The Blog

Ask Ariely: On Easy Eats, Payroll Problems, and Small Steps

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,

Before the pandemic started I would have meals delivered from restaurants once or twice a week, but over the months of quarantine it’s climbed to four or five times a week, which isn’t good for my budget or health. I think about preparing a meal myself, but delivery apps make it so easy: I click a button, and there’s a yummy meal at my doorstep in about 30 minutes. How can I break this habit?

—Beata 

People are inclined to do what’s easiest, especially when we’re hungry and tired like at dinnertime. Food delivery apps capitalize on this tendency with features like one-click ordering. So one way to curb your spending is to make it a little more difficult to order food. For example, don’t store your credit card details in the app, so you have to go through the process of entering them every time you order. If you want to go a step further, delete the app after you use it so you have to download it again every time you want to order food. Having to work harder to order in may slow you down and give those groceries a better chance.

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Dear Dan,

In response to the pandemic, the U.S. government gave employers the option to defer their employees’ Social Security contributions. I just got a notification from my employer that they will not be deferring my contributions, even though I could certainly use the extra money. Why did my employer choose not to defer my payroll tax?

—Linus 

Though deferring your Social Security contribution gives you extra income now, it is not free money. It’s more like a loan from the government, and at some point in the not too distant future, you will have to make up the payments you skip. The risk of payroll tax deferral is that employees will feel richer and increase their spending, leaving them unable to pay their taxes when they come due. For this reason, I think the program will leave most people worse off in the long term, so while your employer may be depriving you of a benefit now, it is actually helping you avoid financial hardship in the future.

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Dear Dan,

When I was admitted to law school I knew it was a three-year commitment. But at the start of my second year I’m feeling anxious and unmotivated, and I often don’t feel like studying. What can I do to make sure I stay on track until I graduate?

—Juliana 

Setting long-term goals is important, but it’s very difficult to feel motivated when your daily progress seems so small. Over three years of law school, every week of study gets you less than 1% of the way to your goal, no matter how hard you work.

To avoid frustration, try setting smaller and more frequent learning goals, which will allow you to celebrate more moments of success. At the end of a week when you’ve made good progress, reward yourself with a glass of wine; at the end of a month, allow yourself to take a day off. By changing your focus from two years from now to the end of the week or the month, you’ll be able to feel regularly that you’re making progress.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Management Methods, Dramatic Donations, and Online Offers

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’ve tried several techniques to be more organized and productive—to-do lists, time-management apps, keeping a journal. But switching between all these methods only makes things more confused. How do I figure out the best productivity system for me?

—Wesley 

Behavioral economists refer to this kind of overplanning as structured procrastination. Juggling productivity tools and platforms makes us feel we’re making progress, when in fact they’re just another way of distracting us from our work.
To avoid this, take an experimental approach: Pick one time-management method and use it exclusively for a month. When the month is up, ask yourself if you really need a different method or extra tool. By committing to a single method and giving it time to work, you’ll be able to find out which productivity tools suit your needs and which just waste your time.

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Dear Dan,

I’m an actor in a local theater company, and sometimes we perform at benefit events for nonprofits that only pay a small stipend. In those cases, I always donate the money back to the group. But recently I was in a benefit where the play was so popular that we gave a number of extra performances, and the fee I received was significant. This time I find myself resisting the idea of donating the money, even though I never expected to earn anything from the play. Why do I feel so reluctant and how can I overcome it?

—Carol 

We all enjoy the warm glow we get from being generous, but that feeling tends to diminish as the amount of money we give increases. Donating $500 doesn’t feel 10 times as good as donating $50, while the pain of giving up the larger sum is much more noticeable. The best way to avoid this problem is to commit to a donation policy in advance, rather than to evaluate each individual gift. For example, you could tell your theater’s manager that you want to donate all your stipends from benefit performances for the coming year and even ask for a certificate or receipt. That way you won’t feel tempted to change your mind each time.

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Hi, Dan.

I have a 12-year-old son, and when I looked at his social media accounts last week, I was shocked to see how many ads and solicitations he receives. I’ve already talked to my son about more serious internet dangers, but how can I teach him to resist the pressure to throw away money online?

—Sadaf 

Instead of telling your son how these solicitations conflict with your values as a parent, try pointing out how they conflict with his own values. A clever 2016 study by behavioral scientist Christopher Bryan and colleagues found that adolescents could be convinced to avoid unhealthy snacks by framing it as a way of standing up against the deceptive advertising practices of junk food companies. Similarly, asking your son to take a stand against manipulative online solicitations will help him feel that he’s striking a blow for his own independence rather than obeying a parental rule.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Philanthropic Freebies, Missing Masks, and Behavioral Biases

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 often get mailers from environmental charities containing items such as address labels, note pads and greeting cards, along with a request for a contribution. Do these freebies actually increase contributions, or would charities do just as well with a simple request for money?

—Ted 

Charities are usually better off if they avoid offering incentives like gifts, premiums and raffles. Such rewards encourage us to think about donating as an exchange, raising the question of whether a sheet of address labels is really worth $50. The question the environmental charity should be asking is whether the future well-being of the planet is worth $50. Instead of focusing on transactions, charities do best when they connect with people on the level of identities and values.

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Hi Dan,

During a pandemic, wearing a mask in public places is an easy way to promote the common good. What makes some people so vehemently opposed to masks, despite the scientific evidence in favor of wearing them?

—Wayne 

When we justify our own behavior, we often say that it’s the result of careful deliberation about values and benefits. Opponents of wearing masks might argue that they are defending individual liberty against government power or that masks aren’t really necessary to avoid infection. In reality, however, the way we behave is usually governed by what people around us are doing, especially those we perceive as being in our own social group.

This means that if you belong to a community where the norm of mask-wearing hasn’t been established, you’re unlikely to buck the trend by wearing one yourself. But if the norm shifts and mask-wearing becomes expected, most people will change their behavior, regardless of the principled reasons they once gave for not wearing a mask.

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Dear Dan,

As a teacher in an executive education program, I give my students a lot of advice about how to avoid bad habits and biased thinking. But I find that I often fall victim to these things myself, even though I’m aware of the dangers. Do you find that being a behavioral economist makes it easier to behave rationally?

—Madison 

Behavioral biases affect everyone, including those of us who study them. Biases are like optical illusions: Even when we know what we’re seeing isn’t real, we can’t help seeing it. In my experience, the best strategy is to recognize that I will behave in predictably irrational ways unless I make it easier for myself to act the way I want to.

For example, I want to eat more vegetables, and I know that I’m more likely to actually do it if I find them ready to eat when I open the refrigerator. So I make sure to clean and prepare vegetables in advance, in order to not give myself an excuse to eat something quick and unhealthy instead. Similarly, I know that I’m more likely to go for a morning run if I make an appointment to run with a friend. Designing the right environment for ourselves is the best way to control our own bad tendencies.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Tasty Treats, Pandemic Protocols, and Sustained Stressors

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 manage a small company, and I want to give my employees a gift that will bring them joy during these difficult times. Any suggestions?

—Maya 

I would suggest gifts that provide a fun experience while fostering a feeling of connection, which we all need nowadays. One option would be to give people a gift card for a takeout meal from their favorite restaurant. That would give your employees a treat and allow them to support a local business they care about.

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Dear Dan,

I live in New Zealand, where we are currently almost Covid-19-free. The border is closed except for New Zealand citizens coming back home, and they have to spend two weeks in isolation in a designated quarantine hotel. Recently, there have been several big news stories about returnees who broke quarantine to go to a supermarket or a liquor store, potentially exposing dozens of people to the virus. What makes people think it’s OK to flout the rules like this?

—David 

Getting people to follow safety protocols during the pandemic is a good example of the economic problem known as the tragedy of the commons. If everyone follows the rules, the whole community benefits. But if one person starts to bend the rules for their own advantage, others will follow suit, until the system falls apart and everyone is worse off. The common danger we’re all in should be an opportunity to increase cooperation and social cohesion, not just in New Zealand but everywhere.

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Hi, Dan.

As a teacher, I’ve been closely following the debate over whether to reopen schools. My school district closed in March when there were just a handful of cases in the state. Now we have thousands of cases, but the schools are planning to reopen in the fall. Why have people’s perceptions of Covid-19 risk changed so much in the last few months?

—Ashe 

Deciding whether to reopen schools involves balancing many factors—not just the quality of remote versus in-person instruction but student’s need for school lunches and the economic burden of child care on working parents. Our perception of risk, however, has been affected over the last five months by what psychologists call habituation. When Covid-19 began to spread, the unknown nature of the virus and the rapid increase in hospitalizations and deaths created widespread fear, making people very unwilling to take risks.

That level of alarm is hard to sustain. In general, people adapt to new realities surprisingly quickly. The danger of Covid-19 hasn’t gone away—in fact, in many places it’s worse than ever—but we soon stop paying as much attention to frightening statistics and headlines. We may start lowering our guard in small ways—forgetting to wear a mask or leaving our “bubble” to visit a parent or friend. When it comes to schools, the benefits of reopening now feel bigger to many people than the dangers, simply because we’ve gotten used to living in a risky environment.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Conversation Cards, Student Searches, and Home Habits

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,

My workplace hosts weekly virtual happy hours over Zoom. It’s a nice idea in principle, but the meetings have been dull and awkward—we usually just end up talking about the latest coronavirus news. Is there a way to encourage better, deeper conversations?

—Josh 

The problem isn’t that your co-workers are unusually boring; rather, it’s the social norms for your meetings. Research has found that people usually gravitate toward small talk even when they crave connection because sharing important things about ourselves can be socially risky. Talking about unimportant things carries zero risk, but it also doesn’t offer much personal or social benefit.

I was part of a team of researchers working on how to foster deeper connections, and we designed an experiment involving 300 people at a networking event for financial advisers. Some of the participants were asked to socialize as they usually do, while others were given conversation cards with probing questions to ask, like “If you had to change one big decision you’ve made, what would it be?” or “What don’t you tell people on a first date?”

The results showed that those who asked deeper questions had more meaningful discussions. You could try something similar in your Zoom happy hours by giving everyone a question to ask their colleagues. To get started, take a look at psychologist Arthur Aron’s list of 36 “closeness-generating” questions, such as “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” and “What would constitute a perfect day for you?”

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Dear Dan,

I’m a professor at a state university where the majority of the student body is white, even though our state is much more diverse. Does behavioral science offer any tools for increasing minority enrollment?

—Dylan 

Many institutions are trying to fight racial bias with specialized training for employees. But training in any subject seldom solves the real problem, since there’s a big gap between knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it. Instead, try looking at the problem from the point of view of prospective applicants, to help you understand what’s discouraging minority students from applying and enrolling.

This involves what my lab calls “behavioral mapping.” Imagine that you are a high-school senior and create a detailed map of every decision and task that’s involved in the application process: choosing to apply, taking tests, filling in forms, paying fees, visiting campus and so on. This process will help you identify obstacles that keep students out even before they get to the admissions committee. To achieve racial equity, removing structural barriers is just as important as fighting explicit bias.

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Dear Dan,

What is something that has surprised you as you’ve adjusted to life in the pandemic?

—Nia 

The biggest change in my routine has to do with staying home all the time. I used to travel a few times a week, and I haven’t been on a plane since early March. The isolation is challenging, but having a consistent home environment has helped me reinforce good habits, like eating better and going to bed earlier. I already knew the research about how a stable environment is good for establishing routines, but now that I’m experiencing it myself I’m surprised to see what a big difference it makes.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Lockdown Losses, Creative Commutes, and Life Lessons

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 used to buy coffee every day on my way to the office, but for the last three months I’ve been making it at home. Now I’m commuting again, but I find I don’t miss the coffee shop, and I’ve stopped going. Do you think the habits people formed during the lockdown are going to last?

—Nancy 

The interruption of everyday life has been an experiment showing that habits aren’t just desires; they’re behaviors cued by reminders in our environment. When we change the way we interact with our environment, a lot of seemingly ingrained habits fade away. Some of them are things we’re better off without, like thoughtless consumption and spending, but a lot of people are also having trouble maintaining good habits, like eating well, sleeping regularly and staying in touch with friends. Re-establishing those habits is going to take a conscious decision, but I believe that once we return to our familiar environments and activities, most people will return to their old routines—including buying coffee on the way to work.

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Dear Dan,

I’ve been working from home since the pandemic began, and by now I feel like I’m in work mode all the time. Since my living room is my office, there’s always a temptation to answer one more email or work on one more project, even at night and on the weekend. How can I restore some kind of work/life balance?

—Jordan 

In ordinary times, it’s easier to separate work and life because they happen in different places. Now that home and office are the same for many people, one way to create a psychological distance between them is through an artificial commute—an idea that Nina Bartmann, a senior researcher in my lab at Duke, has written about for the website of the Society of Behavioral Medicine. By taking a 20-minute walk at the start and end of your workday, you signal your brain when you are shifting into work mode and when you are leaving it behind. Other techniques include changing into work clothes when you’re at your desk, moving your work station to a dedicated room and shutting down your computer at a designated time each day.

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Dear Dan,

It’s always been my plan to get an advanced degree, and this spring I was accepted into graduate school. But with the pandemic causing so much uncertainty, I’m starting to wonder if I should make such a long-term commitment. Does it make sense to re-evaluate my plans or should I stick to them?

—Paul 

Research on how people make decisions shows that we usually don’t stop to think about our actions; we make choices automatically rather than deliberately. From this perspective, the current uncertainty might be a gift. People have a chance to reflect on their life plan and ask if it’s still what they really want, whether that means starting a family, buying a home or choosing a career. To help you decide about graduate school, try writing down a detailed blueprint for what you want your life to look like when the pandemic is over. That will help you clarify what steps you can take now to reach your goal.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Stress Strategies, Diet Decisions, and Relationship Rituals

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,

It feels like I’ve been cooped up with my wife and children for a year, and I’ve started to lose my temper about things that never bothered me before, like when the kids make noise. I can’t run away from home, but I don’t want to feel angry all the time either. What can I do to lower my stress level?

—Harvey 

Your desire to run away makes sense. One of the best things we can do when strong emotions bubble up is distance ourselves physically from the source of those feelings—in this case, your family. If you live in a place where you can safely go outside, next time you get angry go for a walk or a run and don’t come back for 30 minutes. That should be enough time for your emotions to subside.

You mention getting along with your family as the main source of stress, but like most people these days, you’re probably also worrying about bigger issues like your safety and your financial future. These kinds of worries make us feel helpless, and the best way to combat that feeling is to find ways to take control of our lives. This could mean waking up at the same time every day, starting an exercise plan so you can see your progress over time, or learning a new skill like cooking. Covid-19 will be with us for a while, and we need to figure out how to live with it without non-stop stress.

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Dear Dan,

Working from home for the last few months has been bad for my eating habits, since it’s so easy to snack throughout the day. I’ve gained weight, and I want to go on a diet, but I’m still working at home, so the temptations aren’t going away. What diet would work best in this situation?

—Julie 

Planning a healthy diet is even harder now than usual, since going to the supermarket is more difficult and some ingredients are harder to get. To make things easier, try intermittent fasting, where you can eat anything you want for eight hours a day but fast for the other 16. Research shows that diets are easiest to keep when they have clear and simple rules like this one.

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Dear Dan,

Recently my girlfriend broke up with me, and I can’t stop thinking about her. We were together for many years, and I was deeply in love. Now I can’t control my feelings: Every day I go from anger to mourning to fantasizing about getting back together. What can I do to start moving on with my life?

—Ari 

When someone we love dies, we have ceremonies like funerals and wakes to help us mourn. These rituals mark the conclusion of our relationship with the person we’ve lost, allowing us to focus on our pain, express it and put it behind us. If we kept fantasizing that the loved one was coming back, we’d never be able to move forward.

There aren’t any established rituals for mourning the loss of a loved one in a break-up, but there should be, so try creating one for yourself—some formal way of acknowledging that the relationship is over and won’t be coming back. This won’t take away your pain, but it should help you start recovering from it sooner.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Join Me Live to Talk about COVID-19

Hello, join me tomorrow, April 24th at 12pm EST for a live chat about the intersections of behavioral science and the coronavirus pandemic. There will be a live Q&A portion at the end!

Here is the event link. See you there!

Help with a Quick Survey

Hi, this is Dan Ariely, I am trying to understand how people think about the coronavirus. From time to time, I will add surveys here. If you have five minutes, please answer the survey below as truthfully as you can. We don’t know the real answers to some of these questions about the virus, so please just give me your best estimate.

https://duke.qualtrics.com/jfe/form/SV_4Mf8i0bG73aUjyt

Ask Ariely: On Healthy Handshakes, Bus Behaviors, and Diet Defenses

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 know that because of the coronavirus we are supposed to stop shaking hands. But when I meet someone I find myself doing it anyway, mainly because it would be awkward to suggest a different form of greeting. Any suggestions?

—Miguel 

When you’ve just met someone, there’s no time for a discussion about the coronavirus before you shake hands, and you don’t want to imply that you suspect the other person might be infected. What we need now is a substitute—something we can all do without thinking too much about it or causing offense.
During the Ebola outbreak in 2014, the Nigerian government discouraged handshaking to reduce the spread of the disease. Instead, they introduced the “Ebola handshake,” where people bend their arms and bump elbows. This approach recognized that it’s not enough to tell people what not to do; you also have to give them an alternative.

Now that technique is catching on in the U.S. Last week, Vice President Mike Pence was photographed greeting Washington Gov. Jay Inslee by bumping elbows. A video from Wuhan, where the pandemic originated, shows another approach: Two men say hello by tapping their feet together, a move dubbed “the Wuhan Shake.” If we adopt one of these new techniques in the U.S., however, let’s not call it the “coronavirus handshake,” because we might want to have it in store for future viruses as well.

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Dear Dan,

My son is a high-school senior who frequently misses the bus. Every morning I try to wake him up several times, but I often can’t get him out the door on time. When he misses the bus and I have to drive him to school, I end up reprimanding him, which makes him angry. How can we solve this problem?

—Alice 

People learn behaviors by making associations, either consciously or subconsciously, between an action and a response. Even though you’re trying to help your son, your response when he oversleeps reinforces his bad behavior. Every time you wake him up and drive him to school, he is learning that he has a viable backup if he ignores his alarm clock. My recommendation is to stop helping him get to school on time: Don’t wake him up and don’t offer to drive him. After a few painful failures, he should learn that he needs to go to bed earlier and respond more diligently to his alarm clock.

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Dear Dan,

I’m a committed vegan, but whenever I tell people they tend to have a negative reaction. Is there something about veganism that turns people off?

—David 

A recent study by Vlad Chituc, a doctoral student in psychology at Yale, found that people tend to dislike vegans because they give the impression of thinking that they are morally superior. Vegans can defuse this reaction, however, if they say they are avoiding animal products for health reasons rather than ethical ones. So next time the subject comes up with a new acquaintance, try emphasizing this aspect of your diet, at least to begin with.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.