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A post for Valentine’s Day

Feb 14

I  asked one of my favorite thinkers — Rory Sutherland who always has interesting opinions — to reflect on Valentine’s Day.

Watch it to learn how London cabbies are a lot like the ideal boyfriend.

V2 of my online course (Free!)

Feb 11

About a year ago we had a course called “A Beginner’s Guide to Irrational Behavior” on coursera.org

Creating the course was a lot of work, but it was also tremendously rewarding to create a community that was so involved in the exploration of human nature, and how to improve the decisions we all make day to day.

In about 4 weeks (March 11th) version #2 of this course will start.  This course will be based on some of the same materials from V1, but it should be an improved version given that in the meanwhile we learned a lot about the nature of online courses.

So, if you are interested, or know someone else who might be interested please pass along this link:  https://www.coursera.org/course/behavioralecon

Looking forward to another exciting course

Dan

More Mulling over Squirrels

Feb 10

Last week I answered this question about squirrels:

Dear Dan,

I find myself acting irrationally when it comes to squirrels. The rascals climb down a branch and onto my bird feeder, where they hang and eat like limber little pigs. Then I rush outside yelling and take great pleasure in frightening them away. But victory never lasts long. They come right back, and the whole insane cycle starts over. My sister tells me I need to watch “Snow White” again, to be reminded that squirrels are also a part of nature and not inherently worse than the birds I prefer. Perhaps, but this theory doesn’t satisfy me. Can you help to explain what’s going on with my reasoning, and how I might make peace with the furry marauders in my yard?

—Nearly Elmer Fudd

It sounds to me that the root of your problem is that you view the squirrels’ behavior as an immoral theft from the right owners of this food, the birds. If so, why don’t you start calling the contraption a “squirrel and bird feeder”? With this new framing, your problems should go away, and you might even be able to market this new product.

I did not anticipate this, but I got more email in response to this topic than any other answer I have given over the years. Who knew? This was news to me, but maybe someone should start a support group to help people deal with these topics. And what did people write? Some emails were expressing strong anti-squirrel emotions, some were giving me more facts about the damage that squirrels create. One email even provided me with an analysis of the cost to the electrical grid as a consequence of squirrels eating away at the power lines. And of course I got lots of pictures describing the many ways people are trying to protect their birdfeeders (below is my favorite example):

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

 

Ask Ariely: On Squirrels, the Value of Education, and Quarterly Appraisals

Feb 01

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.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I find myself acting irrationally when it comes to squirrels. The rascals climb down a branch and onto my bird feeder, where they hang and eat like limber little pigs. Then I rush outside yelling and take great pleasure in frightening them away. But victory never lasts long. They come right back, and the whole insane cycle starts over. My sister tells me I need to watch “Snow White” again, to be reminded that squirrels are also a part of nature and not inherently worse than the birds I prefer. Perhaps, but this theory doesn’t satisfy me. Can you help to explain what’s going on with my reasoning, and how I might make peace with the furry marauders in my yard?

—Nearly Elmer Fudd

It sounds to me that the root of your problem is that you view the squirrels’ behavior as an immoral theft from the right owners of this food, the birds. If so, why don’t you start calling the contraption a “squirrel and bird feeder”? With this new framing, your problems should go away, and you might even be able to market this new product.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Do you think that colleges should continue teaching subjects like philosophy, sociology and literature? After all, they’re a waste of time and money.

—Clara

With something like computer science or statistics, we find it easy to assess what skills we will acquire and how we will use them in a practical way. But with sociology, literature or even psychology, it is not always exactly clear how our studies are going to change us. Are we going to learn how to think analytically or see things differently? And how valuable are these skills anyway?

Maybe it is worthwhile to think about education as a lottery ticket. After all, like a lottery, when it comes to academic education we don’t know exactly what we’re going to get, and we’re not 100% certain that our degree will always justify our investment. But what if for every year of studying you got one really good idea? Or if your education somehow improved your mental capacity by 10%? Think of your education as a lottery ticket that you get to use year after year for the rest of your life. Of course, it is hard to predict what exact benefits you’ll reap from good ideas or an improved mental ability, but if you think about education as a long-term bet, I suspect that you will easily see it as a bet with very high expected payoffs.

P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I should point out that as someone who teaches for a living, I have a vested interest in students continuing to attend universities. And maybe, in this case, it is hard for me to see the world from a different perspective.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I was talking with a friend about your research on dishonesty, notably the way that people feel free to steal sodas and cookies from the “break room” but not cash. My friend said that office items such as staplers, tape dispensers and so on used to be constantly taken from his desk. He then glued a quarter onto each piece, and no one has taken anything with a coin on it for five years. Does this follow your findings?

—Tony

I love the application of this finding. Now, if we could only glue quarters to stock certificates and other financial products, maybe the world would be a better place.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Taking out the Trash and Focusing on the Forgotten

Jan 18

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.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Some neighbors in our building are trying to get other neighbors to kindly put their garbage in the trash bins and not just leave it on the floor, but to no avail. Polite requests and threats have proven equally unsuccessful. What should we do?

—Ariel

The problem in your building is not just about cleanliness. The problem is more complicated, and has to do with changing a social norm. What you have is a sub-culture where trash bags are left on the floor instead of thrown in the bins. Since this is the established norm, it won’t be easily changed.

Social norms are a powerful motivator, and we are influenced by them all the time. If you go to the trash room and see bags lying around, you are affected to some extent by your own values, and to some extent by the behavior of those around you. You say to yourself, “leaving the garbage bags on the floor is the standard practice and I can do the same and still feel alright with myself”. But if there is no trash around, you would probably tell yourself, “That’s inappropriate, and I shouldn’t mess the place up”. The important thing to remember about social norms is that when it comes to minor violations we criticize the violators, but when the violations become repeated, the norm itself changes and sweeps everyone with it.

And the solution? Given that the New Year just started, and with it comes a symbolic opportunity for change, I would summon a tenants’ meeting to discuss plans for the New Year. In the meeting you need to create a new social understanding of the right behavior by having everyone sign a pledge to take care of the house, including placing your garbage in the right place. As long as you can create such a new social norm, the garbage will seem to clean itself.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I often get the feeling that I am forgetting something and spend too much time trying to remember what it was—sometimes failing entirely, sometimes realizing that it wasn’t very important in the first place. How can I force myself to let minor things go more easily while still making sure I remember the important ones?

—Richard

With the increase in life expectancy, most of us have good chances to suffer some sort of memory loss. This means that dealing with reduced memory is part of the modern human condition. You’re just ahead of your time.

As for what you can do about it: The simple answer is to get a smartphone with a note-taking app and use it as your central memory repository. All your potential tasks will be there waiting for you, and all you’ll have to do is to go over the list. Such recognition is much less demanding than remembering.

The more difficult but deeper answer is that you should just stop worrying so much. You probably already realize that most things aren’t that important to begin with. If you could only get into this “Hakuna matata” mindset, you would be less stressed and much happier. Plus, remember that if something is really important, it is also important to someone else, and that someone will probably remind you about it at least three more times—so why take this pleasure away from them?

______________________________________________________

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Smoke Detectors and Speaking Academese

Jan 04

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.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

My neighborhood recently suffered a horrible tragedy: A house fire, started by a faulty appliance, broke out in the middle of the night and killed two young children. I don’t know the parents, but their family has many parallels with mine: the parents’ jobs, the kids’ ages, the friends we have in common and, most importantly, the fact that we also don’t have smoke alarms in our house. I haven’t bought one for the usual list of reasons: I’m so busy, no one said I have to get one, I don’t know what kind to get, I never see them in shops anyway and so on. So how can I get myself—and everyone I’ve ever met—to buy a smoke detector?

—Tanya 

It would be nice to think that everyone will realize the important steps they need to take for basic safety and just take them. But it’s also extremely unlikely. For example, we already know that texting and driving is terribly dangerous and that overeating is bad for us, but we still let our eyes drift to our phones when we’re in traffic and we still order that burger with fries.

I also suspect that something as seemingly simple as installing a smoke detector is more difficult and confusing than we might think: There are many options, they need batteries, they may need to be installed in a tricky spot, we are not sure which brand will fit the bracket we have at home, and so on. And while none of these concerns are particularly substantial, they do increase our procrastination and indecision—leaving us in homes without functioning smoke alarms.

This is why I think that cases such as this call for some type of government regulation— something that will not assume that we’ll act in our best long-term interest and instead will make us do the right thing.

In the meantime, I suspect that many people reading this right now are realizing that they need to get smoke alarms of their own or change the batteries—and I also suspect that this feeling will last about 20 minutes and then be replaced by other urgent thoughts. So if you (yes, you) are one of these people, stop now (yes, now), go online, order that smoke detector, get those batteries and tell your household that you promise to install it by the end of the week.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I recently attended a lecture by a well-known academic, and I was amazed and baffled by his inability to communicate even the most basic concepts in his field of expertise. How can experts be so bad at explaining ideas to others? Is this a requirement of academia?

—Rachel 

Here’s a game I sometimes play with my students: I ask them to think about a song, not to tell anyone what it is and tap its beat on a table. Next I ask them to predict how many other students in the room will correctly guess the song’s name. They usually think that about half will get it. Then I ask the rest of the students for their predictions—and no one ever gets it right.

The point is that when we know something and know it well, it is hard for us to appreciate what other people understand. This problem is sometimes called “the curse of knowledge.” We all suffer from this affliction, but it’s particularly severe for my fellow academics. We study things until they seem entirely natural to us and then assume that everyone else easily understands them too. So maybe the type of clumsiness you heard is indeed something of a professional requirement.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

5 New Year’s Resolutions That Might Actually Work

Dec 30

A normal day in our life might look like this: The alarm clock buzzes. We hit snooze twice and steal another 16 minutes. As we get into the office, yesterday’s work crisis weighs heavily on our mind, but instead we log in and check Facebook for a while. After that, we dip in and out of meetings, chase our inbox, and start on a project that is due in 48 hours. And at 7:15, right before walking out the door, 25 minutes later than planned, we grab a sugar cookie from the communal jar to accompany us on the drive home.

A version of this routine is likely to be part of our grim reality most days, but there is one very important exception. On Jan. 1 many of us make all kinds of promises that “starting tomorrow, things are going to be different.” There is the old (2013 self) and the new (2014 self), and Jan. 1 is an opportunity to welcome the new, improved self in. As the New Year starts, we say to ourselves that the new, 2014 self will be different. We’re confident that from now on we won’t hit snooze, we’ll stop procrastinating and for sure we won’t mindlessly eat unhealthy snacks.

This kind of self-resolve is the kind of magic that keeps mankind moving. Unfortunately, come mid-January, the shiny “new self” doesn’t feel as new. After a few weeks of crashing against reality and old habit, the new self is bruised and sainted.

Given these challenges, how can we take advantage of our good intentions on Jan. 1 and make them work for us throughout the year, or at least for longer than they would naturally last?

One simple answer is to take advantage of these moments of clarity at the start of the New Year and take actions that would commit us to making good decisions in the future. Much like Ulysses and the sirens, this way, even if our future will tempt us to misbehave, we will not be able to act on our temptations.

Where in our modern life could the Ulysses-style “tying ourselves to the mast” help? Here are a few ideas that might help you make Jan. 1, 2014, different from Jan. 1 of years past:

1. Order an annual subscription to the Fruit Guy. By committing to a weekly service that delivers fresh fruit, we make having healthy food a reality. This approach has the added sweet side effect of urgency. Every week when the fruit is delivered, we know all too well that if we fail to consume the fruit in the next week, more of it will show up and we will have to waste the unused fruit. And if you like real adventures, what about a more extreme version of this? A weekly subscription to the Kale Guy?

2. Give a good friend the ability to take some money from your bank account if you break your diet. Tell this friend that if he sees you eating something unhealthy, he should withdraw a specified amount of money from your checking account and spend it. And if you find that this is not sufficiently painful, either make the amount larger, or make the deal with someone you don’t like that much (maybe your boss).

3. Set up an automatic monthly transfer from your checking account into a savings account. This quick, onetime decision to transfer money will help you spend within your budget, while also helping your future financial security.

4. Working out every day takes a lot of ongoing willpower. Joining a gym is nice but still requires the daily decision to go to the gym. Instead, a better approach is to set up recurring weekly “meetings” with friends or co-workers for workouts. This kind of social obligation is likely to hold you, and them, accountable to show up, and once you have shown up, you might as well start sweating.

5. Go to the nearby shelter and get a dog. Once you make this quick onetime decision, you are going to go for daily walks for the next decade.

Doing all of these things would make Jan. 1 a very busy day. But, by doing these things when the desire to start fresh is still strong in our mind, there is a much better chance that our good intentions will keep serving us for the better part of 2014.

By Dan Ariely and Kristen Berman, reposted from Time here.

Ask Ariely: On Kopi Luwak Coffee, Financial Advisors, and Christmas Cards

Dec 21

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.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

During a recent trip to Los Angeles, I stopped by a coffee shop offering a very expensive coffee called kopi luwak, or civet coffee. I asked about the steep price, and the barista told me the story of the special process required to make this coffee: A catlike Indonesian animal known as a civet eats coffee cherries and then poops out what are basically beans. People then collect these “processed” beans and use them to make a highly unusual brew that’s said to be smoother than its journey. It can sell for hundreds of dollars per pound. I was curious but not interested (or brave) enough to buy it—let alone drink it. Can you explain why are people willing to pay for this?

—Chahriar

First, I think you made a mistake. You should have paid up and tried a cup—in part because you are still clearly curious about it, in part because it would have made a much better story (and what are a few dollars compared to a good story?). So next time you pass by a coffee place with kopi luwak, try it—maybe even get the double shot with hair and all the trimmings.

As for civet coffee’s quality: The promotional material that I found says that civets know how to pick the best coffee beans and that their digestive systems ferment the beans, reducing their acidity and providing a much better coffee. (I have no idea how this works, but the story caught my curiosity too.)

So why are people willing to pay for so much for civet coffee? It’s probably for the novelty and the story—and because the amount (and type) of labor involved is clearly so much higher than your average cup of java. People are generally willing to pay more for something that required more effort to produce even if the product itself is not better—and civet coffee sounds like a prime example of this effort-based-pricing principle.

Finally, I wonder how much people would be willing to pay had the beans passed through not an Indonesian animal but an American human. My guess: That’s too strong a brew for any of us.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Are financial advisors a wise investment? Mine charges me 1% each year for all my assets under their management. Is it worth it?

—Allan

It is hard to know for sure. But the fact that many financial advisers have different hidden fees suggests to me that they themselves don’t think that people would pay if they charged for their services in a clear and upfront way.

To help you think about this question in your own life, let’s contrast two cases: In case one, you are charged 1% of your assets under management, and this amount is taken directly from your brokerage account once a month. In case two, you pay the same overall amount, but you send a monthly check to your financial adviser.

The second case more directly and clearly depicts the cost of your financial adviser, providing a better frame for your question. So, put yourself in the mindset of the second case, and ask yourself if you would pay directly for these services. If the answer is yes, keep your financial adviser; if the answer is no, you have your first action plan for the New Year.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Every year, when Christmas comes, I feel an obligation to send Christmas cards to everyone I know, and every year, the number of cards I send gets larger and larger. It is now officially getting out of hand. Can I switch to sending cards only to my really close friends?

—Holly 

It is fine to send cards only to your good friends. I don’t think anyone left off the list will be offended, and you will also reduce their feeling of obligation to send you a card next year. And if you really want to eliminate the Christmas-card frenzy, there is always Judaism.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

A new Arming the Donkeys

Dec 19
In this “Arming the Donkeys” podcast, I talk with Jonah Berger of the Wharton School of Business about how we share and spread ideas, both online and person-to-person. Berger is the author of “Contagious: How Things Catch On.” We discuss the power of word-of-mouth recommendations vs. advertising, and examine how social media like Facebook and Twitter help transmit information and shape our interests.
Here’s the link to iTunes U.
Dan

 

Ask Ariely: On Airborne Electronics, a Mistaken Masseuse, and Friends who Post Bail

Dec 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 AskAriely@wsj.com.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Delta Air Lines recently announced plans to start distributing thousands of Microsoft Surface 2 tablets to its pilots to spare them lugging around heavy documents, maps and flight plans. As a passenger, I always suspected that flight attendants sometimes ask us to turn our gadgets off not because they might harm the plane’s instruments but because some airline employees get a kind of twisted satisfaction from making passengers suffer a bit more. What do you think? Is the whole issue of turning electronics off just a way to make the passengers realize that the flight attendants are really in control?

—Adam 

In fairness, the unpopular (and rapidly fading) ban on using personal electronics during takeoff and landing was a Federal Aviation Administration regulation, not a policy by the airlines. Even so, the logic of turning off iPads and Kindles while taxiing was never clear to me either, and the joy that some flight attendants took in commanding passengers to turn their devices off could make one suspect that your “control theory” is right. Nevertheless, I suspect that this was just one more regulation set up without much thought that the poor flight attendants were forced to follow—and that in fact, they most likely suffered much more from having to enforce a rule that annoyed passengers and lacked logic many times a day.

I do worry about another aspect of your question: making airplanes too reliant on tablet technology. A crash of the less dangerous type could translate into a more harmful one.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I recently had a massage when I was very tired, and I fell asleep repeatedly. Every time I dozed off, the masseuse moved me particularly vigorously and woke me up. This left me a bit embarrassed, and it wasn’t fun to be woken up so many times in one hour. What should the masseuse have done—let me sleep through the massage, or woken me up to experience it?

—Merve 

The person giving you the massage was wrong. More generally, this is really a question about different types of pleasure and their building blocks. In general, you can think about the pleasures you get from anticipating a massage, experiencing it, and remembering it after the fact.

The interesting thing about remembered and anticipated pleasure is that they capture some aspects of the experience—but not all of them. That’s why, for example, you might remember an experience that was great for 15 minutes as better than an experience that was great for the first 15 minutes and then merely good for 15 more. In essence, the longer experience had more goodness in it (30 minutes), but the remembered pleasure wasn’t as large because it also involved some less exciting moments.

I suspect that the masseuse wanted you to have more moments in which you experienced the massage—but by doing so added some less pleasurable parts and decreased your remembered pleasure, which will also decrease the anticipatory pleasure you’re likely to feel before your next session on the table.

This lesson, by the way, applies to many other domains of life. Think about a presentation to clients, a dinner party, or a discussion with a friend—it’s the quality, not the quantity, which influences our remembered and anticipated pleasures.

______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

My kids are spending much of their time on social networks such as Facebook. Are they really being social with their friends or just wasting time?

—Dafna 

Here’s my test for real friendship: Would your friends bail you out of jail if you needed them to? My sense is that spending face-to-face time with friends is likely to increase the likelihood of bail, while following someone’s status updates won’t. If your kids aren’t increasing their odds of getting real help when they need it, they probably aren’t being social in a meaningful way.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

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