The Blog

Ask Ariely: On Pickleball Problems, Calorie Compensation, and Friend Finding

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 play the paddle sport pickleball on outdoor courts at our local city park. During the season, the members of our association have to clean up the courts at the end of each day, which takes about 15 minutes.

As you might expect, few people volunteer regularly, and pleas for more help fall on deaf ears. I recently suggested to the group’s executive board that we should pay members who help clean up, but my idea was shot down. The reasoning was that we are a volunteer organization and should not pay for such services. How can we get more people to pitch in?

—John 

Paying a few members to clean the courts is always an option. But if you start paying for cleaning, it will change how those who clean and those who don’t treat each other. So I would try other methods first.
One effective approach is to use social shaming. What if the pickleball association posted the names of all the members on a large poster board and used markings to show how often each person cleaned the courts? What if, next to the names of the people who did not help even once, there was a large question mark? My guess is that the desire to appear to be a team player rather than a freeloader could motivate many more people to contribute to the cleaning effort.

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Hi Dan,

I am a doctor specializing in obesity management, and one of the challenges we face in my practice is something called the “Last Supper” effect. We find that patients who know they are about to undergo weight loss surgery tend to binge during the two weeks prior to the procedure, gaining anywhere from five to 20 pounds. Do you have any suggestions for how we might be able to change this pattern?

—Adrian 

My colleagues and I carried out research at our lab at Duke University that might shed some light on this question. We asked one group of participants to indulge in food and compensate for it by reducing their calorie consumption later. Meanwhile, we asked another group to create an “indulgence bank,” going on a diet first and indulging only after they “saved” enough calories to compensate.

It turns out that when people indulged first, they didn’t compensate enough and ended up gaining weight. But when they saved calories by dieting first, they realized how much hard work it was and didn’t want to “spend” all their savings by eating more.

With this in mind, I would ask patients to start two months before the weight-loss procedure and spend the first six weeks creating an indulgence bank by reducing their calorie intake. Then they can “celebrate” by eating freely during the last two weeks before the procedure. My guess is that they will celebrate a bit, but not too much.

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Hello, Dan.

I recently retired, and since many of my friends were from my workplace, I feel lonely and deprived of connections. Any advice?

—Warren 

It’s a bit awkward to advertise “friends needed,” and if you tried, you could attract some shady characters. Instead, I’d suggest that you pick an activity that is likely to attract the kind of people you want to be friends with: the Sierra Club, or bird watching, or maybe pickleball. Odds are that you will find your next friends there. And don’t worry if you don’t like the activities very much: The other people are probably there for the same reason—to make friends.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Missing Morality, Caring Critiques, and Remodeling Resources

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 recently lost my wallet while shopping at the mall. Within moments, I heard an announcement from the information desk calling me to pick it up. Relief! But once I got it back, I realized that the person who returned it had stolen all the money and returned only my driver’s license and credit card. Here’s what I don’t get: How could a person doing such a kind act also do something so immoral?

—Jessie 

The basic principle operating here is what psychologists call “moral licensing.” Sometimes when we do a good deed, such as returning someone’s wallet, we feel an immediate boost to our self-image: We just proved to ourselves that we are good people. Sadly, that also makes us less concerned with the moral implications of our next actions. After all, if we are such good, moral people, don’t we deserve to act a bit selfishly?

Moral licensing operates across many areas of life. After we recycle our trash from lunch, we’re more likely to buy non-green products. After we go to the gym, we’re more likely to order a double cheeseburger. This is probably why the person who found your wallet and decided to return it felt justified taking your cash.

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Dear Dan,

A thought occurred to me during recent coverage of the rescue of the Thai soccer team trapped in a cave. It seemed that no expense was spared in bringing out the 12 boys and their coach alive. The same urgency in saving lives, regardless of the cost, occurred during the rescue of the Chilean miners in 2010.

But there are plenty of ways that, for a fraction of the cost, we as a society could save and improve the lives of far more people—for example, by spending more on public health measures. I’m not criticizing the rescue of the soccer players or miners—both incidents were causes for celebration, examples of the triumph of human ingenuity and endurance against the forces of nature. But what makes us care so much about these episodes and so little about other issues?

—Stanley 

You are correct in your observation. We’re much more motivated to take drastic measures to help others when we see suffering on a specific human face, rather than in abstract numbers. This is what’s known as the “identifiable victim effect.” Think of moments when people have been galvanized around major issues. They often come right after a vivid story about a particular person or a harrowing image made the news.

Consider, for example, the recent stories about immigrant children separated from their parents at the border, which has made the issue of immigration more urgent across the political spectrum. Most of us were aware of immigration problems before, but when the harm became more individual and visible, it seemed intolerable. We should be aware of this effect and, as you say, shouldn’t necessarily let it dictate where we focus our effort and resources.

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Dear Dan,

I recently decided to remodel my bathroom myself instead of hiring a contractor to do it, which would have cost $65,000. I did it myself for $25,000 in materials and some hired help. It took up my weekends for nine months, time that I otherwise would have spent in advancing my career. I enjoy the hands-on work, but would I have been better off focusing on my job and trying to earn more money? Was the bathroom worth it?

—Will 

While it’s certainly more time-efficient to hire a contractor, and you could have used the time to further your career, it sounds like you got a lot of satisfaction out of remodeling the bathroom yourself. Several colleagues and I conducted research a few year ago on what we called the “Ikea effect.” It turns out that when we assemble something ourselves, we end up taking a lot of pride in it, and for a long time. So I wouldn’t just think about money and time. Think also about the pleasure of inviting friends to your home, showing them your bathroom and taking pride in your craftsmanship.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Exercise Equations, Pricy Pals, and Happier Holidays

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 currently in physical therapy for a knee injury, but I haven’t been improving much lately. The main reason is that I’ve been slacking off with my exercises at home, which my physical therapist says are crucial for the treatment to be effective. I know I could be recovering much faster if I actually followed through with my exercises, but doing them is just miserable. What can I do?

—Jordan 

Because physical therapy is often tedious and uncomfortable, the mood to do your exercises will probably not strike you very frequently, if at all. What I would do is add something to the exercises that changes your motivation equation. For example, you could make a rule that your whole family can only watch their favorite TV show after you’ve completed your exercises. This way, the pressure of not wanting to disappoint everyone in your family will add to your motivation; and if you slack off, your family will nag you to get your exercises done. This approach can be thought of as “doing the right thing for the wrong reason”–in this case, doing your physical therapy in order to watch TV and not annoy your family. It is a great way to engineer our motivation to get us to do things that are no fun in themselves.

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Hi Dan,

Recently, I retired on a small income. I have an old friend who visits regularly, and who is very well off. She often stays with me for a week or more, but rarely offers to cover any of the expenses connected with her visit, such as food or gas. She doesn’t take me out to dinner and seldom brings a gift. To make things worse, when we go shopping together she buys expensive things for herself, making the income difference between us even more obvious and painful.

I can get over the difference in wealth, but it is hard for me not to care that she doesn’t help out with expenses. How can I suggest that she chip in and still keep her as a good friend?

—Francis 

Since your friend is used to a pattern where you are paying for everything, she probably no longer thinks much about it. In general, we are all very good at taking things for granted. To break this pattern, I would sit with her over a glass of wine and tell her that while you love her visits, since you retired you feel a bit financially stressed. Tell her that you don’t want her to visit less often, but that you would like to alternate who pays for groceries and for going out.

I suggest alternating rather than splitting the bills because splitting requires an ongoing accounting, which is uncomfortable and can put an extra strain on the relationship. With this kind of an arrangement, the expenses won’t necessarily be divided equally, but it will help you avoid awkwardness during each and every transaction. My guess is that your friend will be delighted to share in the expenses, and you’ll wonder why you felt it was so difficult to bring this topic up in the first place.

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Dear Dan,

Summer is here and I am wondering: what is the secret to a good vacation?

—Moran 

The first secret is not to call it a vacation. To vacate a place is to leave it, but the point of taking time off is not just to leave our lives behind. It is to approach something new and different. That’s why I think the British have it right: they call this time a holiday, which is a much more fitting name for an exciting experience. And since the words we use matter to how we think and act, my advice is: plan to have a holiday!

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Real Randomness, Complex Conversation, and Linen Loss

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,

On a recent trip to Las Vegas, my wife wanted to observe how roulette is played. In addition to the real game with a real wheel, we saw video versions of the game that you could bet on. It looked to us like the real version was less random than the video version, which must depend on algorithms to mimic the roulette wheel. Could this difference in randomness be true?

—Mark 

I haven’t made a study of real roulette games versus virtual ones in Las Vegas, but I have to think that you’re imagining the difference. We have a very hard time perceiving randomness and tend to see links between events even when there are none. We blame the gain of a pound overnight on eating things that couldn’t have enough calories to cause such a weight increase, and we believe TV shows and web sites that explain with supposed certainty why a certain share price on the stock market went up or down that day, even though it’s often just random variation.

It’s the same with roulette. My guess is that with the physical wheel, you had more factors to pay attention to: the person turning the wheel, their movements, the action around the table. I suspect that it all made you think the real game was somehow less pure, less random.

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Hi there.

My girlfriend and I get along well but feel our relationship is very superficial. The truth is that we both have trouble speaking about ourselves or our feelings, so we almost never have deep conversations. But our mundane discussions don’t provide any real closeness, and they just help us pass the time in a sort of pleasant way. More troubling are times when one of us is going through some difficulty and doesn’t bring it up—and as a result gets no help solving the problem. We’ve both realized this and want to get better. How could we establish a mechanism to push us to have regular “deep” conversations?

—Miguel 

You’re experiencing what I’d call the small-talk syndrome. Making meaningless small talk is the easiest way to keep on having a conversation. Everyone can participate, and no one will be offended because nothing complex or controversial will be discussed.

But a deep relationship, which demands more intimate connections and often brings important challenges, needs more. I would suggest that you create a few rules for conversations. For example, ban small talk from Friday-night dinner: Only complex topics are allowed.

If you need some inspiration, Kristen Berman at Irrational Labs (a nonprofit behavioral consulting company that I co-founded with her) has made a deck of questions for such situations, including “What was the last lie that you told?” and “What gives you energy?” If you follow this plan for a few months, I suspect that making “big talk” will become much more natural and easy for both of you.

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Dear Dan,

I belong to a sports club that loses many towels because members take them home. The towels are cheaply made, so it’s doubtful that my club’s affluent members really need them for their homes. What can be done to stop the losses?

—Freddie 

Put a permanent tag on each towel and write $20 in a large font. This will remind members that the towels have value and that taking them is stealing.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Encouraging Exercise, Activating Altruism, and Debating Dishes

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 hate exercise and always have, but I’ve recently started going to a spinning class, which I hate less than other forms of exercise. At the end I usually feel pretty good, but getting there is still a struggle. How can I motivate myself to go?

—Amy 

Clearly your future self wants to exercise, so why not help yourself along? You could arrange to work out with a good friend, which would provide encouragement and social pressure. And when she’s not available, you could make a deal with her: You have to text her a new photo of yourself sweating at the end of the class or else pay her $20. My guess is that the social pressure coupled with the financial incentive will compel your future self to exercise.

If neither of these approaches works, try setting up a regular meeting with an especially annoying colleague just before your scheduled spinning class. That way, you’ll be eager to get out the door, and after the meeting, the cycling will feel like a joy.

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Hello!

What makes people show up at charity events and donate? Do they just want to promote themselves as virtuous, or are they genuinely altruistic?

—Alexandra 

Many factors come into play at charity events. If you attend, you’re signaling that you’re part of a group and committed to its cause. But the social signaling doesn’t stop there. Numerous studies have shown that the more public people’s charitable behavior is, the more they donate. In a 1984 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, Joel Brockner and his colleagues showed that people were more willing to donate to a charity when they were solicited in person compared with a phone call. So altruism no doubt motivates many donors—but social factors can boost their giving.

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Dear Dan,

My wife and I alternate who loads and unloads the dishwasher. If she’s the loader and I’m the unloader, I often notice that she has placed certain items facing away from the water jets. My own research suggests that this isn’t the most effective way to get things clean. I haven’t seen a lot of residual bits of food on our dinnerware, but my wife’s habit still bothers me. Should I make some comment about dishwasher arrangements, hoping to give her a learning opportunity, or maybe suggest that we read the instruction manual together? Or should I just forget about it and let the crumbs fall as they may? We are otherwise happily married.

—Michael 

If loading the dishwasher were the only issue in your relationship (now or in the future), I would recommend an evening with the instruction manual and other sources on optimal dishwasher use. But it’s probably not going to be the only small annoyance in your marriage—minor irritations are a natural part of a healthy relationship. So I suggest that you consider this an opportunity for personal growth. Since your wife’s method doesn’t seem to lead to dirtier dinnerware, why not let it be? Letting go is an important skill—and you have in this everyday chore a great opportunity to practice it.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Money Management, Temper Tantrums, and Retirement Rank

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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Hi, Dan.

I work as the managing director at a small nonprofit with 10 full-time staffers. I recently learned that one of the senior program directors, with a position junior to mine, makes nearly $15,000 a year more than I do. He consistently gets poor performance reviews and has done little fund-raising to keep our organization running. He’s also a white man (I am a woman of Middle Eastern descent) and about 30 years older than I. Should I say something to my boss about this? My salary is decent after all, and the job market is tough.

—Sandy 

In general, it’s not only our own salary but also how much our colleagues are paid that makes us happy or unhappy with what we’re earning. Having an unproductive subordinate earning more than you would annoy anyone—and the feeling will probably grow over time. With this in mind, you should ask your boss for an explanation. Maybe you’ll find that your colleague is getting paid more for a good reason, or that your organization will fix the inequity between the salaries—or that you are going to be happier elsewhere.

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Hi, Dan.

My 5-year-old frequently throws temper tantrums when he doesn’t get his way. When we are in public (say, on the bus or train), I often give in to him to head off the screaming and my resulting embarrassment. After each incident, he promises to behave better, but his tantrums just seem to escalate. I think he’s being manipulative. What can I do?

—Margie 

You’ve got what sounds like a garden-variety tantrum problem. I think that your son is just being a child and trying to fulfill his goals. Since you are teaching him that when he screams, you give him what he wants, he will continue that strategy until it stops working. This kind of conditioning strongly influences children—and the rest of us to some extent. The solution is to not give in to the screaming, while also making clear that you’re far more likely to yield when your son communicates calmly. Changing the conditioning will take time and expose a lot of innocent bystanders to screaming, but in the long run it will be worth it.

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Dear Dr. Ariely,

My wife has retired, but I’m still working at age 71, and we live with some difficulty from paycheck to paycheck. I don’t touch the more than $1 million in my retirement fund. Technically, I’m a millionaire, but I don’t behave like one. Should I start thinking of myself as wealthy and act accordingly?

—Norman 

Yes, you should. Since I am hoping that you and your wife will live a long life, I am not advising you to go on a spending spree. At the same time, it might be useful for you to think of yourself as having a higher socioeconomic status. A study published in the journal Health Psychology in 2000 by Nancy E. Adler and colleagues showed that subjective socioeconomic status (i.e., where people ranked themselves relative to others) was more predictive of physical health and psychological well-being than actual socioeconomic rank. So while I don’t think that you should start spending like a millionaire, it may help to think of yourself as one.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Casual Courtesy, Inconvenient Inheritance, and First-Hand Filing

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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Hi Dan.

At a “fast casual” restaurant without table service, the payment screen offered me a “No Tip” option or tips of 15%, 18% and 20%. I felt these were too high, since I had stood in line and was carrying my own food. I gave the minimum 15%—still a lot more than I have ever tipped in a fast-food place. I felt manipulated by the screen and wonder if this system prods people to tip more.

—Robert 

Yes, such screens boost tips through a design principle called “active choice.” Many fast-food restaurants simply have an easily ignorable tip jar. But with the screen, neglecting to tip feels much worse, like a rejection of the staff. On the other hand, please remember that the people working at fast-food places work just as many hours as standard servers, for less money. Many may not be making a living wage. Helping them out a bit is a good thing to do.

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Dear Dan,

To my surprise, I learned that my recently deceased grandfather owned mineral rights to some land highly coveted by an oil company. The acreage seems to be perfect for extracting oil from shale rock, or fracking. I’m named in my grandfather’s will, and when I heard that some of his other heirs had been negotiating with the oil people for a sale, I was giddy imagining profits that could change my life as well as my family’s. But that didn’t last long. I consider myself an environmentalist and have voted against fracking in my home state. Should I protest the sale right now, wait and see the size of my potential gains or commit to putting all or part of my share into a conservation charity?

—David 

It’s harder to be an environmentalist when it means that you really have to give up something. In your case, it’s admirable that you are serious about giving up something that is potentially of great value.

It makes sense to commit to a course of action before you have all the information, like how much money is at stake. Acting under what’s sometimes called “the veil of ignorance” is often a very good way to make such decisions. If your share of the proceeds really was enough to change your family’s life—say, $800,000—you would have a good reason to question your moral convictions. Here’s another strategy: Keep the money, estimate the dollar cost of the environmental damage from digging up the land, commit 110% of that amount to conservation efforts and try to persuade your relatives to do the same. Good luck.

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Dear Dan,

My wife and I often argue about infrequent but time-intensive and complex administrative tasks like filing taxes. She’s very sensitive about money and thinks that since we save some by doing these tasks ourselves, I should spend a day or two on them. I think my time is worth some money and would rather pay an expert to take things off my plate. How can I convince her?

—Michael 

In general it’s easy for us to discount someone else’s annoyance. So, for the next few of these irritating administrative tasks, why not ask your wife to do them herself (or at least do them together with you). After experiencing the pain of these tasks first-hand, she will most likely change her mind and see the rationale of paying a professional.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Patient Problems, Friday Fiascos, and Payment Puzzles

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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Hi Dan,

I manage an outpatient department at a large hospital, and half the patients don’t show up for their appointments. This wastes everyone’s time and reduces the quality of care. We already send patients automated phone messages, reminding them of their appointments, telling them of the no-show problem and urging them to call us if they can’t come. Sadly, this hasn’t made much difference in the no-show rate. What else could we do?

—Sincerely, Gad 

To start with, I would reframe the phone messages. By telling patients that skipping appointments is common, you’re implying that it’s an accepted norm. Instead, I would emphasize the norm of personal responsibility. The phone message could remind patients that they have made a promise to show up, that this promise is important and that you expect them to be there.

To strengthen the effect, I would send the message not from “the department” but from someone they care about—their doctor or the nurse they deal with. I would ask them not only to let this hospital staffer know if they plan to skip the appointment but also to send an email if they plan to keep it. This solidifies the promise—and the embarrassment if it’s broken.

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Dan,

Why does everything always go wrong on Friday evening at 5 p.m., just before I am about to leave work for the weekend?

—Matt

Actually, things don’t always go wrong at that time—but that’s how we remember it. We don’t have equally strong memories of all mishaps and are more likely to remember Friday problems, since they can delay or even ruin our weekend. In fact, the same magnitude of event that we usually think of as a mishap might be classified on Friday as a full-fledged disaster.

When phenomena come to mind more easily, we also think they’re more frequent (a finding in psychology known as the availability bias). Take the question, “Which is more common—words that start with r or have r in the third space?” The knee-jerk reaction is to pick the starting position, because it’s easier to come up with those words. Similarly, many people think flying is more dangerous than driving, though there are far more car fatalities, since plane crashes get huge news coverage and in their massive loss of life are very upsetting. So to get back to your original question: It’s not about Friday; it’s about your attention and memory.

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Hey Dan,

I’m still in college with a part-time job, but my boyfriend works full time and earns a handsome salary. When we go out he expects us to split the bills equally. Do you think this is fair?

—Aishwarya

There are lots of versions of fair. My own version would be for each of you to pay in rough proportion to what you earn. But, before you propose this approach, be careful. Whatever version of “fair” you pick should be one you’re happy with—even if you start making much more money than your boyfriend.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Comparing Competition, Lamenting Losses, and Rewarding Relatives

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,

After performance reviews at work, many of my colleagues started boasting about how much they had excelled. Since I didn’t do as well, I couldn’t help feeling discouraged. I just didn’t feel motivated any more to improve. Is that a common response? Or do most people want to do better when they discover others are thriving?

—Brad 

Your feeling is perfectly normal. We instinctively compare ourselves to other people who are thinner, richer, more successful and so on. Once, during an online course, I had students anonymously grade the work of their peers, so that good and not-so-good students saw firsthand how others were measuring up. The not-so-good students who saw the better performance of their peers were 16% more likely to quit the course than if they had graded students at their own level.

I would suggest that you work to control your exposure to personal comparisons, so that you don’t feel inferior and stay motivated. You may need to surround yourself with a new mix of people. That could mean spending more time with friends outside work. As for the office, find some colleagues who perform at your level or worse. Switching water-cooler talk away from workplace competition might help, too.

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Hi, Dan.

I recently misplaced my wallet, which held about $80. For many days I couldn’t stop thinking about the loss. But as a stock-market investor, I often lose much more than that in a day. Why am I thinking so irrationally?

—Best regards, Ramesh

A few irrational things are probably going on. First, an $80 stock-market loss feels far less significant because it’s a small percentage of your total portfolio. When you lose $80 and your wallet, it feels overwhelming because, even though it’s temporary, you have no money.

Cash affects us more deeply than more abstract forms of money. In a study by Drazen Prelec and Duncan Simester that was published in 2001 in the journal Marketing Letters, the researchers asked M.B.A. students to join an auction for basketball tickets. The researchers told some students they could pay with credit cards, others that they had to use cash. The students told to use credit cards were willing to pay about twice as much as the cash users.

Cash feels much more tangible, while credit cards and stocks muffle the feeling of the loss.

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Dear Dan,

Thanks to affordable DNA testing, I have recently discovered new relatives and will be meeting my half-sisters for the first time in a few weeks. But I’m having trouble thinking of a gift to give them to mark this once-in-a-lifetime occasion. A bottle of wine just isn’t going to do it. What recommendations can you make? Thank you!

—Dan 

Why don’t you give them an album of family photos from your own childhood? In addition to being a very personal gift, it will help to start the conversation as you learn about each others’ lives.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Flexibility Fees, Climate Commitments, and Sensible Surprises

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 you’ve often written about money as a motivator. This semester, I would like to join a yoga class that requires a substantial one-time registration fee. Will paying this amount in advance motivate me to attend regularly to make up for the money I’ve spent?

—Jeff 

Yes, we’re much more likely to do things when we commit to them in advance and have sunk costs. One challenge with this approach is that, over time, you might forget that you have paid that large initial fee. I would recommend that you print the receipt from your one-time registration fee, laminate it and attach it to the door of your refrigerator. This would not only be a constant reminder to attend your yoga class but also might be useful encouragement to eat more healthily.

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Dear Dan,

I am very concerned about climate change, and I try to minimize my own consumption. I don’t drive much, avoid products packaged in plastic, grow as much of my own food as I can and use video chats with my relatives instead of flying to visit them. At the same time, I know that my individual choices and sacrifices are not having much of an impact on this gigantic problem, so I find it hard sometimes to keep to these restrictions. How can I increase my motivation and stick to my principles?

—SF 

Climate change is certainly one of the toughest behavioral issues, for exactly the reason you cite: Our individual actions feel like a drop in the bucket, and this discourages us from acting.

One of the best ways to boost your motivation is to use the people around you. You could, for example, rally some friends, neighbors, co-workers and family members to join you in your effort to limit consumption. You might start by asking them to commit to one action, such as putting a five-minute cap on showers, and then all of you could track your success together. By acting together, you will feel that your impact is larger.

One example of such motivation comes from a study recently conducted for the grass-roots political group Postcards4VA by the social psychologist Brett Major, described in the journal Behavioral Scientist. The study looked at what motivates people to volunteer more for political action. As you might expect, those who had joined political groups were more likely than the unaffiliated to act politically. Group participants were also more likely to have a positive experience and to intend taking future action; they were also less likely to get burned out. So before you give up on your cause, call a few friends.

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Dear Dan,

I live abroad. My girlfriend has never been to my hometown, and my parents are always asking me to bring her when I go to visit them. In October I plan to do that, though my family doesn’t know. What would make them happier: to surprise them when she shows up with me or to tell them in advance and let them enjoy the anticipation?

—Miquel 

Surprise and anticipation can each lead to happiness. In your case, surprising your parents might make the first hour of your visit more exciting for them—but after that, it might take a few weeks for them to get over the shock. In this case, I would advise you to give them plenty of time to look forward to your joint visit.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.