The Blog

Ask Ariely: On Overwhelming Options, Better Budgets, and Expensive Emotions

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 offered to purchase a computer as a gift for a close relative, and I asked him to pick out the one he wanted. But he simply can’t make a choice. He keeps comparing different models and researching all the available features, even though I’m sure he will never use most of them. How can I help him to make a decision?

—Stanley 

Choice paralysis, or what’s sometimes called “paralysis by analysis,” is a common problem. Some famous experiments in behavioral science have shown that making decisions is harder when you have too many options and too much information. To force your relative to limit his search, tell him that the two of you will sit down together and go shopping online for two hours; then you’ll buy the best computer you’ve found in that time. Using firm deadlines is a good way to combat our indecisive nature.

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Dear Dan,

I use a budgeting app to set monthly spending goals for each category of expense, but every month I find that I’ve gone over my limit in multiple categories. Are budgeting apps just a waste of time?

—Anthony 

The struggle that you are experiencing is not between you and your app but between your emotional self, which wants to get things now, and your cognitive self, which wants you to plan for a better future. My guess is that you’d be in an even worse situation without the app.

Budgeting isn’t effective if you set a spending goal and then don’t think about it again until the end of the month. Instead, try using the app to analyze your spending every other day. That way, when you find yourself spending too much, you’ll be able to adjust your behavior to stay on track for your monthly goal, rather than discovering you’ve overspent only when it’s too late to do anything about it.

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Dear Dan,

Our daughter attends a very expensive private university, where I recently attended an event. There were lots of freebies for us to take, including fancy snacks and notebooks with the university logo. I was excited to get these items, but of course they aren’t really free since we pay so much in tuition.

I thought about this last week when my tennis team was playing a match at a different club, and we were asked to pay a $10 fee to use the facilities. This felt annoying and unfair, even though I spend a lot more than that on my tennis hobby overall. Why did I get so excited about those “free” items and so angry about this small expense, when neither of them really matters in the big picture?

—Juliet 

The problem is that we tend to think about each of our expenses separately, rather than seeing them in their overall context. This is the source of many of our irrational financial decisions and emotions—whether it’s paying high fees to money managers who don’t justify the cost, or paying Amazon an annual fee for “free” shipping or getting annoyed when the supermarket starts charging a nickel for a plastic bag. It’s not easy to think clearly about each small expense in terms of our total financial situation, but if you can, you will be able to make better decisions about money.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Simple Savings, Better Bonuses, and Revised 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,

My partner and I are students, and we have very different approaches to dealing with money. My policy is to spend less than I earn and invest my savings for the long term. But my partner feels that since we will both be earning more money after we graduate, we should spend freely now and enjoy the moment. Is there any way to avoid fighting about this issue?

—Mathieu 

The bad news is that our preferences about spending and saving can be difficult to change. That’s why most divorced couples name finances as one of the major reasons for their split. The best way to avoid that fate is to recognize that you and your partner can’t change each other. Instead, you should minimize areas of conflict.

Try setting up a joint bank account in which you can both deposit your paychecks. Use that account to pay shared expenses such as rent and utilities. In addition, you should each have individual accounts for discretionary spending, into which you can transfer a fixed amount from your joint account every month. That money can be used for spending or saving as you see fit. You may still disagree, but this way you’ll only be arguing about the smaller amounts in your individual accounts, which limits the size of the problem. And remember, the goal of money is to buy happiness. If you keep fighting about it, what’s the point?

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Dear Dan,

I work for a tech company as a software engineer. Our bonuses are tied to quarterly evaluations, which means that managers are much more likely to reward short-term gains than ideas that take a year to generate results. Since the introduction of this bonus structure, I’ve been concentrating much more on short-term projects with visible results. Am I really doing the right thing for the company, or am I just gaming the system to get paid more?

—Justin 

There’s no question about it: Your strategy is designed to make more money for you personally, but it will hurt the company in the long term. When the company created this bonus structure, they probably thought it made sense, because short-term results are easier to measure. But it is counterproductive if employees become less motivated to take on riskier, more ambitious projects with potentially higher payoffs. It’s hard to ignore a bad incentive structure, so if I were you I would try to convince management to change it and measure the things that matter, even if they are complex or hard to quantify.

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Hi, Dan.

Do you think New Year’s resolutions have any value, given that most people don’t keep them?

—Molly 

I do, but they’re just a start. To get a resolution to stick, we need to make the desired behavior automatic. For instance, if you want to exercise more, build a very simple habit: Every Tuesday at 5 p.m., go to a group exercise class after work. Ideally it will be something you find enjoyable and rewarding, so that the habit is more likely to stick. The more you repeat a behavior in the same context at the same time, the more automatic it will become and the less you’ll have to rely on willpower. For a good introduction to the research on this topic, I recommend Wendy Wood’s recent book, “Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes that Stick.”

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Irrational Investments and Company Complaints

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,

One of my credit cards bears the words “member since 1989.” The truth is that I haven’t used this card in years, even though I pay a $95 annual fee for it. But I can’t seem to bring myself to cancel it, simply because of that “member since 1989”! It feels like I would be giving up a status I’ve been building for 30 years. Why is it so hard for me to make what is clearly the rational financial decision?

—Arielle 

You’re suffering from what economists call the “sunk cost fallacy.” To understand how this works, imagine you have spent 15 hours writing a new book, and you have 50 more hours to put in before you’re finished. Then you learn that someone else’s book on the exact same subject will be coming out next week. Should you keep working on your book for another 50 hours? Most people would say no—why spend so much time on a project that is unlikely to be successful?

But now imagine that instead of 15 hours, you have invested 1,500 hours in writing your book. In that case, would you put in another 50 hours to get it done? Now most people would say yes—if you’ve already spent 1,500 hours on something, why not put in the last 50 to finish it?

In both cases you are being asked to make the same amount of effort for the same doubtful result. But when you’ve invested a lot of time—or a lot of money—it’s hard to make the rational decision to write off your sunk cost and shift your resources to something better.
You’re facing a similar problem when it comes to your credit card. To make the decision clearer, ask yourself if you would keep paying for the card if it only said “member since 2019.” If your answer is yes, then keep it; if the answer is no, it’s clear that you are a victim of the sunk cost fallacy and you should cancel the card now, before that cost gets even bigger.

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Hi Dan,

At least once a day, someone in my office sends an email to the whole company complaining about some small issue: Someone took the wrong lunch from the refrigerator, or someone drank the last of the coffee and didn’t make a new pot. I find it really annoying. Is there a way to get people to complain less?

—George 

It seems like it should be simple to convince people to be more patient and polite. But the truth is that it’s much easier to change your own attitude than it is to change the behavior of your co-workers. One approach would be to make a game out of it: Every Monday, make a prediction about how many of these complaints will come your way that week. If your prediction is correct, reward yourself with some small indulgence. That way, you can think about the complaints not just as annoyances but as a way to earn a reward.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Team Tragedy, Airport Anxiety, and Grumpy Gift-wrapping

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 have a hard time watching my favorite football team on TV because I get so upset when they are behind, and when they lose I’m really miserable. Is there a way for me to enjoy the game without taking the result so seriously?

—Brian 

One option is to remove the element of surprise by recording the game and having someone tell you the final score before you watch. That way, you will feel less emotionally invested in the outcome and you’ll be able to enjoy the game more for its own sake.

Another approach is to pick a treat that you enjoy—let’s say chocolate—and have some only if your team loses. This would make the loss bittersweet, since you would offset the unhappiness of losing with the pleasure of the chocolate.

Still, as with all kinds of love, loving a team will inevitably bring occasional heartbreak. The best way to deal with it is by learning to appreciate that emotional complexity, with all the good and bad feelings involved.

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Dear Dan,

My partner thinks it’s better to arrive at the airport hours early to avoid feeling anxious about missing our flight. But I would rather put that time to good use and minimize the hours spent waiting aimlessly at the gate. What’s a good rule of thumb for travel planning?

—Emma 

The key here is your partner’s anxiety. If you were simply trying to calculate the most efficient way to use your own time, you would look at how much time you would waste waiting at the airport (discounted by the useful things you can do there, like catching up on email or reading a book) and compare it with how much time you would lose if you missed your flight. Then you could come up with an optimal solution for yourself.

But once you start considering your partner’s feelings of anxiety, you are in the irrational domain of emotions, which are harder to calculate. Try to figure out how severe your significant other’s anxiety is and how long it lasts. If he is highly anxious for, say, 48 hours before the flight, it would be worthwhile to agree to arrive at the airport a few hours early to eliminate his unhappiness. In general, we need to focus not just on how to use our own time efficiently but on what we can do to make our loved ones happy, rational or not.

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Dear Dan,

I spent half a day wrapping Christmas gifts for my family this year. Is it really worth my time?

—Jessica 

Even though it’s time-consuming, wrapping gifts is worthwhile since it makes the recipients enjoy them more, according to a 1992 study published in the Journal of Consumer Psychology. The effect holds even when the wrap is transparent and the recipient can see what’s inside. That’s because wrapping slows down the process of opening the gift, which helps us pay closer attention to the experience. Unwrapping gifts is like the ritual of drinking wine: Swirling it in the glass, looking at it and smelling it all slow things down so that we can focus on the pleasure ahead.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Soiled Sinks, Busy Bathrooms, and Dainty Donations

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,

People in my office drink a lot of coffee, which means a lot of mugs pile up in the sink. What happens is that one person leaves a dirty mug, and the next person to use the kitchen doesn’t want to clean that mug along with their own, so they leave theirs in the sink as well. Soon the sink is overflowing with these dirty dishes, and no one wants to take the time to wash all of them. If everyone just washed their own mug there wouldn’t be a problem, but what can we do to enforce this rule?

—Oran 

As you observed, the heart of the problem is the first mug: If someone observes a dirty dish in the sink, they are less likely to wash their own, and so the problem is compounded over time. In my lab at Duke University we had the same issue, and we tried two different solutions. First, I put a picture of myself above the sink, looking directly into peoples’ eyes, with the message “Please don’t leave your dish in the sink.” This was meant to remind people of the importance of the rule, but while it helped a little, it didn’t eliminate the problem. Our next step was to issue everyone in the office a mug with their name written on it, so that it would be obvious who was responsible for leaving a dirty mug in the sink. The threat of being publicly embarrassed managed to solve the problem almost completely.

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Dear Dan,

When I’m using the urinal in a public bathroom, it seems to me that I finish much faster when I’m alone than when someone is standing at the urinal next to me. Do you think this is a real phenomenon, or does it just feel that way because I’m more self-conscious when someone else is nearby?

—Joe 

I once conducted an experiment on this subject on the MIT campus, in which a research assistant would enter a public men’s room alongside unsuspecting students. Sometimes he would use a urinal right next to a student, while other times he would leave a free urinal between them. We found that when men have someone using the urinal next to them, it takes them longer to start urinating, but once they start they finish faster, as if they’re trying to get it over with and leave quickly. So you’re not imagining it: Being observed in the bathroom does make the experience more stressful.

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Dear Dan,

Recently I’ve been bombarded with requests for donations from various charities and political groups. Is it better to donate larger amounts of money to a few causes or smaller amounts to many?

—Barbara 

There are many ways to define “better,” but if you’re asking what’s better for you personally, I would recommend making smaller, more frequent donations. Every time we help others, even a small amount, we get a boost of positive emotion, so you would enjoy this benefit more often. And because it’s psychologically harder to part with large amounts of money, you will enjoy making small donations more, which means you’re more likely to make giving into a habit.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Doing Dishes, Curbing Consumerism, and Reducing Regret

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,

When I host friends for dinner, can I ask them to help with cleaning up afterward? I hate doing dishes, but maybe it’s impolite to ask guests to share the load.

—Evelyn 

I think that you should ask your friends to help. Doing dishes isn’t fun, but if your guests pitch in they will derive satisfaction from knowing they are helping you out. Not only is it a way for them to express appreciation for the meal, but working together on a task is a way of increasing social bonds.

But since the end of an experience is important in determining how we remember and evaluate it, you may want to avoid ending the evening with this chore. Instead, try cleaning up together right after the meal and then invite everyone for a final drink. Of course, that would create a few more glasses to wash, but you would end the evening on a positive note.

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Hi, Dan.

I’ve told my family and friends that I don’t want them to buy me any gifts for the holidays this year—I already have everything I need. I’ve also learned about the bad working conditions for store employees during the holiday season and don’t want to contribute to the problem. Still, I’m worried that by cutting out gifts, I’ll miss the fun and energy of the season. Do you have any suggestions for other ways to show generosity?

—Name 

Your commitment to avoiding consumerism this holiday season is admirable, but naturally it would be disappointing to see all your friends having fun and getting gifts while you don’t.

Why don’t you make a list of items you have at home in good condition but don’t want, and ask your friends to make a similar list. On Black Friday weekend, instead of hitting the sales, you could all get together and exchange things on your lists. If you want to have the fun of hunting for bargains, you could even hold an “auction” where you negotiate which items you are willing to trade. This way you will get some new things for the holidays, you will experience some of the fun of shopping and looking for deals, and you will be sticking to your principles.

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Dear Dan,

I’m shopping for a new car and I’ve been finding it hard to make a decision. Which would I regret more—buying a car I really want but later finding out that I made a bad choice, or not buying the car I really want and later finding out I should have bought it?

—Warren 

Research shows that in the short term, we tend to regret actions—in this case, buying a car—more than inactions. But in the long term, we’re more likely to regret the things we didn’t do. Psychologists suspect that this is because the consequences of inaction are uncertain and take much longer to make an impact. So while you might have regrets at first if you buy a car you don’t like, choosing not to buy a car you love would be worse in the long run.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Expense Explanations, Nicotine Notices, and Fatal Fantasies

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 lead a small startup with an informal human-resources system. To get employees to report expenses accurately, would it be better to create detailed policies or to set out general principles for people to follow?

—Jenna 

Setting out general principles is a better approach. Even if you made your company policies very detailed, it’s impossible to anticipate every contingency that might arise, so they will inevitably be incomplete. What’s more, when people are given highly specific rules, it’s easier for them to adhere to the letter of the law rather than to the spirit—telling themselves that they are not misbehaving even when they are. And bureaucracy is the enemy of trust: Every time you make people explain why they should be reimbursed for that extra cup of coffee, you are communicating to them that you don’t trust them.

Instead of creating a list of allowable expenses, try asking people to spend the company’s money as if it was their own. You could also remind them that a rigid system for expenses would make it more difficult for them to be reimbursed, so that in the long run behaving honestly will benefit both the company and its employees.

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Dear Dan,

There has been a lot of news recently about the potential dangers of e-cigarettes, and some states have even moved to ban them. But obesity is a much bigger public health problem, and the government isn’t trying to ban fattening foods. Why is there a disproportionate response to e-cigarettes?

—Dylan

One of the main reasons is that cigarettes themselves are widely known to be unhealthy, so we are prepared to be suspicious of any product that resembles them. Imagine that, instead of looking like a cigarette, liquid nicotine was mixed with coffee and drunk from a mug. Would people be as eager to ban it? I don’t think so.

Our reactions are often based more on emotion than on logic, and in this case the distrust many people feel toward tobacco and tobacco companies fuels their willingness to believe that e-cigarettes are especially dangerous.

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Dear Dan,

I sometimes think about what it would be like if my husband died. Is this normal?

—Sheila 

The evidence I’ve collected in an informal survey of 40 people suggests that, after a few years of marriage, it is perfectly normal to fantasize about your significant other dying. In fact, I found that the vast majority of respondents had thought in surprising detail about how they want their spouse to die. They tended to think about this in terms of a trade-off between how much their spouse was going to suffer and how long the survivor would be expected to mourn.

A sudden death by car accident, for example, minimized the suffering of the victim, but it seemed to demand a long mourning period from the survivor. On the other hand, a prolonged battle with cancer meant extended suffering but allowed the surviving spouse to move on after death. Most people hoped for something in between: a brief illness that would not involve too much suffering for the dying spouse and would allow the survivor to resume their life quickly.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Cooking Tales

Dear friends,

As part of the research for my next book (yes, it is time to get back to my cooking book), I am collecting stories about cooking or food that illustrate a social science principle. If you have one, I would be grateful if you could share it with me here. This will help me very much and in return, if I will use your story I will send you a book when it is ready and done.

Please submit the story using this link.

Many thanks,

Dan

Ask Ariely: On Deconstructing Dieting, Advising Advantages, and Judging Jokes

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 diet goal is to stop eating so many sweets and start eating more vegetables. Would it be easier for me to focus on avoiding what I don’t want to eat or on eating more of what I should?

—Charlotte 

Whether you focus on the positive goal or the negative one, the key thing to keep in mind is what social scientists call the principle of “friction”: People tend to follow the course of action that requires the least effort.

What this means is that you should arrange your environment to make it easier to achieve your goals. Place vegetables in a visible spot in your refrigerator and make sure that you serve them first at mealtimes, so you will have to expend minimal effort to eat them. Do the opposite with sweets—place them out of sight or on the highest shelf in the pantry, making them harder to reach.

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Dear Dan,

At my company, management is encouraging employees to seek advice and feedback from one another to improve our performance. But in my experience, it’s really hard to get people to give you useful, honest feedback, because they are afraid of giving offense. Is there any way to make this process work, or is it going to be a waste of time?

—Patricia 

You’re right that people are unlikely to give accurate and honest feedback to their co-workers; there is a lot of social pressure against offering criticism, and people who receive it are likely to take offense.

But while it’s often hard to change our behavior in response to feedback, it turns out that giving advice can be more useful than receiving it. A recent study published in the journal Psychological Science shows that people who gave advice were more motivated when it came to challenges like controlling their tempers, saving money and finding jobs. In a follow-up study, high-school students who gave advice earned higher grades than those who received it.

This research suggests that giving advice can be a powerful confidence-booster—so your company’s initiative might be useful overall, even if people don’t act on the advice they receive.

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Dear Dan,

I’ve noticed that jokes that are meant to be funny sometimes come across as painful or offensive. Is there a way to know whether a joke is going to hurt people’s feelings?

—Pete 

According to the behavioral scientist Peter McGraw of the University of Colorado, Boulder, jokes are funny when they involve “benign violations”: They transgress a social norm but not so much that they become objectionable. The trick is to hit the sweet spot between amusing and offensive.

For example, The Onion recently ran the headline “Harvard Officials Say $8.9 Million Donation From Jeffrey Epstein Was From Brief Recovery Period When He Wasn’t A Pedophile.” When I asked my friends how funny they found this headline, the ones from Harvard found it much less funny.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Meaningful Meals, Ideal Interviews, and Quick Consequences

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 retired parents and I usually go out for lunch every other Sunday. We have been taking turns paying the check, but I know that I make more money than they do. Should I start paying for all the meals or at least cover the tip when they are paying?

—Andrew 

Since you’ve established a custom of taking turns paying for meals, I think you should continue on that basis. Think of these meals as gifts that you are giving each other: The purpose of gift-giving is to help strengthen relationships rather than a strictly financial exchange. If you are worried about potential strain on your parents, you can offer to pay some of their other bills or give them a yearly cash gift, but I would separate the issue of their finances from the weekly tradition that you have established.

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Dear Dan,

I am applying for a CFO role at a public company. I am competing for the job with several other candidates, and the interviews with the board of directors will take place over the course of a week. Should I try to schedule my interview early in the week, late in the week or somewhere in the middle?

—Eric 

There are two countervailing forces here. One is the exhaustion of the people interviewing you, which will likely increase over the course of the week. When people get tired, they’re more likely to make negative decisions. There’s a disturbing study on judges’ decisions to grant parole, showing that they are twice as likely to accept a prisoner’s application when they decide in the morning than at the end of the day. From that perspective, it’s better for your interview to take place on Monday.

On the other hand, the “recency effect” says that people are more likely to remember the most recent information. If the board is making its decision after the last interview, it would be to your advantage to be later in the week, so that you’ll still be prominent in their memories. The question is which force is going to be stronger. If you think the process is going to be exhausting for the people interviewing you, go early in the week; if not, try to go late.

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Dear Dan,

In general, what do you think are the domains where we make our best and worst decisions?

—David 

People are generally better at making decisions about the physical world than they are when it comes to the mental world. That’s because when we make physical mistakes we see the consequences right away—think about the consequences of bad driving—while mistakes that we make in the mental world take much longer to appear—such as the consequences of making bad choices in elections.

This difference came home to me on a recent trip to London. The British have been able to create a material environment that is just amazing, from the beauty of the buildings to the quality of public transportation. Yet the political crisis in the U.K. suggests that when it comes to making decisions about the future of their country, they are finding things much tougher to manage.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.