The Blog

Ask Ariely: On Freelance Feedback, Teacher Tardiness, and Meal Money

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’m a freelance copywriter. I like not having to hold a regular day job, but I never get performance assessments, never learn what I can do better, and never know why people stop hiring me. So to improve my performance, I’ve been thinking about sending my clients a short survey about the quality of my work. But I worry that if they’re forced to think about it, they might say, “Hmm, she’s not actually that friendly” or, “Hmm, her work is just average”—and stop hiring me. What do you think?

—Dana 

Ask for the feedback. You might lose some clients in the short term, but the surveys should help you improve your work in the long term.

The trickier question is how to ask for feedback in a way that minimizes negative perceptions about your work (and maybe even spurs your clients to see your work more positively). You can do this by asking your clients to list 10 ways you could improve your work.

My guess is that your clients will easily find one or two ideas for how you could perform better, which will be useful feedback. But after that, they will find it increasingly difficult to come up with pointers until, perhaps at suggestion five, they will run out. By then, they will start thinking, “I can’t find many things wrong with this copywriter—so she must be great.” By creating the expectation that there should be 10 ways to improve your performance and having them come up well short of that, you incline them to think more positively about your work.

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Dear Dan,

At my school, in an effort to discourage teacher absenteeism and tardiness, we’ve instituted a carrot-and-stick system: Teachers gets a monetary reward if they are on time every day of the week, but if they are late on even one day, they lose a corresponding amount from their wages. Does this system make sense? Do you think it will work?

—Miriam 

Yes and no. Assuming that the reward money is a substantial amount, the teachers will probably try hard to be there on time. On the other hand, since you’ve made the reward all-or-nothing (perfect attendance or a penalty), your teachers are also likely to experience the “what the hell effect.”

Imagine, for example, a teacher who was late for class on Monday. What will be his or her motivation for being on time for the rest of the week now that they’ve missed the mark on perfect attendance? Less dedicated educators may well shrug and start showing up late on purpose. I’d predict that teachers will start each week trying to be punctual, but once they slip, they’ll give up completely. You would probably be better off with a less punitive approach that is more compatible with a learning environment.

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Dear Dan,

I’m an excellent cook who’s planning to host a gourmet, home-cooked meal for about 10 people. I’d like to use the pay-what-you-want method. So what’s the best way to ask for the money? Should I ask people to pay up front or at the end, and should it be in public or anonymous?

—Labanya 

Based on the principle of reciprocity, you should ask for the money at the end of the meal (when people will know how good your food was). I would give people envelopes with their names on them at the end of the evening and ask them to put their payment inside. This way, your guests will be accountable to you but won’t know exactly how much their fellow diners paid. Have fun.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

A New Episode of Arming the Donkeys

This time a discussion with Erica Reischer about parenting.

Link to the podcast

Ask Ariely: On Honesty with Asperger’s, Adequate Achievements, and Favorable Futures

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 19-year-old son has Asperger’s syndrome and is incapable of lying. He tends to see the world in absolutes and struggles with white lies. We have urged him to sometimes compliment people to spare their feelings, but he thinks it’s important to be brutally honest. He says, “What if you praise somebody’s ugly drawing and they then try a career as an artist? Why tell somebody that their new haircut looks great when you could warn them that they will be teased about it?” Have you looked into the ways that dishonesty may be different for those on the autism spectrum?

—Bill 

I wrote a book about dishonesty and lecture frequently about it. Over the years, many parents have come to me after a talk to tell me about children who just can’t lie—and the children usually turn out to have some form of autism. Recently, I brought this up with Murali Doraiswamy, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University, who confirmed that many children on the autism spectrum do indeed have a hard time being untruthful.

This is caused, he added, by the trouble they have with what specialists in the field call “theory of mind”—that is, the basic ability to put ourselves in somebody else’s shoes and empathize with their perspective. Most of us are able to ask ourselves, “How would that person feel if I told them that their haircut is unflattering or that they smell?” Many young people with Asperger’s don’t tend to think this way, so they often don’t develop the habit of telling white lies for reasons of politeness. They don’t learn to dial down unnecessarily hurtful truths to spare another person’s feelings.

My view is that social politeness often acts as training wheels for more serious lying, so children who don’t understand white lies often don’t develop the ability to lie on a larger scale—which may not be such a bad thing. Maybe we should try a president who has Asperger’s?

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Dear Dan,

If human beings were tools, which tools would we be?

—Kelly 

The best analogy for describing human nature is a Swiss Army knife.

First, it is useful for many different tasks. Second, the Swiss Army knife gives us a lot of tools, but none of them (no offense to the Swiss) are that great. The knife is small; the screwdriver is hard to use; the can opener is OK but time-consuming to operate. And third, everything we do with a Swiss Army knife takes some time—we have to figure out which tool we want, find it, dig our nails into its little notch and yank out the desired tool.

Together, these features echo human nature: We aren’t really ideal for anything and can be a bit slow to get going, but we can do a decent job on many different challenges.

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Dear Dan,

What is the most important attribute to look for in a long-term romantic partner?

—Ed 

Low expectations. Much of our happiness depends on relativity—on comparing what we have with what we expected to have. In long-term relationships, we’re bound to be disappointed at some point. But if we adjusted our expectations, we might be pleasantly surprised from time to time.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Sanitation Solutions, Neighbor Needs, and Popular Politics

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 was recently at a barbecue restaurant where the toilets were private but the sinks were out in the open, in a common space. Would moving sinks to public areas get more people to wash their hands? Would you recommend this setup for all public bathrooms?

—Brian 

Absolutely, and here’s why.

Sometimes, to show the extent of our irrationality, I will ask a large group, “In the past month, how many of you have eaten more than you think you should?” Almost everyone raises their hands. “In the past month, how many of you have exercised less than you think you should?” Again, everyone raises their hands. “In the past month, how many of you have texted while driving?” Almost everyone raises their hands.

Then I ask, “In the past month, how many of you have left the bathroom without washing your hands?” The result: almost perfect silence, no hands raised and, after a few embarrassed seconds, a bit of nervous laughter.

Obviously, they are lying—but why won’t people who have just confessed to something as reckless and stupid as texting while driving admit that they sometimes don’t wash their hands? I suspect that it is because we care pretty intensely about not being disgusting to others. As such, putting the sinks somewhere public and visible should encourage more hygienic behavior—ideally, with our friends and relatives watching over us to be extra-sure we do the right thing.

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Dear Dan,

I hear the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” a lot. But is there good evidence that we really care about what our neighbors have or that we change our behavior accordingly?

—Michelle

Yes and yes: There is good evidence of our tendency to try to keep up with those around us. In one recent paper, the economists Sumit Agarwal, Vyacheslav Mikhed and Barry Scholnick looked at the neighbors of lottery winners and discovered that they tended to buy more cars and other clearly visible assets. These “signaling purchases,” the study suggests, were influenced by the presence of suddenly rich neighbors, but the researchers found no increase in the savings or other invisible assets of the less lucky neighbors. Depressingly, those living near lottery winners were more likely to suffer financial distress and even bankruptcy.

These results show that our decisions aren’t just influenced by what we desire but also by our social drive to keep up with those around us. So it makes sense for us to spend a bit more time thinking about who we want to befriend and live next to. If we are going to try to keep up with the Joneses, we should pick the right Joneses.

 

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Dear Dan,

The polling averages now show Hillary Clinton with a significant lead over Donald Trump. Will these favorable polls help or hurt her?

—Josh

The forces here point in both directions. On the one hand, you can imagine that people who support the front-runner could say something like, “My candidate is going to win anyway, so I can stay home”—which obviously hurts their candidate. On the other hand, a candidate’s popularity could well reinforce itself and create a herding effect, which would help whoever is up in the polls.

Which of these two forces is more powerful? The evidence points to the herding effect: For better or worse, we just seem to like to follow.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Family Photos, Moving Money, and Authoritative Acronyms

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 consider myself a steadfast atheist, but I have an irrational dilemma: Every time I want to throw away things that I no longer need, I find myself unable to chuck out anything that belonged to my parents. I can’t even part with their old pictures, which I have digitized and stored permanently on my hard drive. Am I being ridiculously superstitious?

—Eve

Religious belief and superstition aren’t really the same thing. Paul Rozin of the University of Pennsylvania has done excellent research showing that we are all superstitious, to some extent. In one of his experiments, participants were asked to throw darts at a target and were rewarded the closer they got to its center. Sometimes the center was the image of a beloved figure like President John Kennedy; sometimes it was someone widely despised, like Saddam Hussein.

People hit the bull’s-eye more for Saddam and missed more for JFK. They knew, of course, that pictures aren’t the same as people, but they still attached some of the person’s symbolic meaning to the images, which made it harder to harm them.

This type of emotional link means that when you think about throwing out your parents’ belongings, you feel as if you are discarding a part of them. My advice? Send the items that you don’t want but can’t destroy to your siblings or other relatives and let them deal with them.

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Dear Dan,

I’m renting an apartment with two friends. One of them is moving in on August 24. I plan to move in on August 29, and the third friend is planning to join us in early September. Our landlord will charge extra rent for those days in August. Who should pay?

—Randy 

The right way to split the cost depends on the timing and sequencing. If the lease was always set to start on August 24, then you should all split the cost because you all undertook the responsibility of starting the contract together. But if the contract could have started on any day, and your first friend pushed you into starting it on August 24, that friend should be on the hook for funding the extension. Fairness mandates considering the process here, not just the final outcome.

That said, remember that you’re all going to be roommates, perhaps for a long time, and starting your joint life together by protracted haggling may open the door to years of annoying accounting discussions (“You had an extra swig of the milk, so you owe me 75 cents”) rather than years of deep friendship. With this in mind, I suggest dividing the rent equally—but also asking the people moving in early to do more to set up the apartment, call the cable company, get basic supplies and figure out where the furniture goes. That way, they will contribute more to the overall endeavor but in a way that is compatible with long-term friendship.

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Dear Dan,

We have lots of meetings at my office, and when I speak up, I often worry that as a rather junior female employee, I don’t sound as if I have enough authority. Any advice about how to seem more commanding?

—Katherine 

One of the best ways to increase your perceived authority is to start using acronyms. My favorites are WAG (Wild-Ass Guess) and SWAG (Scientific Wild-Ass Guess). My SWAG is that deploying a few well-placed acronyms the next time you make a point will give your gravitas quotient (or GQ) a boost.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Shorter Shifts, Clever Communication, and an Irritating Invasion

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,

A big local employer just announced that it is about to change its standard workday from eight hours to five. I suppose many people barely do two or three hours of good work a day anyway, but is shrinking the workday so drastically a good idea? in italics

—Bernard 

To think this through, let’s break down our workday into three modes: productive, thoughtful, useful work; mindless, detail-oriented work that doesn’t demand much concentration but must get done; and, of course, wasting time.

When the workday is slashed from eight hours to five, which of these modes is likely to give way? If the three lost hours would otherwise have been spent procrastinating, the change is all to the good: We can waste time better on our own. And if it comes at the expense of drudge work, many people will just become more efficient at their more mindless tasks, with a minimal drop in productivity.

But I fear that those three hours will come at the expense of the most productive category of work. That’s because everyone likes the sense of satisfaction from making progress. We feel virtuous after emptying our email inbox or checking off items on our to-do lists. If the workday shrinks, we’d rather sacrifice real progress than surrender that feeling of gratification.

If we now split an eight-hour workday between one hour of thumb-twiddling, four hours of drudgery and three hours of serious work, I’d predict that the shorter workday will mean a half-hour less of wasted time, an hour less of mindless work and an hour and a half less of meaningful work.

This is just an educated guess, of course. If I ran your workplace, I would start by cutting the workday by 30 minutes, see what this does to productivity and adjust from there.

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Dear Dan,

When you have to deliver two pieces of news, one bad and one good, which should you start with? I’ve always been told to deliver the bad news first, but I worry that its impact could be so distracting that the recipient won’t pay attention to the good news that follows.

—Galia 

Why pick from just this constrained set of options? Is there really nothing else in the universe to share? I’d come up with another piece of good news to start with, such as the fact that we have eradicated smallpox and polio could be next—admittedly less relevant but undeniably cheerful. You can then sandwich your bad tidings between good ones.

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Dear Dan,

While writing a document on my laptop with a colleague, he kept pointing to my screen and sometimes touched it with his finger. I found this incredibly annoying—and a strange invasion of privacy. I wouldn’t have minded if my co-worker had touched my arm, but I bristled when he touched my screen. What gives?

—Kim 

After reading this, I asked a few people nearby to touch my laptop and then my elbow, and I felt the same irritation. I suspect that’s because once people touch our computer screens, we can’t avoid seeing the gross residue that their fingers leave, but we don’t think about the oil and dead skin cells left behind when somebody nudges us on the arm. Consider this more evidence that ignorance can be bliss.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

A Word on Titles

Currently I am working on a graphic novel with the lab illustrator, Matt Trower. We are playing with titles and trying to decide what will be the best fit. If you’re willing to help us choose our favorite title, please follow the this link to weigh in.

Thank you!

Ask Ariely: On Losing Leftovers and Stressful Situations

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 holiday potluck that I attend each year, the hostess asks each guest to bring a specific dish. We always wind up with too much food, but the hostess never asks us whether we would like to take any leftovers home. I think that the food I made and brought should be considered mine. So who do the leftovers belong to, the hostess or the cook/guest?

—Sigrid 

This is a tricky one. Usually, if we are invited to someone’s house for dinner and bring, say, a bottle of fine whiskey, we wouldn’t expect to take the rest of the bottle back home with us. But a potluck isn’t your standard dinner party, and it isn’t clear what rules apply. You gave the food, which was accepted by the host—but she did so on behalf of the group, which didn’t finish it.

Ethics aside, I see three practical ways to resolve the problem. First, you could make something that is physically hard to separate from the dish in which you brought it. If, for instance, you brought crème brûlée in a large ceramic dish, you’d make it clear that the dish was yours, and because it would be difficult to separate it from the leftover dessert, you would get to take them both home.

Alternatively, you could bring your contribution in two containers, hand one to the host and tell her that you have another container in case your fellow diners polish off the first one. You wouldn’t have to hand over the second part of your offering unless it turned out to be needed, and you’d have a decent shot at getting to take it home.

Or you could whip up a crowd-pleasing recipe that you happen not to like. The point of a potluck is to have fun with friends, not to fret about who gets what at the end. So just make something you don’t care for. You won’t care who inherits the leftovers, and you’ll enjoy the party more.

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Dear Dan,

I went to the bathroom at a new restaurant in town only to find a large, modern-looking stainless-steel urinal, without partitions, which put everyone in plain view of his fellow patrons. I tried to finish my business quickly and get out of there. Am I the only one made uncomfortable by such arrangements?

—Greg 

Actually, many men are made uneasy by such bathroom settings, but I suspect that you didn’t finish your business any faster.

In 2005, my students and I carried out an experiment at MIT. Sometimes, we had one of our students stand at the middle urinal in the men’s room, pretending to go and waiting for unsuspecting visitors. Other times, we didn’t have anyone from our team at the urinals. In all cases, we had a student hiding in a nearby stall with a recorder.

That let us pick up two aspects of urination: its onset (from the time a subject situated himself at the urinal to the moment when we first heard liquid sounds) and its duration (until those sounds stopped).

We found that men took longer to get going when they had company nearby, presumably because of social stress. But once they started, they finished faster—again, presumably because of stress and the desire to get out of there. The total amount of time was slightly slower than when men were left alone.

Of course, our participants were undergraduates with splendid bladder control, so we might need to repeat this study with a more mature population.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Genuine Greetings, Moral Reminders, and Interest Aversion

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,

We often greet each other by saying, “How are you?” But most of us probably don’t really want a long answer. Why do we do this?

—Warren 

Here’s an old joke: Two friends meet after a long time apart. The first asks, “So in one word, how are you?” The second responds, “Good!” The first friend continues, “And in two words?” The second replies, “Not good!”
I suspect that we ask “How are you?” because we want to be seen to care even when we really don’t. We’re all so used to this superficial exchange that we don’t consider it a genuine inquiry into our well-being. But let’s try to change this. For the next week, when people respond to your rote “How are you?” with their rote “Good,” don’t take that as an answer. Follow up with, “No, really, how are you?” Perhaps this will inject some real caring into our relationships.
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Dear Dan,

To reduce cheating at the high school where I teach, we ask students to sign an ethics code before each exam and on every paper they submit. I’d estimate that they sign the code at least once a week. Your own research, I gather, shows that getting students to sign a similar ethics code just once helps to reduce cheating. What about signing it more often? Does overuse make it ineffective?

—Elliott 

We used an honor code in an experiment at MIT in 2007. We asked a few hundred undergraduates to do some simple math problems but didn’t give them enough time to finish. We then asked them to score their own tests and tell us how well they had done, with payment of $1 for each question they reported getting right. The students were asked to shred their papers afterward—but our shredder didn’t really work, so we could see how they had done. Many cheated. We had a second group of students follow the same procedure but only after they first signed the honor code. Signing the honor code before the test eliminated cheating altogether.
The effectiveness of such a code doesn’t stem from signing it, though. It comes from being reminded about moral issues. If your students eventually stop thinking about the ethics code as they sign it, it will lose its power. If they keep reading and reflecting on the code, its effectiveness might increase.
I ask my own students to write their own version of an ethics code—not because I’m especially interested in their interpretations but because it helps to ensure thought.

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Dear Dan,

I find it easy to avoid reckless spending. I don’t own a credit card because I hate the concept of interest, and I’m paying my daughters’ college tuition (they know that they have to pay me back) because if they took out loans, I’d have to co-sign and might be on the hook for the tuition and interest. Am I just more rational than other people?

—Wei 

A rational person wouldn’t hate interest but would use it when it made sense. And a rational person would make a decision about tuition based on how it might affect the relationship with their children—not to avoid the extra cost if they don’t pay up.
I worry that in trying to be so rational, you are sacrificing much of the joy of life. Perhaps you need a better definition of rationality.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

A Survey about Spending

As spending money becomes easier (think of credit cards, Apple Pay, and Google Wallet, among others), we have more opportunities to spend our money well, and to spend it not so well. In collaboration with Qapital, we have made a survey to learn about what kinds of purchases people feel good about, and what kinds they regret. Note that this link and survey is secured by the highest possible internet and bank standards.

Please help us by participating in this short study and reflecting on your past transactions. We will randomly choose some participants to get the chance to have a 30-minute chat with me. You have our immense gratitude.

Click on the following link to begin: https://duke.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_bNNOX3E1I4HLI2h