The Blog

Ask Ariely: On Craving Companions, Finding Fairness, and Delaying Decisions

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 started college a couple of weeks ago, and I find myself very preoccupied about whether the people I’m meeting like me. Do you have any advice about how I can relax around people?

—Bronwyn 

You will be relieved to know that most of us tend to underestimate how much people enjoy our company. In 2018, Erica J. Boothby and colleagues published a paper about the “liking gap”—the difference between how much we think other people like us and how much they actually like us. In one of their studies, they asked first-year college students to rate how much they liked a given roommate and how much they believed their roommates liked them, starting in September and continuing throughout the school year.

They found that participants systematically underestimated how much they were liked. In fact, it wasn’t until May, after living together for eight months, that people accurately perceived how much they were liked. So try to focus your social energy on spending quality time with friends and don’t worry too much about the outcome.

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Dear Dan,

I work for a nonprofit organization that offers mindfulness retreats for teens. Our tuition model is that we request 1% of a family’s income, up to $2,000, for a week-long retreat. We feel that this model is fair, but some higher-income families object to paying more than others for the same service. Why do they feel this way, when the cost is such a small share of their income?

—Tom 

Our perception of what is fair depends to a large degree on what we’re being asked to give up to achieve a fair outcome. In your arrangement, people with more money are being asked to pay more, so they are likely to see a fixed price for tuition as being more fair than a sliding scale—and vice versa for families with less money.

One way to try to overcome this bias is what the political philosopher John Rawls called the “veil of ignorance.” In this approach, people are asked to design an imaginary society they will have to live in, without knowing whether they are going to be rich or poor. This means that they have to decide what is fair before they know how much they will personally stand to gain or lose from any given arrangement—for instance, the tax rate. Maybe you can try an exercise of this sort related to tuition as part of your mindfulness teaching.

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Hi, Dan.

I have an aging but perfectly fine car and waste a lot of time pining for something more modern and comfortable. But I haven’t found a new model I love, and with technological improvements happening so fast, cars are getting better every year. Should I wait for the perfect car to come along or should I compromise and buy something now?

—Alex 

My sense is that if you don’t like any of the available options, it means you’re not yet ready to make a change. Happiness isn’t just about what we have and don’t have; it’s also about not constantly looking for something better. Why don’t you decide that you won’t look at new cars for a certain period—say, two years—and then give yourself a three-month window to research a purchase. At the end of that time, you will pick the best option available. This way, you won’t waste time and energy on an open-ended search.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Balancing Birthdays, Valuing Vacations, and Finding Fulfillment

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 am a widow, and my friendships are very important to me. But many of my friends are couples, and each year I end up buying birthday gifts for both the husband and the wife, plus an anniversary gift. While I always get a nice present in exchange on my birthday, the balance of gift-giving seems unfair. Is there a more evenhanded way to exchange gifts?

—Carol 

It’s very hard to shift social norms about gift-giving, especially when a pattern is well established. The best approach might be to try to replace the current norm with a new one. For example, what if you told your friends that you are concerned about the environment and want to try to reduce your level of consumption and waste, so you are planning to start giving cards instead of gifts. Ask them to help you with this commitment by giving you cards in exchange. This way, you would be appealing to a moral principle, rather than telling the that all you are trying to do is to save SOME money.

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Dear Dan,

I’m planning a vacation, and I’m considering a prepaid, all-inclusive resort, so that I won’t have to worry about the cost of every drink and sandwich. But I’m concerned that the all-inclusive package won’t be as good an experience as some of the other, pay-as-you-go options that I’m looking at. Is prepaying always the best choice?

—Saurabh 

You’re certainly right that an all-inclusive resort isn’t always the highest-quality option. But you have to remember that what’s most important is whether you’re going to enjoy the experience you have. Constantly having to make decisions about what to buy can detract from your vacation experience, even if the hotels or restaurants you end up patronizing are of better quality.

In general, when you make a decision, it’s better not to ask “Am I choosing the absolute best option?” Instead, you should consider your enjoyment of the experience as a whole, including your ability to relax and your peace of mind.

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Dear Dan,

I grew up in a working-class household, and I’ve been upwardly mobile in my career, but I’ve recently begun to feel that my job is meaningless. Should I think about my work merely as a way to make money to survive? Or would it be better for me to look for a job that I can take pride in as part of my identity?

—Ella 

The research is very clear that finding meaning in your job is necessary for happiness. At the same time, if too much of your identity is tied up in your job, it can make you more vulnerable to work-related stress. A study conducted in 1995 by Michael R. Frone, Marcia Russell and M. Lynne Cooper found that people who strongly connected their identities with their jobs were much more sensitive to work stressors than those who thought about their work in a more casual and detached way.

Ideally, you should look for work that gives you a sense of pride and meaning, but you should also remember that a job doesn’t define you, and that there are other, equally important parts of your identity.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Amazing Decisions!

Hello all,

I’m excited to share with you my new graphic novel with illustrator Matt R. Trower, Amazing Decisions: The Illustrated Guide to Improving Business Deals and Family Meals. This book will help you understand how to navigate the complex and curious interaction between social norms and market norms… and make better decisions for it!

Please watch this video to understand more, and find the book here on Amazon or in your local bookstore!

Ask Ariely: On Overwhelming Options, Frustrating Fees, and Valuable Vocations

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,

Does the fact that so many Democrats are running for President in 2020 make it more difficult for voters to choose among them? I’m especially interested in politics, and even I find it hard to compare each candidate’s positions. I wonder if many Democratic voters will simply give up on paying attention to the primaries.

—Tracy 

In behavioral science, we call this phenomenon “the paradox of choice.” While many people report that they like having more choices, having too many choices can end up making it impossible to make a decision at all. For example, when people are given a lot of flavors of jam to choose from, they tend to sample more flavors, but they are less likely to actually buy one of them. In the case of the Democratic primaries, the number of candidates is certainly overwhelming, and I think it is likely to decrease voter turnout.

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Dear Dan,

During a recent doctor visit, I was asked to sign an agreement saying that if I missed a future appointment I would have to pay a $50 fee. I thought this was excessive and refused to sign. Does this kind of policy really get more people to show up for medical appointments?

—George 

Negative incentives—in other words, punishments—are more complex than they seem and can backfire. One of my favorite studies on this topic is by the economists Uri Gneezy and Aldo Rustichini, who showed that when a day-care instituted a fine for late drop-offs, parents became even less likely to arrive on time. Instead of viewing the fine as a punishment, parents saw it as a way to pay for the right to be late, and they took advantage of this service without guilt.

In your case, I would expect to see a similar result: Patients might feel more entitled to miss appointments if they know they can pay a fee for it. In addition, the system will probably make patients even more furious when doctors are inevitably late, since it implies that the doctors think their own time is more valuable than that of their patients.

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Dear Dan,

Do people’s salaries tend to accurately reflect the value they contribute to society? Can we assume that if someone makes a lot of money, they are adding significantly more value than someone who makes only a little?

—Richard 

On the contrary, there are many people who create a lot of value and don’t get paid much, as well as many who create very little value and get paid well. One of the best examples of this mismatch is teachers. A paper by Raj Chetty and colleagues in the American Economic Review estimated how much of an impact teachers have on the future of the students in their classes.

They found that students with strong teachers are more likely to attend college, have higher lifetime salaries and are less likely to become pregnant as teenagers. They estimated that replacing a teacher in the bottom 5% with an average teacher would increase their students’ lifetime income by $250,000 per classroom. Yet obviously, teachers don’t make anywhere close to that figure. Maybe one day we will evolve as a society and base people’s salaries on their actual contribution to the common good.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Staying Safe, Cultivating Confidence, and Deciding Deadlines

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,

India has one of the highest rates of road-accident mortality in the world. Our Supreme Court in India mandated the use of helmets when riding a motorcycle or scooter, yet many people don’t obey the law. Why is it that people don’t wear helmets? Do they just not understand the risk?

—VN 

The problem is that while we know riding a motorcycle without a helmet is risky, our experience can provide us with a false sense of safety. If you decide to ride without a helmet once, the odds are that nothing bad will happen to you, since the probability of getting into an accident on any given ride is low. As a result, your bad behavior is reinforced, and you do it again and again until, eventually, your luck runs out. This is a good example of why it’s a bad idea to rely on intuition about what is safe, instead of trusting the actual data.

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Dear Dan,

I was attacked by a dog when I was 7, and it left me with serious injuries and scars. Now that I’m an adult, I realize that my appearance is holding me back from pursuing things I enjoy. What can I do to overcome this problem?

—Joe 

As someone who was badly injured in a fire as a teenager, I have to admit that my own concern with the way I look is still with me—particularly when people shake my injured hand.

But there are two rays of light. The first is something called the spotlight effect, which says that all of us pay a lot more attention to ourselves than other people pay to us. This was elegantly demonstrated in a study in 2000 by Thomas Gilovich and colleagues, who asked some Cornell students to walk into a fraternity party wearing embarrassing Barry Manilow T-shirts. After the party, the researchers asked them how many people noticed their shirts and what the social implications were. The participants believed that everybody noticed and that it hurt their social reputations. When the researchers asked everyone else at the party, it turned out almost nobody noticed the shirts.

The second hopeful fact is that with time and practice, your sensitivity to your appearance will go down, even if it’s never completely eliminated. I hope that this problem won’t prevent you from going out into the world and making the most of your limited time on earth.

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Hi, Dan.

I work in human resources, and I’m trying to motivate our employees to complete a short online training program. The training is very simple, but no one seems to get it done. Should I give them a deadline of a month to finish it, or will that just cause more delay?

—Archie 

Deadlines are very important—when we have lots of demands on our time we need deadlines to help us set priorities. However, people also use deadlines as a source of information about the complexity of the task. In a paper published earlier this year in the Journal of Consumer Research, Meng Zhu and colleagues found that giving people longer deadlines led them to believe that the task was much harder, which in turn increased how much they procrastinated. So for an easy task like completing an online training program, set a short-term deadline, so that people will think the task is easy to accomplish and get right to it.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Delaying Decisions, Generating Generosity, and Enhancing Experiences

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 take a lot (and I mean a lot) of time to reach a decision. I keep consulting, thinking, making comparison charts, googling, asking experts. But when the time finally comes to decide, I’m never fully convinced that I’m making the right choice. How can I stop second-guessing myself?

—Ramesh 

When people agonize over making a decision, they usually aren’t thinking enough about the opportunity cost of their time. For instance, if you spend months thinking about whether to make a career change, you will have lost time that you could have spent actually building your new career. That’s why it is useful to set a time limit for any decision you face. Tell yourself, “I’m going to decide by Friday,” and if you haven’t decided by then, simply toss a coin.
Another mistake people often make is mulling over decisions they have already made. Regret and reflection are useful only if they teach us lessons we can use in future decision-making, not when we use them as a form of self-punishment. So try to focus not on the decision you have just made but on what you could do differently in the future.

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Dear Dan,

I was traveling in New York City and was about to board a bus to the airport when I realized that I’d forgotten my MetroCard. To my surprise, a stranger who was watching approached me and gave me her card. I thanked her and tried to pay her for it, but she refused. Are people more generous than we usually give them credit for?

—Yoram 

People have a tremendous capacity for generosity, but usually it only emerges under the right conditions. The first condition is that we need to see an individual in need, rather than masses of people suffering: It is easier to empathize with one person than with a large group. Second, we need to be able to identify with the person in need, to put ourselves in their shoes. In your case, both conditions were met: You were one person in need, and the people around you could easily imagine how they would feel if they were in your position since they were also waiting for the bus.

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Hi, Dan.

Everyone talks about the importance of friendship, but does sharing an important experience with another person actually make it better?

—Alex 

It depends on whether the experience in question is a good or bad one, and on whether the person you are sharing it with is close to you or not.

In a 2014 study in the journal Psychological Science, Eric Boothby and colleagues showed that eating chocolate along with another person made the experience more enjoyable, but eating very dark chocolate with another person made it taste even worse. The presence of others seems to make positive experiences more positive and negative experiences more negative.

Other studies have shown that experiencing pain—for instance, sticking your hand in an ice bath—becomes more intense when it is shared with a friend than with a stranger. This suggests that, to enhance good experiences, we should invite friends to participate—but when it comes to unpleasant experiences, it is best to go it alone.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Social Solutions, Date Decisions, and Prompt Payments

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 for an investment banking firm where 90% of the employees are men. I’m the only woman on my team, and ever since I joined, my teammates have treated me like the office plant. They make lunch plans without including me and say hello and goodbye to everyone except me. Generally, they pretend I don’t exist. I don’t think they are doing it to be hurtful—I just think they’re not sure how to befriend women. What can I do to change this?

—Jamie 

Social isolation is difficult and painful, and I’m very sorry about your experience. Sadly, it is difficult to change the social norms of an entire group at once. An easier path would be to change the behavior of one colleague at a time; direct interactions will help them to see you as a whole person. Why don’t you try to invite one of your co-workers for coffee or lunch every week? In time, this will change the overall atmosphere in the office.

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Dear Dan,

Every time I suggest an idea for a date, my husband questions whether I’ve picked the very best option. For instance, I once suggested that we dine at the Thai restaurant down the street. Instead, he perused Zagat until he found a “better” option. And a month ago, I suggested we go on a cruise using a company my friends like, but he insisted on researching alternative companies before committing. We still haven’t made any firm plans.

From my standpoint, I’d rather make a “good enough” decision and enjoy the experience, however imperfect. My husband points out that his research often yields objectively better decisions. Who’s right?

—Caroline 

In social science terminology your husband is a “maximizer” (someone who tries to make the best possible decision), and you are a “satisficer” (someone who tries to choose from within a range of good options). Lucky for you, the research suggests that your strategy is the right one.

The psychologist Barry Schwartz and colleagues did a study in 2002 comparing the two types of decision-makers. They found that maximizers had lower levels of optimism, happiness, self-esteem and even life satisfaction. They were also less happy with their daily decisions, and they tended to regret the decisions they made more often. So while your husband may indeed be finding the best-rated restaurant, movie or cruise, in the process he’s probably taking away a lot of his and your joy.

Here’s what I’d suggest: Instead of making date decisions together, take turns being in charge. That way, half the dates will go smoothly—and in the other half, you will get to practice your patience.

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Dear Dan,

I’m a scientist, and I recently volunteered to be part of my professional society’s membership committee. What is the most effective way to get people to pay their membership dues? Reminders? Guilt? Calling them up and begging them?

—Stephanie 

My guess is that your members are generally interested in staying members, but they just don’t want to pay “right now”—whether that means today, tomorrow or the next day. To fight this kind of procrastination, I would make it more tempting to pay now. For instance, host an attractive webinar that is open to paying members only. That would give your members a good reason to pay promptly.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Tardy Travels, Past Prejudices, and Dangerous Drivers

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 am a frequent flier and I often have to deal with annoying delays, which can seriously affect my mood. What can I do to get less upset when a plane is late?

—Hailey 

Our happiness is largely influenced by our expectations; in the case of flying, that means our expected departure and arrival times. My friend Ory was once booked on a flight whose take-off was delayed for seven hours, leaving all the passengers upset and complaining. But when the flight attendants announced that the delay would actually only be five hours, people cheered: compared to what they were expecting, a five hour delay seemed like a good deal. So the next time you take a flight, add two hours to the expected length of the trip and write down the later arrival time in your calendar. If the delay ends up being less than two hours, you’ll be happy.

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Dear Dan,

Can behavioral economics teach us anything about Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s blackface scandal? I’d like to think I would never have worn offensive makeup, or done even worse things like owning slaves or joining the KKK. But how do I know what I might have done if I lived in another time and place? I don’t think I am a racist, but in a different society, would I too behave as a racist?

—Will 

One of the fathers of social psychology, Kurt Lewin, posited that behavior is always a function of two inputs: the person and the environment. Acts of racism, sexism and other types of harm usually don’t originate from a few “bad apples,” but from cultures that explicitly or implicitly support such acts. So while we shouldn’t excuse acts of hate, we certainly need to recognize the systemic forces that shape what we consider normal or acceptable. Ending racism is not just about getting individuals to change, but understanding how our environment and institutions uphold prejudice in both obvious and subtle ways.

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Dear Dan,

My grandfather is a bad driver. Everyone in the family knows this, but we have accepted it as a fact of life. Recently, I asked him to drive more carefully, while emphasizing that I really care about him. He told me that I have nothing to worry about, since he is an excellent driver! What can I do to make him drive more carefully?

—Limor 

Driving is the classic example of “the better than average” effect: almost everyone thinks that they are better than average drivers. This means that trying to convince your grandfather that he’s a bad driver is going to be difficult. Instead, I would start by trying to help focus his attention on the road and not on other things. First, try to get him to stop using his phone while he’s driving. You could also get him a GPS device that speaks directions out loud, so that he won’t have consult a phone or written directions when he’s driving. Finally, to encourage him to drive less, you or other family members could volunteer to drive him from time to time, or introduce him to one of the available taxi apps.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Dishonest Domains, Warm Rewards, and Sweet Celebrations

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 found out that a friend of mine has been having an affair behind her husband’s back for the past four years. She seemed like a person of high integrity to me, but now I’m worried that if she could be so dishonest with her husband, maybe she is also dishonest with me. If a person lies in one area of life, does that make them more likely to lie in general?

—James 

The good news for you is that dishonesty in one area of life—such as work or relationships—doesn’t necessarily predict dishonesty in other areas of life. My colleagues and I published a working paper on this topic in 2018, in which we asked participants about their propensity to be dishonest across eight different domains. We found that most people had different standards for moral behavior in different areas of their life. Cheating on financial reports in the office, for instance, did not predict cheating in a poker game with friends.

But being dishonest in one particular area of life did predict other immoral behavior in that same area. With that in mind, I would be careful about getting into a romantic entanglement with your friend.

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Hi, Dan.

I read that Denmark’s Environmental Protection Agency is offering Danish citizens a $300 reward to scrap their old wood-burning stove and buy a new wood burning stove, in order to reduce particle pollution and improve air quality. But I think people should be willing to take such measures without being paid for it, for the sake of the common good and the longevity of the planet. Do you believe people need a financial incentive to help the environment?

—Esben 

In this particular case, I think an appeal to the common good would be more effective than payment. By offering citizens cash to replace their stoves, Denmark is encouraging them to think about their decision in financial terms. This means they will ask questions about the cost and efficiency of a new stove and wonder whether it is worth the investment. With only $300 in the balance, a cost-benefit analysis is likely to lead people not to replace the stove.

On the other hand, if the appeal was made on moral grounds, people would have to think about what matters to society and what their duties are as citizens. In that case, the odds of making the change might be higher. Of course, if the government were offering a more substantial amount of money, say $1,000, that would change people’s calculations, but a token payment of $300 is likely to be less effective than offering no money at all.

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Dear Dan,

I will be moving to a new state after living in the same city for more than 50 years. How should I handle this transition?

—Warren 

This move will be a major change in your life, and the best thing for you is to acknowledge this and celebrate it. To do this, why don’t you throw a party for your friends and family to celebrate the time you’ve spent together. You can ask each guest to write you a piece of advice about how to create a new life in your new city. That way, the letters will both remind you of your old friends and, if their advice is any good, also help propel you into your new phase. Let the adventures begin.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Ask Ariely: On Communal Coding, Long-Term Love, and Toddler Trouble

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 work we have a large code base—all the source codes for our computer programs—and it’s managed by many teams around the world. We need to migrate the code base to a new version of our programming language. The expected benefits are huge, but everyone is procrastinating. What would you do to motivate people, apart from just setting a deadline?

—Alex 

Procrastination happens because there is an asymmetry between the costs that you have to pay now and the rewards you expect in the future. While the benefits of a distant goal—in this case, a better programming language—might be huge, they feel less salient when we have to do something difficult right now—such as working on the migration process.

So I would try to make the current experience more rewarding and fun. For instance, try setting up a happy hour: Every day from 2-4pm, everyone can write code together and then celebrate by having a beer together (or kombucha, depending on your company) to celebrate your progress. This approach can make the experience more communal and enjoyable.

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Hi, Dan.

Is aiming for a long-term commitment in romantic relationships really a good thing? Given that the divorce rate is about 50%, wouldn’t it be better for me to approach relationships expecting them to be short-lived, so I won’t be disappointed if things don’t work out?

—Joseph 

Love is one of the areas where prophecies tend to be self-fulfilling. If you approach relationships expecting them not to last, they probably won’t—and vice versa. Relationships aren’t static and they reflect what we invest in them.

Imagine that you made a deal with your landlord that your lease would be day-to-day. How much time and money would you invest in your home? Would you paint the walls or fix a leaky faucet? Most likely you wouldn’t, and so your pleasure in your home would be limited at best.

Similarly, if every day you wake up next to your romantic partner and ask yourself, “Should we do this for another day or stop now?” your relationship probably won’t deepen very much. It makes sense to think about the long term, since that is the only way to reap the benefits of commitment.

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Dear Dan,

Our new downstairs neighbor in our apartment building is bothered by the sound of our toddler son walking on the floors. He keeps banging on his ceiling and walls in an attempt to make us aware of how annoying the noise is. What can we do to make him stop harassing us? We cannot move, and I cannot keep my son from walking on the floors during the daytime.

—Shannon 

First, you should invest in some rugs to help reduce the noise. Then you can write to your neighbor and tell him about the effort you’ve made. Finally, invite him over for dinner; this will establish a sense of friendship and make him think twice before pounding on the walls. And be sure to serve alcohol during the dinner, as a way to break the ice and to make everyone friendlier.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.