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Ask Ariely: On Creed Fatigue, Souls for Sale, and Defying Gravitas

May 10

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 AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I work for the central organization of a large church, and my job includes dealing with “crooked” priests of one form or another. For now, let’s think only of the embezzlers, of whom there are, sadly, far too many.

This got me thinking about the experiment you and some colleagues ran a few years ago, which showed that levels of cheating plummeted when participants were asked to recall the Ten Commandments right before taking a test. As you wrote, “reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.” 

Your own Ten Commandments experiment suggests that a priest who, as a matter of daily or weekly ritual, recites religious teachings should be highly moral. But I see every day that this isn’t so.

What’s going on here? Can repetition cause “creed fatigue”?

—Simon

As you pointed out, our experiments show that people became more honest when we got them to think about the Ten Commandments, swear on the Bible (which, interestingly, worked for atheists too) or even just sign their name first on a document.  But our experiments were a one-shot exercise, and we don’t have data about what would happen if we repeated them over time.

Even so, I would guess that as such actions (including rituals) become routinized, we would stop thinking about their meanings, and their effect on our morality would drop. This is why I recommend that universities not only set up honor codes but have their students write down their own version of that code before writing each exam and paper—thereby minimizing the chances that these could become thoughtless habits.

Such procedures would be hard to implement in a religious setting, of course, so I’m not sure I have an easy answer for you or your church. Maybe your role should be to try to give the priests more clear-cut rules, reduce their ability to rationalize their actions and eliminate conflicts of interests.

Still, on a more optimistic note: Have you considered the possibility that these rituals are in fact having a positive effect—and that without them, these individuals would behave far worse?

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Dear Dan,

Out at a bar recently, I met someone who told me that he did not believe in the soul. I immediately asked him if he would sell his to me.  We ended up agreeing on a price of $20. I paid up, and he wrote a note on a napkin giving me his soul.

Now, I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I also can’t help but believe that there is an exceedingly small chance that a soul could have an infinite value. So $20 seemed a reasonable hedge. Did I pay too much, or did I get a good deal?

—Carey

Well haggled. Your logic here is reminiscent of what is known as Pascal’s Wager, after the philosopher who figured that if there was even a small probability that God and heaven exist (which means infinite payoff for being good), the smart move is to live your life this as it were true. But you got a good deal here for three other reasons. First, discussing this trade had to have been far more interesting than the usual bar chitchat, so if you value the quality of your time, the $20 was a good investment even if souls turn out not to exist. Second, you now have a great story to reflect on for a long time, which is also worth a lot.  And finally, you are now the proud owner of a soul.  But if all of these reasons don’t convince you, send me the soul, and I’ll pay you back for it.

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Dear Dan,

At what point do people have to “act our age”? At 73, my wife and I still enjoy our sex life, are physically active and dress the way we did when we met more than 30 years ago. But most of our contemporaries dress like old people, act with gravitas and aren’t doing well in the weight department. What to do?

—Aaron

Move to Berkeley.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Introducing The Truth Box

May 05

The Truth Box is a traveling story booth where we invite participants to share the truth about a lie they’ve told. These personal stories will be recorded and ultimately shared online. The Truth Box installation recently premiered at the Games for Change Festival, and is now in YouTube’s reception area in the Chelsea Market (75 9th Avenue) in New York City. If you are in the area, stop by and share your truth!

IMG_3395

 

photo - Version 2truthbox2a

Ask Ariely: A rejected Q&A

May 02

Sometimes the Wall Street Journal does not like my responses, but I would like to share this one with you, my loyal readers. You will not find this in the official Ask Ariely column.

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Dear Dan,

What do you make of the recent boycotts of Israeli Academics by organizations such as the American Studies Association?

—Karen

I want to make sure that I am careful and not too emotional in this response, so please forgive me if I am extra cautious in expressing my underlying feelings. With this disclaimer, here it goes: I think it is one of the most stupid and counter-productive moves imaginable (yes, this was reserved).

In my mind, academics represent the best example of a functioning international community. Academics cross social, economic, cultural, political, and ideological boundaries. We teach students from all over the world, we work with colleagues from all over the world, we build our work on the research of other colleagues, and we often work on problems that are global in nature.

With this in mind, when an organization such as the American Studies Association comes out with a call to boycott all Israeli academics – myself included – I am left with the feeling that I have severely underestimated the potential for human stupidity.

 

Hoping for a better day and more wisdom

Irrationally yours,

Dan

Ask Ariely: On Noisy Chatrooms, Maximizing Buffets, and Like Buttons

Apr 26

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 AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

Why do young people on dates go to loud, crowded places? The dim light prevents the couple from talking to each other and eliminates any possibility that they will actually get to know one other better. So what’s the point?  

—Amanda

Have you considered the possibility that these daters are not interested in getting to know each other better?
More seriously, noisy and crowded places help daters in many ways—most clearly by masking awkward silences.  If the could-be-couple runs out of topics from time to time, they can have the illusion that the silence isn’t due to their inability to keep up a lively conversation and chalk it up to the difficulty of talking over the music or their fascination with the song being played.
A second benefit of such date venues: The noisy surroundings give couples an excuse to get physically closer to each other in order to be heard. A loud bar may even give them permission to talk into their date’s ear. (Permission to nibble is up to the date.)
Finally, music and crowds have been found to be very effective in creating general arousal. Yes, arousal. With noise and people all around them, our daters may feel more aroused as well—and, more importantly, they may attribute this emotional state to the person they’re with. (Social scientists call this “misattribution of emotions.”) To the extent that people confuse the emotions created by the environment with the emotions created by the person sitting next to them, going out to loud, busy places could well be a winning strategy. I hope this explains the mystery—and inspires you to start going on dates in noisy places.

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Dear Dan,

How should I maximize my return on investment at an all-you-can-eat buffet? Should I go for dessert first and then hit the entrees? Or should I stick to the salads and pick only healthy foods from the main courses?

—Syed

I appreciate this return-on-investment, or ROI, mindset, but in food, as in all other areas of life, we must focus on the right type of returns.  Your question seems to focus on the short-term returns, not the long-term ones.  If you go into a buffet trying to maximize your short-term ROI, you might gulp down more food, but then you’ll have to deal with the long-term effects of spending extra hours in the gym or packing on the pounds—downsides that take away the fun of the buffet. Also, avoid the common mistake of trying to maximize the cost of the food to the buffet’s operators.
Instead, I would stick to a balanced and mostly healthy diet. But since many buffets boast a large assortment of dishes, I would make some exceptions and sample a delicacy I’d never tried before—just for the experience.

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Dear Dan,

What is the function of the “Like” button on Facebook posts?  Why doesn’t the site have options for “Dislike” or “Hate,” for example? 

—Henry

Facebook’s “Like” button is much more than a way for us to react to other people.  It is a social-coordination mechanism that tells us how we can respond. It gives us feedback on what is OK (and not OK) to post and generally tells us how to behave on Facebook.  Adding buttons such as “Dislike” or “Hate” would probably destroy the social network’s positive atmosphere. But I’d favor adding a button for “Love.”

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

The High Cost of Procrastination

Apr 15

Procrastination (from the Latin pro, meaning for; and cras, meaning tomorrow) is one of our most common, but least welcome, partners in life. In its most common form, procrastination takes place whenever we promise to finish a project by the end of the week, just to watch deadline zoom by. But, more broadly, procrastination is also why we decide to start saving more money, exercise more regularly and watch our diet—but fail to follow through time after time.

To consider procrastination in a general way, imagine I asked you to smell some amazing chocolate and then gave you the following choice: would you rather have half a pound of chocolate right now or one pound of it in a week from today. When asked the question this way, most people take the smaller amount of chocolate right now, implying that it is not worthwhile to wait a week for another half a pound of chocolate. But, what if I focused on the distant future and asked you if you would rather have half a pound of this chocolate a year from now or a pound of the same chocolate in a year and a week from today? When asked the question this way, most people say they would be happy to wait the additional week. Both setups are really asking the same question: is it worthwhile for you to wait a week for another half a pound of chocolate — but they don’t feel like the same question. In the first scenario we can almost taste the chocolate and want it right now, but in the second scenario we are not emotional and just think about the value of the larger amount of chocolate relative to the cost of waiting a week.

This is what procrastination is all about. When we think about our life in general we see the benefits of getting our work done on time, saving for retirement, eating better and other good habits. Yet when we face the decision about right now, we get tempted and too often follow our immediate desires and not what it is good for us in the long-term.

Why am I discussing procrastination? It’s never more apparent than on April 15, which should really be called Procrastination Day, when hoards of people finally file their tax returns. Tax Day is a natural celebration of procrastination. I hope we will use the lessons from this day to reflect on procrastination, and hopefully learn something.

One such lesson is the link between procrastination and diminished productivity. Imagine it is the first of April, and you have to work on your taxes. You have an amount of paperwork that would take you 15 days to complete if you worked on it for one hour a day. On the first of the month you are not that excited about looking at all the receipts and forms so you direct your attention to something else. The next day you work on your taxes a bit, but at some point you open Facebook, and the hour you dedicated to the task is gone. The next few days have their temptations, and on the 13th of the month you realize that you have made very little progress so far. Now, if you worked on your taxes for an hour every day, it would take 15 hours of your time, but the nature of productivity is such that we get a lot of output in the first hour on a task, less during the second hour, less in the third hour and so on. (This is what is called diminished productivity.) So now, the amount of work that you could have done in 10 sessions of one hour each would take you not 10 hours but 20. You spend most of the day on the 13th, 14th and 15th working very hard and making slow progress. You finish at some point late on the 15th and rush only to spend hours in the post office to mail your taxes to the IRS. You promise never to do this again, to start early next year and not procrastinate – but will you?

So, let’s take advantage of this massive experiment. (You can’t convince me that the US tax system and Tax Day are not part of a large scale experiment by some evil social scientist!) Let’s make a promise to be better about our finances, taxes and procrastination in general. Let’s make a pledge to put time on our schedules to start large tasks earlier and stick to our plans. (And while we are at it, let’s also remember that we are often overly optimistic about what we can achieve, and buffer our plans by 20-25% to compensate for this bias.)

The point is that when it comes to the different types of procrastination, we are our own worst enemies. We are paying a high price for this behavior, and it is time we start controlling this beast.

Happy Procrastination Day.

Ask Ariely: On A Midlife Cliché

Apr 13

Here’s the missing Q&A from my Ask Ariely column yesterday…

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Dear Dan,

I am a middle-aged guy who’s doing OK financially, and I’m thinking about buying myself a sports car—perhaps a Porsche 911. But I’m also a bit disturbed by the obvious midlife cliché. What would you do?

—Craig 

Tesla designs cars for people with your exact conflict. The Tesla is a sports car, but it has an environmental image, and those who buy it can look at themselves as green, not gray.

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See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Superstitious Toasts and Exploring the Unknown

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 AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

At a dinner party a few years ago, we were raising our glasses to our hosts’ health. The person on my right said that every time you make a toast, you need to look straight into the eyes of the person you’re toasting as your glasses touch—and that failure to do so inevitably results in five years of bad sex.  I don’t think anyone around the table believed in that superstition, but we found it very amusing and, for the rest of the night, looked into each other’s eyes while toasting.  I don’t think of myself as superstitious, but since that dinner party, I find myself looking very intently into peoples’ eyes whenever I toast.  I know I am being irrational, so why can’t I shake this superstition?

—Kathleen

If you were going to design a superstition, this one is as close to perfect as you’re likely to get.  For starters, the cost of the ritual (looking into each other’s eyes) is low, and in fact pleasurable.  On the other hand, the cost of ignoring the ritual is very high (years of rotten sex). It’s certainly not worth risking such a large consequence for such a small act. And like all good superstitions, the outcome in question occurs far into the future and is difficult to evaluate objectively.

The only thing I might add would be a method to make things right after a missed opportunity. Perhaps if someone forgets to make eye contact, they should have to close their eyes and have the person next to them hold a glass to their lips and help them drink? With this addition, you would have a perfect ritual and superstition to make any party a bit more fun.

Incidentally, I told a friend about this five-year deal, and his response was, “Only five years?”

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Dear Dan,

As summer finally gets closer, we are starting to plan our family vacation. The past few years, we have gone to Florida for two weeks. Should we stick to this familiar plan or try something different?

—Michael

In general, sticking with something well-known is psychologically appealing. Our attraction to the sure thing explains why, for example, we often frequent the same chain restaurants when we travel—and even order the same familiar dishes.  Sure, we might enjoy something new more than the sure thing, but we also might not. And given the psychological principle of loss-aversion (whereby we dislike losses more than we enjoy gains), the fear of loss looms heavy, and we decide not to risk trying anything new.

That’s a mistake, for three key reasons. First, if you think about a long time horizon (say, 20 more years of vacations and eating out), it is certainly worth exploring what else may be out there before settling into a limited set of options. Second, variety really is one of the most important spices of life.  Finally, vacations are not just about the two weeks you are away from work; they’re also about the time you spend anticipating and imagining your trip, as well as the time after you are back home when you replay special moments from your vacation in your mind.  Among these three types of ways to consume the vacation—anticipation, the trip itself and consuming the memories afterward—the shortest amount of time is spent on the vacation itself.

Given all this, the short answer is: try something new.

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See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

$100,000 and 1,733 of you

Apr 09

I’m thrilled to announce that we’ve made it to 100k just in time for the halfway point of the 60-day kickstarter campaign for my documentary-in-progress, (Dis)Honesty: The Truth About Lies. Please help spread the word to keep this amazing community growing.

 

dishonestyproj 100k

 

See the Kickstarter here: https://bitly.com/dishonestykickstarter

(Dis)Honestly Yours,

Dan

The 3 Costs of Multitasking

Apr 07

Are you a task switcher? This is the quintessential rhetorical question, because we all switch between tasks, and we do so often.

While the answer to this question is predictable, clear and almost universal — a more complex and important question is how much time do you think you lose when you engage in task switching?  Like many of our daily challenges, here too there are three different factors to consider.

1. The first factor to consider is the direct time that we spend on our secondary task.  For example, imagine that you’re busy working on some complex description of a problem, and you hit a particularly challenging point.  You are stuck in a slight mental block, unable to make any real progress for a few minutes. So you think to yourself, “Let me take a quick five minute break and use this time to catch up on email.” Twenty minutes later, you are still responding to email, feeling that familiar unjustified satisfaction we all feel when we managed to clear some of that email backlog in our inbox.  Ten minutes later, you are finally back to working on your complex task, and if you bothered to look at your clock, you would realize that the last thirty minutes were a direct cost of the switch.

2. The second factor to consider is the delayed cost of switching, which is the cost of switching once we are back to our main task.  Now, you probably think that the delayed cost of switching is negative.  That switching actually helps you.  That once you get back to your main task, you are hyper-energized and ready to really get down to business.  This belief in “switching helps” is the reason that many people switch so often. Unfortunately, this is unlikely to be the case.  Most likely, once you are back, for the next ten minutes or so, your engagement with your complex task is only partial, and you are not yet fully back into it.  The reality is that even when you are back working on your main task — for a while longer — you keep on paying a low-productivity-price for your task switching.

So, how do we overcome this problem?  How do we make sure that when we think we want to take a five minutes break, that this is really what we want to do, and that it is only for five minutes?  To achieve such increased discipline, we either need more discipline ourselves (which is very hard to do), or we need some better productivity tools that will help us with such increased accountability and discipline.

p.s.  in full disclosure, I should point out that I checked email multiple times while writing this, which is most likely the reason that I did not get to the 3rd factor of time wasted.  Maybe next time.

p.p.s.  And in even more full disclosure, I should point out that we have recently co-founded a company to address such challenges.

 

 

 

Cross-Coursera Dishonesty Debate

Apr 03

Today, at 7:30pm Eastern time, watch the legendary moral philosopher Peter Singer, the distinguished psychologist Paul Bloom, and the expert behavioral economist Dan Ariely (me) as we join hands to discuss our views and research on dishonesty, morality, and ethics. This is our attempt to bring our respective disciplines (and coursera classes) together on topics that we all find very interesting.

Watch the recording below.

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