The Blog

Ask Ariely: On Dramatic Defaults, Traveler Tips, and Restaurant Risks

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 people are more likely to make smart decisions—about, say, contributing early and often to a retirement savings fund—if they’re nudged into it by default settings. How powerful is this effect? Do defaults push people a bit or change their choices dramatically?

—Tom 

You’ve put your finger on one of the key findings of behavioral economics. Shlomo Benartzi and Richard Thaler, among others, produced probably the field’s greatest success by encouraging employers to create retirement benefits packages whose default options are set for savings. Such packages used to require employees to enroll if they wanted to start saving. By switching the default, so that employees were automatically enrolled and had to act if they wanted to stop putting aside money, saving rates increased dramatically.

But what effect does changing the default setting have compared with other incentives to save? Take a recent study by Michael Callen, Joshua Blumenstock and Tarek Ghani. They worked with Roshan, a mobile communications provider in Afghanistan, to create a savings plan for its 1,000-person workforce. Half the participants were given a default of “opt in” (and had to call to leave the plan), and the other half was defaulted to “opt out” (and had to call to start saving).

The researchers wondered how much changing the company’s matching level and the employees’ default settings would increase savings. They found that automatic enrollment had about the same effect on participation as providing the pricey incentive of a 50% matching contribution from the firm. Default settings, they concluded, are powerful indeed—perhaps not enough to make businesses stop matching contributions for their workers, but more than enough to make them sweat the default details.

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Dear Dan,

On vacation in Mexico, I saw a hardworking server waiting on guests at a resort—who didn’t leave a tip. I can’t imagine they would have behaved this way in our native Canada. Did the fact that they had purchased an “all-inclusive” vacation have anything to do with it?

—Kevin 

Several forces were probably at work. First, some all-inclusive vacations aren’t clear about tips, which may incline us to think gratuities are covered. Second, remember the saying: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.” When we travel, we become slightly different versions of ourselves—and can act more freely without tainting our own reputations, at least in our own eyes. Finally, immorality often stems from our ability to convince ourselves that we’re doing something OK—even if we know that we’d want people to behave better if we were on the receiving end.

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Dear Dan,

I’m often flummoxed by long restaurant menus, so I’ll pick a familiar dish—and feel that I haven’t gotten the most out of my dining experience. Any dining advice?

—Tom 

Trying new things makes life more interesting, but the fear of making mistakes can drive us to play it safe. Restaurants are great places for a risk. The most you can lose is one meal, and you can always ask for something else if you hate your adventurous dish (just tip well). So I often ask the waiter for the most unusual dish on the menu.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Career Center Incentives, Painful Pricing, and Colorful Communication

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week  and if you have any questions for me, you can tweet them to @danariely with the hashtag #askariely, post a comment on my Ask Ariely Facebook page, or email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.

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Dear Dan,

I work with liberal arts college students, many of whom don’t use their school’s career services early enough, if ever. What’s the best way to get reluctant students to participate in early career-discovery activities? Is there any way to make this fun or at least less overwhelming?

—Lisa 

One of the challenges here is the perennial problem of “now versus later.” “Now” is at the forefront of our minds, and college students are no exception: What am I going to major in, how can I finish this 30-page paper on time, how can I balance basketball practice with my work-study job? All of these academic, social and financial concerns create cognitive demands right now—and make it hard to focus on career planning, which students tend to think about as years away.

You aren’t likely to convince busy and distracted students to assign a higher priority to the distant future. Instead, you could try to create structures that make career exploration feel like a “now” concern. Could a course require students to interview alumni in related fields at the career center? Could students fulfill certain distribution requirements by visiting the career center each semester? Could the career center pitch its services as tools to help students find summer jobs and internships?

Don’t present the career center as an optional, supplementary service to help find jobs after senior year. Try to match it to students’ immediate needs.

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Dear Dan,

Uber infuriates me every time it declares “surge pricing.” I know that behavioral economics teaches us that framing is important. Would Uber be better off using the term “discounted pricing” during off-peak periods and “regular pricing” during peak periods?

—Paul 

Yes, framing matters a lot. If Uber had its own fleet of cars and was just selling rides, your suggestion would be a great way to limit their customers’ ire. But Uber doesn’t have cars of its own and relies on motivating drivers to show up and offer rides. The same “surge pricing” that angers you appeals to Uber’s drivers, helping the company to get more of them on the road when it needs them.

The ideal framing would be to have Uber call its higher fares “surge prices” for its drivers and “regular prices” for its passengers—but that is manipulative and deceptive, so I wouldn’t suggest it.

As a message to customers, “surge pricing” also compels us to take immediate action. Imagine that you open the app and see that the current price is 1.5 times the usual fare. Do you wait and try again later, or do you worry that the price might leap up to 1.8 times that fare and order your Uber immediately?

Our deep desire to avoid regret—staring at a screen, stranded, as we watch prices soar—is so strong that it usually gets us to press the button even faster. So while customers hate surge pricing, it has important benefits for Uber.

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Dear Dan,

After a recent date, I’ve been wondering whether I should sign my next text to her with the word “love” or with an emoticon of a heart. Which one is she likely to take more seriously?

—Deb 

Emoticons are a wonderful, colorful, rich way to express ourselves. But because emoticons can be interpreted in multiple ways, they are a less clear form of communication. So don’t hide behind the ambiguity of the emoticon. Use the word.

Love,

Dan

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

A penny for your thoughts?

Or, better yet.. would you be willing to help me out for free?

I’ve put together a quick non-academic questionnaire: Click here to take the survey

Your response will help me immensely in figuring out which route to take in an upcoming project. Thanks very much in advance! I appreciate everything you do.

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

Ask Ariely: On Preparing for Productivity, Manipulating Motivation, and Risking Romance

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,

Do you have any tips to improve productivity?

—Shana 

Here’s one: Pick a food or drink that you love, turn consuming it into a ritual and make working on an important long-term project a condition of indulging in this exciting consumption.

I adore my morning coffee, so I’ve transformed it into a daily ceremony by using the same mug, savoring the grinding of the beans, watching the coffee pour from the machine and smelling the aroma as it spreads throughout the room. I then take the cup to my office, sit at my desk and move to the important part: I connect this marvelous mug of coffee to a continuing task that matters deeply to me.

This can be an academic article, grading my students’ term papers or anything else that I want to do in principle but tend not to feel like doing on any given day. I allow myself to start sipping my coffee only after I’ve been working on the project for a few minutes, and I don’t stop working until I’ve drained my cup. (This works better with a big mug of coffee than with an espresso.)

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Dear Dan,

I love using behavioral economics to produce better decision-making. But what happens when people discover that they’re being manipulated to do something? Do they lose motivation or try to play against the system?

—Sebastian 

Of course, if we found out that someone had deliberately deceived us into doing something against our best interests (such as signing up for an insurance policy we don’t need), we’d be upset. The more interesting question: How would we react if we found out that we had been manipulated into doing something that is in our long-term interest (like saving more or eating better)?

Recent research found that in such cases, it doesn’t matter if people find out that they were manipulated. This holds across many domains, whether it is influencing people to eat healthier food, getting them to fill out advance directives about what to do if they become too ill to express their wishes, or prompting them to donate more to a charity. So while it might seem morally dubious to manipulate people into following their best interests, they are generally OK with it.

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Dear Dan,

Is love overrated? I am deeply in love with someone, but to be with them, I’ll have to change jobs and cities. Should I make these changes and hope that this love will last, or should I assume that this love, like most loves, is doomed to fade and not worth the risk?

—Amy 

Wait a few months, and if you still feel as ardent about your partner, take the chance. In general, the odds are very much against us when we start almost anything: a business, a book, an exercise regimen. But we often encourage people to do these things anyway, so why not for love? The odds are low that your love will burn as brightly in 10 years, but some risks in life are worth taking.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Tipping Out, Question Quality, and Stockholm Syndrome

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,

Some restaurants have made news recently by eliminating tipping. But will the long-term effect be worse service?

—Phil 

I wouldn’t expect a decrease in the quality of service. I’m not sure that tipping is a particularly motivating reward to begin with. For one thing, tips in many restaurants are often pooled among employees. That means that the gratuities are averaged across workers, so individual waiters won’t immediately or strongly experience the benefits (or punishments) that stem from superb or lousy service. Furthermore, statistical modeling by Ofer Azar of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev found only a small relationship between tips and service quality. He concluded that other factors had more influence on the type of service that you’re likely to get.

If anything, I suspect that eliminating tipping and giving waiters a stable, living wage would improve the quality of service. Without the vagaries of tips, restaurant employees would have a consistent, dependable income—and, perhaps, higher job satisfaction. That would help lower employee turnover and raise profits for the restaurant. These are all fine reasons why more restaurants should get rid of tipping.

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Dear Dan,

I’ve found that the most interesting people to talk to are often obsessed with a topic, whether it is food, music or economics. How can I increase my likelihood of meeting this type of person? What questions can I ask to uncover people’s passions when I meet them?

—Riley 

When we meet someone new, most of us have a puzzling tendency to start the conversation as if we are exchanging resumes. We typically don’t go beyond questions like “What do you do?” and “Where are you from?” But the key to a good conversation isn’t meeting the right type of person; rather, as you suggest, the trick is asking questions that allow almost anyone to reveal who they are, what they have experienced and what they are passionate about.

Often, the questions that can help put a bit more depth into our conversations are more complex than the standard “What do you do” approaches. They also require more openness, effort and daring from the person asking the questions. Think of asking new friends about their ideal dinner companion, living or dead, or about the heroes they most admire or about the aspects of their life for which they’re most profoundly grateful. It may be a little unfamiliar, but such questions do get conversations going in very different directions.

I know from personal experience that starting conversations by asking nonstandard questions isn’t always easy. But as you get more used to asking such questions, your discussions will become more interesting. We all want lives filled with meaning, so we should get beyond the default of vacuous conversation-starters.

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Dear Dan,

I recently learned about the Stockholm syndrome, in which captives develop sympathetic feelings for their captors. I know that the parallel isn’t exact, but does this dynamic operate in marriages too, with both partners (in a metaphorical and emotional sense) seeing themselves as imprisoned in a way and the attraction to the person “capturing” them creating a stronger relationship?

—Abhinav

Sorry, but the Stockholm syndrome just isn’t a sensible way to think about marriage—not least because marriage lacks the glaring power difference between the person doing the capturing and the person being captured. But now that I think about it, maybe the syndrome is a good way to think about spending the holidays at your in-laws, and perhaps this glue helps keep families together during those trying times.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Finding Fondness, Counting Calories, and Regifting Rules

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,

Yesterday, I lost my phone in the woods and spent hours looking for it. Many hours later, with the help of my mother and the “Find My iPhone” app, we found it in the snow. It was a lot of effort—the hardest scavenger hunt we’ve ever been on—but I’ve never had so much fun or appreciated my phone as much as I did that day. I know that, in general, making a major effort leads people to love something more when they create it (as you have argued with the “IKEA effect”). Does this principle apply to finding a lost item too?

—Niv 

Yes. Our appreciation for an item isn’t just about creating it; it is also about the connection we make with it. Every time you invest effort in some object (as in your hunt in the woods), you strengthen your link with the item, and you like it more.

But before you start losing items on purpose, let me point out two limits to your exciting discovery. First, the joy and increased attachment that you experienced was probably yours alone. I can’t imagine that your mother felt the same affection for your phone after rooting around in the snow. Second, the surge of fun and fondness about this particular item isn’t something you’d want to experience multiple times a year—so hang on to your phone.

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Dear Dan,

 I’ve been reading that chain restaurants with many branches are now required to post calorie information. Do you think this will push people to eat better or not?

—Paul 

Probably not. The experiments that we’ve done on the impact of this sort of calorie information on eating behavior have shown scant effects on what people order. There seems to be a gap that prevents us from translating knowledge into action, and just giving people the data clearly doesn’t do the trick. People often tell me that knowing a menu item’s calorie count influences their ordering, but the research data on this suggests that such effects are very small at best.

There may also be a downside to posting the calories: We know that the presence of “healthy” side dishes can make people feel entitled to order “unhealthy” entrees. Darren Dahl and his colleagues have shown, for example, that the simple presence of a healthy item on a menu increases the likelihood that customers will order the least healthy options. The basic principle is called “licensing”: When we do something that we think is good (like ordering a small salad), we feel that it balances out a subsequent “bad” action (like eating a double cheeseburger).

Given these findings, I predict that we will see more calorie listings on menus, with more items such as side salads as healthy options. People will order these salads—often with gloppy and highly caloric dressing—and continue eating other high-calorie items. Don’t expect it to help our waistlines.

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Dear Dan,

Is regifting OK? Over the years, I’ve received plenty of gifts that I didn’t want, and I’m thinking about getting rid of them this holiday season. Can I tell the people that I’m regifting what I’m doing?

—Beth 

In general, I consider regifting a wonderful practice. So long as the present that you are regifting is something that you think the new owner will appreciate, you aren’t just giving them something that they will like; you are preventing waste and saving money.

As to whether you can tell your friends and family that you’ve regifted them a present, sadly, we still aren’t a sufficiently enlightened society. So for now, I would slap on fresh wrapping paper and keep the history of the gift a secret.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Trust — a new talk

Trust is one of the most important, yet least understood, forces. it is a force that can drive society forward, and in the case of mistrust backward.  Here is a quick talk I recently gave on the basic elements of trust and how to build trust.

 

Ask Ariely: On Treating the Teacher, Perceiving Pain, and Realizing Resolutions

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 always agonize this time of year over getting the right gift for my children’s teachers. I hate gift certificates, which feel so thoughtless and generic. So what should I give?

—Raquel 

You’re absolutely right about skipping the gift certificate. A present for a teacher shouldn’t be a financial transaction; it should foster connection and express gratitude. Gift certificates get spent or forgotten.
For that matter, flowers die, and apples get eaten. You’re much better off with a nonperishable gift that will strengthen the relationship between your family and the teacher. Consider giving a funky little piece of art (such as a decorated planter) made by your child, inspired by something he or she learned from the teacher. Or you could get something that the teacher would enjoy but might feel guilty spending too much on, such as a fancy fountain pen or even a lovely notebook with superb paper—and a heartfelt note from your child on the first page.

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Dear Dan,

How do expectations influence our perceptions of pain? Several months ago, I underwent serious but elective surgery on one foot. Many friends told me that they had heard how long and painful the recovery process would be. I have a very low tolerance for pain, so I worried and imagined the worst. Still, I went through with it, and to my surprise, the pain wasn’t nearly as bad as I’d feared. It has been a long and uncomfortable recovery but far less painful than I’d anticipated.
I used to think that a positive outlook would serve me better, but now I wonder if my negative expectations might have worked in my favor. What do you think?
—Stacy
 
Your experience highlights an important concept in decision-making, known as “affective forecasting errors.” We turn out to be notoriously bad at predicting how we will feel after major life events, even life-altering experiences such as losing a limb or winning the lottery. Both positive and negative milestones often affect our long-term happiness much less than we expect.
As for your experience, I am happy that it wasn’t as bad as you’d feared, but I wouldn’t conclude that your dour expectations were the reason. The academic literature on pain (for example, the 2005 studies by Tetsuo Koyama and colleagues at Wake Forest University School of Medicine) shows that when we expect decreases in pain, our subjective experience of pain also decreases, and so does the activation of brain regions responsible for pain.
In other words, our expectations about pain help to shape the neural processes underlying the physical experience of pain. That can bring the reality more in line with our expectations. As such, I wonder whether you might have experienced even less pain had your friends underestimated your postoperative pain.

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Dear Dan,

As we enter December, I wonder whether I should make any New Year’s resolutions. I have been making them for years, and I inevitably fail to keep them, which is pretty frustrating. Should I give up or give it another go?

—Jamie 

Don’t give up. Even if you stick to your resolution for, say, three or six months, you will be better off than you would have been if you had done nothing. And you might do better if you make New Year’s resolutions that are more limited and achievable. For example, what if instead of promising yourself that you will exercise three times a week for the whole year, you pledged just to work out for six weeks? That goal would be far easier to grasp, and maybe by the time you reach it, you will want to keep going.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Sound Sleeping, Conserving Commitments, and Giving Goals

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 night, I find myself procrastinating when I should go to bed. I stay up watching TV and, inevitably, wind up falling asleep on the couch and dragging myself to bed two hours later. How can I nudge myself to skip the TV phase and just go to sleep? (One obvious answer would be to put the TV in my bedroom, but I don’t have space for that.)

—Bram 

Moving your TV into your room certainly won’t help you get a better night’s rest. Experts in “sleep hygiene” have shown that it’s best to associate the bed with sleep and romance and not with activities like reading or watching TV; exposure to screens before bedtime isn’t helpful either. Answering email, checking Twitter or watching Netflix in bed will mean that you’ll take more time to nod off and won’t sleep as soundly.

I would put your TV on a timer that goes off every night at, say, 10 p.m. Of course, you could override the timer, but it would still remind you that you had committed to go to bed then, and the extra work to override it might prevent you from falling back into your old habits.

If you want some extra motivation, look for someone who can hold you accountable. A firm partner would do fine, or you could ask a close friend to be your “sleep cop” and promise to send him or her a picture of you in pajamas every night at 10.

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Dear Dan,

How should we deal with people who make a run on gas every time the supply is disrupted? We often hear that no significant shortages will occur if people keep up their normal patterns of consumption, but some people take news of a disruption as their cue to top off their tanks more frequently—thus contributing to the shortage and causing long lines. Is there any way to discourage this and restore some measure of order?

—Bo 

When a resource is in limited supply, we are often willing to hurt the public good (by creating longer lines at the pump) for our individual advantage (by keeping our own tank full). This behavior is tempting if you view things in terms of your personal short-term gain, but of course, it is devastating for everyone in the long run.

Since it isn’t easy to get people to care about the collective at moments of scarcity, maybe we should ask ourselves how we can harness selfishness for good. We don’t need to influence everyone; even reducing the number of people who stock up on gas by 10% could make a big difference. So how can we get some people to be selfish in a more societally useful way?

One idea: What if people started asking their friends on Facebook to make a commitment not to refill their gas tank until it is less than a quarter full, and what if we “liked” such posts to praise their commitment to the common good? This kind of approach probably won’t sway everyone, but for some, it might replace one benefit (a full tank) with another (an enhanced reputation).

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Dear Dan,

As the holiday season arrives, I have been weighing the joys of getting things for ourselves against the joys of helping others and giving them gifts. Are we happier when we do something nice for ourselves or for others?

—Jennifer 

As Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton have shown in their book “Happy Money,” we often think that we maximize our happiness by indulging in a treat for ourselves, but our long-term happiness has more to do with the kindnesses we do for others. This is a fine season to start acting on that lesson.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.