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Reader Response: Day 2

May 11

Another kind reader agreed to review my upcoming book.

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

“Irrationally Yours” Reader Response

May 10

Please enjoy the first of a series of reviews of my upcoming book “Irrationally Yours” that I will be posting for you.

Watch it here:

Irrationally Yours” is based on my “Ask Ariely” advice column in the Wall Street Journal, and is illustrated by cartoonist William Haefeli (who you will surely recognize from The New Yorker).

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

Ask Ariely: On Lasting Gifts, Pre-engagement, and Incentivizing Scientists

May 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,

What is the best gift to give my mom for Mother’s Day?


Mother’s Day comes once a year, but mothering is an everyday activity—which is why you should try to get your mother a gift that keeps giving in some way for the entire year. In general, transient things don’t make great gifts: flowers, gift certificates, cleaning supplies. Here are some better ideas: A special pillowcase, a nice case for her smartphone, a good wallet, an artistic keychain—or anything else that she’s likely to use daily, which will remind her of your gratitude. And of course, say something especially nice when you give it to her: The giving-ceremony and the accompanying words will define the way she will think about the gift and her relationship with you. And remember—you can’t be too mushy.


Dear Dan,

My partner and I have been together for a few years. At some point, I am sure we will get married. However, I’m not in any hurry to get engaged, let alone worry about a wedding date and all the planning that comes after. My partner, on the other hand, he is perfectly ready. What should I do?


First, let’s ask why your boyfriend is so keen to get engaged soon. Perhaps it’s because you’ve been dating for a long time, and he wants to feel that the relationship is moving forward. Or perhaps he isn’t sure that the two of you really are going to get married, and he wants to try to seal the deal.

Depending on his reasons, you might be able to help assuage the root cause of his concern without getting engaged. If his concern is just about moving forward, you can take some lessons from game designers. Right now, you are playing a three-step “game”—dating, engagement, marriage. You don’t want to move to level two or three yet, so maybe you can design a game with more levels—with several steps between dating and marriage. There’s dating, dating steadily, dating seriously, pre-engagement, engagement and post-engagement. By thinking in terms of these additional steps, your boyfriend could get a feeling of progress while you avoid a feeling of pressure.

On the other hand, if he’s looking for more certainty about where you two are headed, you can do all kinds of things to make clear that you intend to stay with him for a very long time. Maybe you could set up a joint bank account, make plans for things far in the future or buy a car together.

If you don’t know the real concern, use both approaches.

One last personal note: In my experience, whenever we face a decision about something good—and presumably, getting married is something good—delaying is rarely better. The one downside, of course, is that once you do decide to get married, your parents are going to start calling to ask when you are going to give them grandchildren.


Dear Dan,

How can I find scientists who will study people’s poop-pickup behaviors and help design campaigns to get more people to clean up after their dogs?


Offer them treats. Treats for scientists are a bit more complex than treats for pets, but if you were to announce a competition of ideas to solve the dog-poop problem, promise to try the different proposals in a scientific way and announce the winner publicly, that combination of ego and data would probably work nicely.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Announcing… CAH Startup Lab

May 08

Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University

Beginning with the 2015 academic year, the Center for Advanced Hindsight (CAH) at Duke University will invite promising startups to join its behavioral lab and leverage academic research in their business models. The Center is housed within the Social Science Research Institute at Duke University and is led by Professor Dan Ariely, Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Economics at Duke University. The Center studies how and why people make counterintuitive or irrational decisions and works to translate this academic research into easily applicable lessons that are accessible to all. A key goal of the Center is to explore new research directions and to translate academic research into accessible tools for better decision-making. To further this goal, the Center is looking for entrepreneurs and startups interested in applying social science research findings to their business in order to build decision-making tools primarily in the areas of financial decisions and health decisions.

The Startup Lab at CAH

Beginning in the fall of 2015, the Center will select several for-profit and/or not-profit startup companies interested in building digital solutions that address decision behavior in the health and finance fields. During an incubation period of 6-9 months, the Center’s researchers will help participants leverage social science research to test and bring to scale innovations aimed at substantially improving decision-making in the health and finance fields.

The Startup Lab will offer:

  • Technical Assistance – Participants will learn to apply a behavioral lens to the design of their products and services and will learn to rigorously test each phase of iteration using proven methods.
  • Mentorship – Participants will gain access to mentors from several schools at Duke University including the Fuqua School of Business and the Pratt School of Engineering.
  • Financial Assistance – Participants will be given office space/equipment and will be provided with an internal operating budget.
  • Networking Opportunities – Participants will gain access to Duke-connected resources such as the Duke Angel Network connecting alumni investors with Duke-affiliated startups. They will also become part of Durham’s growing entrepreneurial community, which has already established itself as a rich environment for accelerator and incubator programs.

Eligibility Requirements

We will select several domestic and/or international startups, consisting of about three or four participants each. Participants must be willing to relocate to our location in Durham, North Carolina for a period of 6-9 months beginning in the fall of 2015. Participants do not have to be U.S. citizens, however, non-US citizens that have participated in a J-Visa program within the 24 months preceding the start date of our program will be ineligible to apply.

Application Process

To apply, please provide a written summary of the problem you are addressing and how far along your startup currently is both in terms of development and funding. Please also describe what you hope to gain from the program and provide links to your LinkedIn profiles. Email your application to Rebecca Kelley at

The application deadline is July 1, 2015, and offers will be extended in late July. The program will begin October 1, 2015 and run for 6-9 months depending upon the needs of the applicants.

Ask Ariely: On Justifying Gadgets, Job Satisfaction, and Just Flowers

Apr 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,

I’m thinking about buying the new Apple Watch, but I’m sure if it is worth it. Any advice?


I’m not sure I can be truly objective here: I just might want one, and if I suggest that you shouldn’t get one, how could I justify buying one for myself later?

So without wanting to limit my own future purchases, let’s more generally consider the question of how we figure out whether luxury items are worth the cost.

Let’s take a very different product, black pearls, as our example. When black pearls were first introduced to the market, nobody wanted them [for more about this story, see Predictably Irrational]. But then the famous jeweler Harry Winston placed black pearls in his display windows alongside his rubies, sapphires and diamonds. He set the price of black pearls high, and they have been very valuable ever since. An important lesson from this story is that people tend to make relative judgments and to use only objects that are easy to compare as the standard for appraisal (like those rubies, sapphires and diamonds).

This implies that when you’re examining future purchases, you should ensure that you don’t just compare the object of your desire to similar objects but to other, very different things that you might also want. As you expand your scope of comparison, you should be able to make more reasonable decisions.


Dear Dan,

I’m an air-traffic controller at a large airport. I don’t work in the tower but in a remote radar facility about 30 miles away, handling traffic within 50 miles of the airport. As a radar controller, everything is completely abstract. Would being able to actually see the planes I am guiding take off and land generate greater job satisfaction than just seeing targets on a screen?


Probably. In many different domains (including moral judgment and empathy), when we present information in increasingly abstract ways, emotions get suppressed, and we care less. So if you plan to stay in this type of job for a while, moving to a tower might well boost your motivation.

But even if you stay put, other changes might increase the perceived meaning of your labor. What if your screen showed how many passengers were on each plane? What if, at landing time, you were told that they were all healthy? What if you were shown some pictures of the people waiting for them at the airport? With such changes, the information you have about the passengers in your care would be more than just a dot, and both your caring and your motivation should increase.


Dear Dan,

I sometimes invite friends for dinner, and they usually ask me which dish they can bring. Actually, I really don’t want them to bring anything: It doesn’t help me out, and it might not fit with the meal I’ve got planned. But I’m not sure how I can politely reject their nice offer.


I’ve had the same problem. At one point, I Googled “most difficult recipes” and picked the one I liked most. The next person who asked me what dish they could make got that recipe. I’ve been using this approach ever since, while also telling people that it truly is fine not to bring a dish. They inevitably end up bringing wine or flowers.


See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.


By the way! “Irrationally Yours,” a book based on this column, will be published May 18 by HarperCollins (which, like The Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp).

Ask Ariely: On Ephemeral Emotions, Getting Gadgets, and Treacherous Taxes

Apr 12

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,

Every time a severe natural disaster strikes, like a typhoon or the outbreak of a new epidemic, everyone starts talking about how to combat these problems, but all the chatter dies down in a week or two. Given the importance of these issues and the number of lives they affect, why do we have such short-term memories? And how do you keep up interest in topics like these?


The problem isn’t with memory—it is with emotions. Every time we see those televised images of disaster, our emotions get ignited, we care, and we want to act. But over time, our emotions inevitably subside, and we stop caring.

If the problem here just had to do with memory, finding a fix would be simple: We have plenty of ways to remind people about important things they forgot. But we don’t know how to fully re-invoke emotions.

So what can we do? I’d suggest crafting legislation to deal with such crises in advance, then just holding onto it until the next disaster strikes. Then, while emotions are running high, take the bill out of the drawer and try to get people to commit to some concrete steps forward.


Dear Dan,

What should I know about a product before I buy it?


When we look for a product—say, a new electronic gadget—we usually try to understand exactly what it does, how it works, what are its features, etc. We hope this will help us figure out if the product is right for us and worth all that money. The downside of this approach is that the knowledge it provides often reduces the fun, surprise and discovery that come with experimenting with a new electronic gizmo.

Ideally, someone would be able to tell us whether we should get the product or not, while leaving us to discover our new gadget’s capabilities after we’re holding it. Another advantage to this approach: It leaves us to enjoy more buildup and anticipation as we wait for the gadget to arrive.

When I was looking for a new camera, I asked my friend David (my personal expert on everything technological) what he thought I should get, and I purchased the exact camera he suggested without even checking the details. Then I started anticipating its arrival, and I enjoyed learning all about it by playing with it after it was delivered. Maybe you should try to get your own David.


Dear Dan,

What percent of Americans cheat on their taxes?


I’m not sure, but it’s clearly a large amount: Pew Research estimated that the IRS lost about $270 billion dollars for tax “underreporting” in 2010. I tend to agree with Will Rogers, who once said, “The income tax has made liars out of more Americans than golf.”

Taxes don’t just tempt many Americans to cheat. They also kill us. A 2012 paper by Donald Redelmeier and Christopher Yarnell published in the Journal of The American Medical Association found that over the past 30 years, fatal accidents increase by about 6% on April 15 compared to standard days. The authors chalk this up to stress. They also show that this increase doesn’t hold for people at retirement age (who, presumably, aren’t that stressed about taxes), has increased over time (suggesting we’ve been under more stress as U.S. taxes have grown more complex) and is particularly large for those of us on the West Coast (where state taxes are particularly high).

Of course, these two findings—increased dishonesty and increased stress—could be linked. So this tax season, please try to be safe when filling out and delivering your 1040s.


See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here. (add link to “here” and delete this)

Ask Ariely: On Moving In, Stopping By, and Checking Out

Mar 28

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,

Last week, I asked my girlfriend to move in with me. After an awkward silence, she said that she couldn’t move in with me because she’s scared of dogs and dislikes my small Jack Russell terrier. I love my girlfriend and don’t want to lose her, but I don’t want to give my dog away either. Any advice?


This was most likely a test of your love for her, and you failed—so you don’t really need to worry about this particular dilemma.

Still, you may face something similar in the future. If we looked at your dilemma from a rational economic perspective, the answer would be straightforward: Start by writing down how much happiness you get each day from your dog and how much happiness you expect to get each day from your girlfriend. Next, multiply each of these numbers by the expected duration of the relationship and discount it by the natural decline in happiness as relationships go on. Then pick the relationship with the higher number.

Or we could use a more psychological perspective, rooted in what social scientists call “loss aversion.” According to loss aversion, we care more about avoiding losses than we care about winning gains. That means that, from your current perspective (living with your dog but without your girlfriend), you are probably overly focused on the loss of your pooch and insufficiently focused on the gains of joint life with your girlfriend. To overcome loss aversion, frame your choice not as giving up one thing and getting another but as a choice between two potential future states: one life with your dog but without your girlfriend, and another with your girlfriend but not your dog. Play out the two scenarios in your head, with all the little details of life, and see which scenario leaves you smiling more.

Finally, if you do go with the economic approach, choose your girlfriend and she asks you how you made your decision: Don’t ever tell her.


Dear Dan,

I have lots of friends who grew up outside the U.S., and they often tell me that their social lives here aren’t as good as they were in their home countries. Are they just romanticizing their homelands, or are we Americans doing something wrong in our social relationships?


I agree with your friends—and I don’t think their memories are just biased and romanticized. Social life in the U.S. isn’t as good as it could be because Americans try too hard to be social.

I grew up in Israel, where friends simply stop by unannounced. This means that, as a host, you aren’t prepared, and no one expects to you to be. In this mutual low-expectations setup, visitors simply get integrated into whatever is going on. If they show up at dinnertime, they pull up a chair; if they come beforehand, they help chop vegetables.

In the U.S., on the other hand, we plan to see someone in seven weeks at 8 p.m., and everyone gears up for the occasion. The hosts clean the house and cook something special; the guests dress up and bring a gift. The whole process demands much more effort, and we therefore do it much less frequently. Maybe we should all lower our expectations and raise our appreciation for serendipity in our social lives.


Dear Dan,

What is the best way to teach my kids about money?


Become their pay-day lender. Next time you’re in the checkout line at the supermarket and your kids want candy, offer to lend them the money at a weekly interest rate of 20%. Do this a few times, and they’ll quickly learn some important financial lessons.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Arming the Donkeys is Back!

Mar 18

Hello hello,

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

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

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

Ask Ariely: On Free Bags and Free Markets

Mar 14

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 live in California, which recently passed a law that lets supermarkets charge 10 cents or more for each paper grocery bag. (The law is now on hold, awaiting a referendum next year.) Though the 10-cent fee isn’t a lot of money, I now find myself regularly bringing canvas bags from home when I go shopping. Am I really so stingy that a dime makes such a difference to me?


I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions about your stinginess. I suspect that this has much more to do with how the supermarket charges for the paper bags than with the amount itself.

Not long after California’s law passed, I happened to be in Palo Alto, and out of curiosity, I went to observe the locals in their natural environment—Whole Foods. I purchased an expensive cup of coffee, positioned myself near the cashiers and watched. Much like you, many of the shoppers either brought their own canvas bags or purchased new ones as they checked out.

I estimated that the average grocery bill was more than $150. Assuming five bags for a load of this size, that is just an additional 50 cents—a small enough amount that no one would be likely to notice if it were simply added to their total. But that isn’t how the process works. Instead, buying bags is set apart as a separate transaction that takes place only after the cashier has finished ringing up the groceries. This separation causes shoppers to pay more attention to the bags’ cost. It makes getting the bags seem more like a tax than a purchase, and it also makes buying bags feel morally wrong, wasteful and environmentally damaging.

That is why the procedure for purchasing the bags is so important: It can take someone who wouldn’t normally pay attention to a small price increase and get them to change their behavior over a few cents.


Dear Dan,

How could anyone who has observed the world economy over the past few decades doubt that free markets are the only path to growth and success? Isn’t it time to learn this lesson and eliminate all anticompetitive regulation?


I’m not sure that I agree. Consider the case of an industry regulated in the following very extreme way to limit competition:

1. There is a minimum and a maximum amount of money that an employee can earn each year and a maximum length of employment. Employees’ bonuses are also limited to certain sizes and types.

2. A company can only spend a certain amount in salary each year, across all their employees. Pay too much, and you pay a fine.

3. New employees can’t pick the company they want to work for. They’re recruited and assigned to a company by a centralized administration. Better employees are more likely to be assigned to firms that did poorly the previous year.

4. If a company’s owners want to sell it, the new buyer must be approved by the owners of the industry’s other companies.

5. About half of each company’s revenues goes into a central tax pot, which is redistributed among all the companies in the market.

6. Employees are subject to random drug testing.

7. While employees are under contract, they can’t negotiate with any other company.

8. Employees can be sold to other companies without their consent.

By now, you’ve probably realized that if you replaced “company” with “team” and “employee” with “player,” you’d get many of the rules that regulate the NBA—a very successful commercial enterprise and, to my mind, an important example of some of the benefits of regulation.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Reasonable Requests, Trash Talk, and Paper Piles

Feb 28

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 fly by myself every week for work. I always fly coach and try to book my trips months in advance so I can get an aisle seat closer to the front of the plane. With fuller flights nowadays, I am frequently asked to move to accommodate a family or a couple who want to sit next to each other. I usually say yes and end up in a middle seat at the rear of the plane, which I hate. On the few occasions I have declined to move, the cabin crew has treated me like the enemy for the entire flight. How do I handle such situations?


Many years ago, Harvard psychology professor Ellen Langer carried out one of my all-time favorite studies. She asked her research assistants to look for lines for photocopiers, approach someone waiting to make copies and say, “Excuse me, can I get in line in front of you?” Unsurprisingly, this request was usually refused. Prof. Langer then had her research assistants change their phrasing and instead ask, “Excuse me, can I get in line in front of you—I need to make a photocopy” With this new version, they were frequently allowed to cut in. Obviously, the second phrase held no new information—why would anyone join this line if not to make a photocopy? But the longer phrasing had the structure of a reason-based-request: Excuse me, may I do X, I need Y. Prof. Langer showed that because people often don’t pay attention to what we say, it is sometimes enough to say something that sounds reasonable—and people will often agree.

So what can you say to the flight crew? It doesn’t really matter; it just needs to sound like a reason.


Dear Dan,

The other day, I saw someone throw out garbage from her car. Other than pick up after her, should I have said something? If so, what? I was concerned about starting a confrontation that could have turned ugly.


You should have certainly said something—perhaps something like, “Excuse me—I’m new in town, and I’m trying to figure out the local customs. Is throwing out trash from the car window something that is common here?”

You should have spoken up not only because it might make her think twice in the future but also for you. At some point, you will inevitably encounter bigger injustices and even more inappropriate behavior. How can you expect to stand firm in these large cases if something as simple as a comment about trash left you too fearful to speak up? Think about such small cases of confrontation as training wheels that will help move you toward becoming the person you want to be—and start practicing.


Dear Dan,

I have this pile of papers on my desk. It is growing by the day, and the clutter is driving me crazy. At the same time, I don’t feel like I can handle my regular workload, so I keep postponing clearing up the pile—and it keeps getting larger and more daunting. Any advice?


Sometimes, we need to be forced to make a decision. My advice: spill a cup of coffee on your pile of papers. A few weeks ago, I was grappling with a similar problem, and one morning, while on a video conference call, I reached out to pick up my coffee and knocked it onto the pile of papers. I then had to look at each page and decide whether it was worth cleaning and drying. Most of them were useless.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

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