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Ask Ariely: On Anticipating Adventure, Watching it Work, and Overpriced M&Ms

Jun 07

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,

For my birthday, my boyfriend gave me a rather expensive coupon for tandem sky diving. I could have used the coupon that weekend, when the sky diving season ended, but I chose instead to wait a few months for the new season to begin. My thought was that I’d be braver in the future and somehow mentally prepare myself. But can someone really prepare for something like this?


When we think about experiences, we need to think about three types of time: the time before the experience, the time of the experience and the time after the experience. The time beforehand can be filled with anticipation or dread; the time of the experience itself can be filled with joy or misery; and the time afterward can be filled with happy or miserable memories. (The shortest of these three types of time, interestingly, is almost always the time of the experience itself.)

So what should you do? In your case, the time before your sky diving experience will certainly not be cheerful. The time of the experience will also probably not be pure joy. At a minimum, you’re going to ask why you are doing this to yourself. But the time after the experience is likely to be wonderful (assuming that you get out of this alive), and you will get to bask in the way you conquered your fears and relive the view of Earth from above.

So your best strategy was to make the time before the experience as short as possible. It is too late now, but you should have just gone sky diving the moment you got the coupon, which also would have signaled to your boyfriend how much you appreciated the gift.


Dear Dan,

Early in my career, I wrote a massive Excel macro for the large bank where I worked. The macro (a set of automated commands) would take a data dump and turn it into a beautiful report. It took about two minutes to run, with an hourglass showing that it was working away. The output was very useful, but everyone complained that it was too slow.

One way to speed up a macro is to make it run in the background, invisibly, with just the hourglass left on-screen. I had done this from the start, but just for fun, I flipped the setting so that people using the macro could see it do its thing. It was like watching a video on fast forward: The macro sliced the data, changed colors, made headers and so on. The only problem: It took about three times as long to finish.

Once I made this change, however, everyone was dazzled by how fast and wonderful the algorithm was. Do you have a rational explanation for this reversal?


I’m not sure I have a rational explanation, but I have a logical one. What you describe so nicely is a combination of two forces. First, when we are just waiting aimlessly, we feel that time is being wasted, and we feel worse about its passage. Second, when we feel that someone is working for us, particularly if they are working hard, we feel much better about waiting (and about paying them for their effort). Interestingly, this joy at having someone work hard for us holds true not just of people but of computer algorithms, too.

The life lesson should be clear: Work extra hard at describing how hard you work to those around you.


Dear Dan,

During a recent hotel stay, I tried to resist temptation but gave in and bought a $5 bag of M&M’s from the minibar. I know from research on pricing that paying a lot for something often makes you experience it as especially wonderful—but that didn’t happen with the M&M’s. Why?


Research does indeed show that higher prices can increase our expectations, and these increased expectations can spur us to more fully enjoy an experience. But there are limits. First, you have probably had lots of M&Ms in your life and have rather set expectations about how good they can be. Second, some high prices are just annoying.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

StartupOnomics 2014

Jun 04

StartupOnomics is an annual gathering to help startups think about human behavior. At the end of the weekend, attendees will walk away knowing how to move the needle on their biggest customer problems…and with some tangible ideas to test and implement immediately.


Apply to StartupOnomics if you are at a company that is trying to improve people’s lives in these ways:

  • Helping people live better financial lives (save money, make money, pay off debt)
  • Improving our education system, specifically early education system
  • Addressing any of the variety of health issues facing society


Our ideal applicant:

  • Smart
  • Handsome *Good-looking ;)
  • Good sense of humor
  • Interested in applying principles of human behavior to help solve big problems
  • The company is doing consumer focused products or services
  • You are a product leader, designer, marketing manager or data analyst.   Two people from your team should plan on attending if you are accepted.

*Please not that the term “handsome” was not meant to exclude females, and that we would be happy with both good-looking males and females.


Apply Here by July 7th

Ask Ariely: On Double Trips, Price Puzzlement, and Rationalizing Rolex

May 24

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 often buy a breakfast sandwich from my regular café. Sometimes, I take the empty paper wrapper, walk five meters to the trash bin, dispose of the wrapper and walk back to my seat—a perfectly convenient sequence of events. But other times, I try to throw the wrapper into the trash from my seat. I am a lousy shot, and when I (inevitably) miss, I have to make the same journey to the bin. But on these occasions, the trip feels like a chore.
Why do I feel so differently about the same journey?


The answer lies in the realm of counterfactuals. When you aim and miss, you can clearly imagine a world in which you sunk your shot, and you judge your efforts by comparison to that imagined world—and, in relative terms, feel bad about it. But when you don’t even try to hit the trash can, there is no other world to imagine and no contrast to make you feel bad.

My suggestion: Buy your sandwich and your coffee, but ask the café to serve you the coffee three minutes later. Then sit with your sandwich and try to aim the wrapper at the trash can—and, no matter how successful you are, get up and walk to the counter to pick your now-ready coffee. If you made the basket, great; if not, pick the wrapper on your way to get your coffee. This way, there is no world in which you did not have to get up after your shot, no counterfactual and no comparison. Happy breakfast.


Dear Dan,

A restaurant I recently visited had the following options on their menu:
  • 10 wings for $7.99 with two sauces
  • 15 wings for $12.49 with two sauces
  • 20 wings for $16.49 with two sauces
  • 30 wings for $24.79 with three sauces
  • 50 wings for $39.79 with four sauces
Here’s what I don’t understand: Why would anyone purchase 20 wings with two sauces for $16.49 when they could purchase two 10-wing packages and receive the same amount of wings, plus two more sauces, for less money—for $15.98 instead of $16.49?  
Can you help me understand this type of pricing?

Let me propose three possible theories.

My first theory is that people don’t usually engage in particularly precise calculations about price, so when we see a menu, we just get what we want without thinking much about the exact cost. On top of that, prices ending with 49 and 79 make it even less likely that people will do the math in their heads. If you could order 10 wings for 8 dollars and 20 wings for 18 dollars, the computation would be simple, and many people would realize that this makes no sense. But the price for 20 is $16.49, and people just don’t make the effort to figure it out.

A second possibility: People may just assume that there’s a quantity discount for larger purchases (which is generally true) and mindlessly apply this assumption to all cases, without comparing the prices.

And finally, the people in charge of pricing might have simply made an innocent mistake—which they might well be happy to fix the moment you point it out to them.


Dear Dan,

I am thinking about buying a Rolex watch. On one hand, I’m reluctant to buy it because it will probably be seen as symbolizing someone who thinks he’s made it. On the other hand, in all honesty, the fact that it is a status symbol is the reason I want it. If I owned one, people I meet might think, “He wears a Rolex! He must know a lot about his business, so I want to do business with him too.”
Should I buy a Rolex?  And is this rational?

Of course you should.  After going through such an elaborate mental exercise to explain why buying a fancy watch is such a good idea, you deserve a reward. As for whether all this is rational, you could argue that it is more than rational: It is rationalization.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

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


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”?


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?


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?


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.


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?


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!



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.


Dear Dan,

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


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,


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


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?  


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.


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?


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.


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? 


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…


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?


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.


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


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?


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?”


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?


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.



See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

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