Dear Dan,

Is there any research on the relationship between humor and the quality of decision-making? Does humor make for better or worse decisions?


Both. On the positive side, it has been shown that humor can improve creativity, which broadens the perspective from which we examine a problem and helps us to come up with novel solutions. In one study, researchers gave subjects a box of tacks, a set of matches and a candle. Their assigned task was to affix the candle to the wall so that it wouldn’t drip on the carpet when lighted. Subjects who had watched an amusing video clip before the task were more likely to recognize the solution: tack the box (which held the tacks) to the wall and use it as the candle’s base.

On the negative side, humor gets us to believe that things are safe, which can lead to risk-taking behavior. For example, recent research in the lab of Peter McGraw at the University of Colorado, Boulder, shows that humorous public service announcements are less effective than their traditional, nonhumorous scary counterparts. Why? Because the joking tone puts people at ease.

So as far we can tell, the effect of humor on the quality of decision-making is mixed. But using humor in an interpersonal relationship is certainly a good thing. It enhances liking and trust—and Prof. McGraw’s findings also suggest that humorous people are more attractive as lovers.


Dear Dan,

My wife and I bought a new house and are fighting about the door locks. She wants to replace all of the locks, fearing that some people might have keys that would let them enter. I think that there are many ways a thief could break into the house without bothering with a single door, so why spend money to deal with that negligible part of the problem? It seems to me that her irrational insecurity blinds her from the truth. Any advice?


Your wife’s fear has to do with the ease and vividness of imagining a bad outcome rather than the probability of something actually happening. After the attacks of 9/11, for example, we were all more afraid of flying, so some people switched to driving. As a consequence, over the following months, more people died from car accidents. The increase in the number of people dying from car accidents was much higher than the number of people dying on flights.

This aspect of emotions is also why we are more afraid of Ebola (which, thankfully, did not kill many people in the U.S.) than of the seasonal flu (which kills thousands of people every year). Given that the power of emotions is connected to their vividness, it is only partially useful to try to counteract them by providing accurate information about probability. Sometimes it is better just to try to deal with our emotions more directly.

Your wife’s fear may not be rational, but neither is your refusal to take such a small action to make her less worried. Why not use this as an opportunity to look at all the new locking technologies out there (some of them are really interesting). You could turn replacing the locks into a fun activity for yourself.


Dear Dan,

Is there a way to use behavioral economics to stop rhino poaching? Some people believe that consuming rhino horn cures a range of ailments, and though this is entirely mythological, it is hard to get them to change their minds about its supposed health benefits. Can you think of a way to undermine this market?


Sadly, it is very difficult to use information or experience to counteract such mythical beliefs. The only way to fight them is with other beliefs. One approach would be take advantage of the widespread myth about the link between rhino horn and anthrax, and work hard to propagate this false belief. People might still believe in the healing power of rhino horn, but their fear of anthrax might overpower it.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

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