The Blog

Ask Ariely: On Public Products, Coworker Conflicts, and Pleasant Plans

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,

Why do we ascribe more value to some objects than to others? I’m willing to spend a lot of money on a new high-tech camera but balk at the idea of paying a lot for a new high-tech refrigerator. Why do I react to these possible purchases so differently?

—Hal 

The way we come up with what we are willing to pay for something depends on many factors, including the price we are used to paying, how fair we think it is and how much effort went into the product or service. Another factor is the signaling power of the product: how much it serves to communicate something
about us.

Take cameras. Other people can see us using our amazing new model, and, in return, we can bask in the glory of imagining how these people are admiring our taste and skill. A refrigerator, on the other hand, falls into the category of private consumption. Only guests in our home will ever see the fridge, only a fraction of them will examine it and be impressed, and we usually don’t get (or imagine that we get) extra points from society for that. So we spend much more on products with an element of public consumption to them. This helps to explain the appeal of fancy cars, jewelry and phones too. It’s a very hard force to resist.

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Dear Dan,

One of my co-workers frequently invites me to join him in doing “fun” things outside of work, but I’d rather be with my friends and family, or alone. The activities that he proposes are actually almost always ones I would enjoy. He knows that, so I can’t just say “I don’t like X.” Usually I end up citing scheduling conflicts, but it’s getting harder and harder to make that excuse.

How can I basically say, “I don’t want to spend time with you,” without hurting our professional relationship? Thanks!

—Joe 

I think it’s impossible not to hurt the person at all. But if you want to mitigate the harm, I would use what I call a personal rule. Tell your co-worker that you have a rule about not mixing your personal life with your work life. By casting your refusal to hang out in these terms, you transform your response from a rejection of him as an individual to a rejection of a whole class of social activity. That’s easier to take.

I also think that you might want to reconsider your resistance to socializing in any way with your co-workers. Maybe take February as a month to experiment by agreeing to a few extracurricular outings with people from your office. You might enjoy it.

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Dear Dan,

I am trying to motivate my sister, who is 84, to meet with an estate-planning lawyer. She acknowledges the need, but there’s always an excuse for not proceeding. Nothing is happening. Any suggestions?

—Paul 

Encourage your sister to meet with the lawyer in a restaurant, bar or park (or some other place that she likes) and to bring along a friend whom she likes and trusts. Why? It’s very unpleasant to create an estate plan and to imagine what will happen to your things once you’re dead. Doing this in a pleasant atmosphere, with someone whose company you enjoy, may be enough to counterbalance the unpleasantness. When a positive activity is paired with a dreaded but necessary one, we call this “reward substitution.”

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Ending Exercise, Accounting Accurately, and Revising 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,

As a personal trainer, I work with older adults who say they want to exercise every day. But after a few sessions at the gym, many of them don’t come back. How can I get them to stick with their exercise program?

—Hal

There are lots of ways to make exercise into a habit, but to start with I would change the way you end your sessions—and I would try to engineer the experience so that it makes people feel good at the end. Research on the “peak-end rule” shows that when people evaluate an experience, they pay particular attention to the end.

In research published in 2016 in the Journal of Sport & Exercise Psychology, Panteleimon Ekkekakis, Zachary Zenko and I showed that when people ramp down the intensity of the exercise at the end, they feel happier after the exercise session and expect to enjoy future exercise more. So, when an experience ends on a more positive (or at least a less negative) note, we remember the whole as better and are more likely to want to repeat it.

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Dear Dan,

I’ve wanted to buy a new iPhone for a while, and I’ve been holding off so that I can save for a vacation with my wife. But recently, I got some extra money as an end-of-the-year gift from my job. I’m tempted to use this money for my vacation and the money I have been saving in the bank toward a new phone. Why am I thinking differently about spending the gift money versus what’s in my savings account?

—Ron 

An essential feature of money is that it’s fungible: this means that each dollar is in principle worth the same. Yet, in reality, our minds create separate “accounts” for different sources of income and expenses, and we spend money based on what we think is reasonable for each account. Behavioral economists call this “mental accounting.” When you got some extra end-of-year money, it felt like this money belonged to a different account from our standard savings.

This is clearly not an ideal way to think about spending. I would put the year-end money in your saving account for a month or two, let the money “get used” to its new mental account (more accurately to let you get used to it), and only then decide what to do with it. My guess is that in two months you will feel less inclined to splurge on the phone.

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Dear Dan,

What are the odds that my New Year’s resolution to eat healthily every day will stay with me until the summer?

—Yoram 

Very close to zero. If I were you and I wanted to increase the odds of success, I would make the resolution more clear-cut, and I would allow myself a way to eat less healthily from time to time without feeling like I’ve failed. For example, to make your resolution more specific, replace “eating healthily” with cutting out baked goods (for maximum effect, be specific and include both breads and sweets). And to give you a way to enjoy life without feeling like a failure, take the sabbath as a day off from your diet.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

when you let a social scientist design for better weight management

What happens when you let a social scientist design for better weight management

 

Happy holidays!  It’s the season for gratitude, celebration, time with family… and weight gain.  That’s right, most of our weight gain happens during this time of year, and the problem is that many of us don’t lose it after the season.  This continuous weight gain over time contributes to the fact that over a third of the US population is obese.  Obesity-related conditions, from heart disease to type 2 diabetes to certain types of cancer, are some of the leading causes of preventable death.

 

If we think about weight management through the lens of social science, what solution would we come up with?

 

There are many angles we could take, but my team and I started with the scale.  Specifically, we recently created a scale with no display.   Sound odd?  Perhaps.  Let’s suspend judgement for a few minutes and walk through what we know about scales:

 

1) Stepping on a scale daily is good, especially when done in the morning.

 

Stepping on a scale daily is correlated with weight loss.  In particular, when we step on the scale in the morning, it has the power to serve as reminder of our commitment to health.  Think about it – if you’ve just stepped on your scale, will you then have oatmeal or a donut for breakfast?  When you get to work, will you take the stairs or the elevator? … and so forth.

 

2) It’s normal for our weight to fluctuate a lot.  But psychologically the gains affect us more than the losses.

 

Loss aversion is a well-known principle in behavioral economics – it means that losses loom larger than gains.  In weight, this would be reversed, of course: a three-pound gain will make us miserable, but a three-pound loss does not make us equivalently happy.  Imagine that your weight fluctuates up and down but on average you’re staying within the same range.  Because of loss aversion, your overall experience with the scale is negative.  You might even avoid stepping on it entirely, losing the benefit of using it as a reminder of health.

 

3) We expect our weight to react quickly to good or bad behaviors, but it doesn’t.  This causes confusion and demotivation.

 

Imagine you do everything you’re supposed to today.  You eat salad for lunch, you skip dessert, and you go for a run.  When you step on the scale, your weight has gone up.  How does this make you feel?  Or, on another day, you sit at home binge-watching the latest show on Netflix while eating junk food all day.  When you step on the scale, your weight has gone down.

 

This is confusing and demotivating.  We think that our body’s feedback mechanism will be quick to react to our behaviors (good or bad), but sadly the it does not work that way.  This means that many of us end up thinking, “well what the heck, what I’m doing isn’t working anyway, so why bother?”

 

For these 3 reasons, our team created a display-free scale called Shapa.  We’ve kept the positive elements of a scale while removing the negative ones.

 

With Shapa, we celebrate when you step on your scale.  We give you feedback on your weight, but not in pounds.  Instead, we use a 5-point scale called Shapa Color.  If your weight with is in your normal range (within one standard deviation), congratulations, your Shapa Color is green!  If it fluctuates beyond one standard deviation in either direction, your Shapa color changes accordingly.  The idea is to take out the noise of normal fluctuations and provide a better feedback mechanism in which we can better understand the outcomes of our behaviors.

 

On top of this, we also took all that is known in social science about the small tricks that create healthy behavior change, and bundled them into personalized recommendations called Missions.  We might suggest that you reorganize your fridge, making unhealthy items harder to reach.  If you commute to work, we might suggest that you get off one stop earlier and walk.

 

Our early results are promising and we’re still capturing data.  In our first trial, we randomly assigned people who wanted to lose weight to either use Shapa or a standard scale.  We found that after just 12 weeks, people who used Shapa did better.   The Shapa users lost between -0.88% and -0.40% of their weight.  For standard scale users, the range was much broader and included weight gain: between -0.78% and +1.22% (95% confidence intervals).

 

Ultimately, in today’s technologically advanced world, we should be thinking about how to use technology to our benefit.  Just because it’s possible to build a scale that can report very precise granular information (e.g. your weight is 145.27 pounds and yesterday it was 144.87) does not mean that this kind of system is aligned with human psychology.  Our focus should be on behavior change, not decimal-point-level accuracy.

 

We’re very optimistic about how Shapa can help people make behavior changes to improve their health.  If you think it could help you, here is where you can learn more and order one:

 

https://www.shapa.me/

@shapahealth

Irrationally yours,

Dan Ariely

Ask Ariely: On Mug Matters, Smoking Stoppers, and Pregnancy Preferences

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,

In the kitchen at work, my colleagues often leave piles of dishes and mugs in the sink, right in front of the sign asking everyone to clean up their things and put them away. How would you get more of my co-workers to deal with their own dirty dishes?

—Rosie 

Use transparency—that is, try to make it possible to tell exactly who’s following the clean-up rules and who isn’t. When we feel anonymous, it’s much easier to commit minor infractions like leaving a dirty cup or dish behind. Eliminating the anonymity would make your coworkers feel more accountable.

At our lab at Duke, we had the same problem. As soon as there was a single dirty mug in our sink, people thought it was OK to add more. Soon the sink would be full. So we bought everyone a mug with his or her name on it and got rid of the old nameless mugs. Now it’s clear who the mug offenders are, and this solved the problem.

I would suggest asking everyone to bring in personalized dishware. For those who don’t comply, get a permanent marker and write their names on the back of dishes. As long as people see that their less-than-desirable actions are evident to everyone else, the pile of dirty dishes won’t come back.

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Dear Dan,

Two cigarette manufacturers in the U.S. recently had to start airing TV and newspaper advertisements explaining the negative effects of smoking as well as the addictive properties of their products. Will these ads have any effect? It strikes me as a naively rationalistic approach of the “if people only knew, they would change their behavior” variety. This strategy has existed for decades—and it has not made a difference. Do you think that the new ads will actually reduce smoking?

—Steve 

I suspect that you are correct and that this is going to be a very costly, ineffective way to curb smoking. By now, it’s common knowledge that smoking causes cancer and other serious health problems—no one will be surprised by what’s in these ads. In general, information about health risks has done little to promote healthier behavior. Just think about the many ignored pleas to wash hands, to pay attention to calorie labels or to stop texting while driving.

If it were up to me, I would try an emotional approach that focused on some immediate negative effects of smoking like body odor or yellow teeth. A more extreme approach, which uses moral outrage, would be to tell people that if they smoke they are simply slaves of the cigarette companies, the same ones that for years have deliberately and knowingly harmed their customers.

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Dear Dan,

My boyfriend doesn’t want to have children, but I do. What can I do?

—Amy 

There is an interesting psychological reflex called the endowment effect. Basically, once we become the owners of something, we start looking at it from a different perspective. In particular, we begin to look at what we own as more valuable. Here’s where your question comes in: The endowment effect would suggest that someone who has not been that excited about the idea of having children starts looking at them more favorably if he learns that he is the owner (father) of a child.

So this weekend why don’t you ask your boyfriend to play a game called “spot the fake news.” Tell him a few things that are true and a few that are not, including the “news” that you are expecting. Before you end the game and reveal the truth, have another discussion about having children—and see if the new perspective gets him to see things differently. Good luck.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Mental Design at PopTech 2017

How can we use findings from social science to improve health, financial decision-making and overall quality of life? I gave a talk on the power of designing for the mental world at PopTech 2017.

Watch the video below and learn more about PopTech on their site.

Ask Ariely: On Ticket Troubles, Business Bonds, and Aging Attitudes

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,

Last week I went to a website to buy a ticket for a talk you were giving. When I saw that the ticket was $28 and that they charged an additional $7.50 processing fee, I balked. I ended up not going to see you. Ironically, I probably would have just bought the ticket if the original price had been $35.50. Would you call this rational behavior?

—Terry 

It’s irrational, for sure. Rationally, you should care only about the total price of the ticket—additional fees included. It should be irrelevant whether the charge is 100% for the ticket itself or partly for the ticket and partly for processing the transaction.

But, of course, we are not rational. The small outrage you experienced at the high processing fee is about perceived fairness, and it is very human. That $7.50 processing fee is more than 25% of the price of the ticket. If that same fee were slapped onto a $1,000 airline ticket, you probably would not give it a second thought.

Ticket sellers should recognize that this pricing strategy is clumsy and not in their best interests. They would do themselves a big favor simply by bundling the processing fee into the face price of the ticket. Then, next time, you might show up to hear me talk!

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Dear Dan,

In my job I meet lots of new people all the time, and I’d like to build trusting relationships with them as I advance in my career. What’s the best way in business to foster trust with others?

—Kayla 

One key strategy is to show that, even though you’re doing business, you care about the other person’s interests—even at a cost to yourself.

Imagine that you’re at a restaurant and order a pricey fish entree. One waiter tells you that the dish is sold out and suggests that you instead try the chicken, which is just as tasty and is also less expensive. A different waiter, by contrast, directs you to the caviar dish—which, you learn, is three times more expensive.

You will certainly put more trust in the first waiter than in the second one. The first has shown that he’s willing to accept a smaller tip (for a less expensive entree) because he wants you to have an enjoyable experience. And the next time you’re in the restaurant, you will ask for him. The best way to build trust is to show people that you have their best interests in mind.

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Dear Dan,

As I’ve aged, it seems to me that the people around me have become kinder and more thoughtful—and, in response to them, I’ve become more liberal and compassionate. What drives this change?

—Pete 

I’m not sure what explains your increased compassion, but it’s very much to your credit. I’ve seen the same thing with my aging father: He’s become a lot kinder. I could suggest that long experience breeds wisdom and appreciation, but another explanation keeps nagging at me.

Maybe it’s about hearing loss? Perhaps when we can’t hear everything people are saying, we fill in the gaps in an over-optimistic way and end up attributing more positive attributes to the person on the other side of the discussion.

Then again, I know plenty of other people who have gotten crankier as they have grown older—and perhaps that is related to hearing loss, too.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.

Getting people to agree: A TED experiment

In April Mariano Sigman and I (mostly Mariano) carried out an experiment at TED on how to get people to make better decisions and to agree!  Here is the video and the writeup describing this and other experiments on the topic of how to get people to agree on difficult questions.  An important challenge these days…..

The video:

And the ideas piece:

 

Ask Ariely: On Opposing Opinions, Feeling Failures, and Adjusting Activities

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 learned about research showing that when people hold extreme beliefs, giving them data that contradicts their basic opinions actually strengthens those beliefs! Does this mean that there is no way to change the beliefs of people with extreme opinions?

—Jordan 

Changing people’s opinions is indeed difficult, but there is hope. With people who hold extreme views, one paradoxical finding is that presenting them with even more extreme arguments in support of their beliefs persuades them to moderate. In a paper published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2014, Boaz Hameiri and colleagues describe a citywide intervention in Israel where they used this approach in an ad campaign about the Israel-Palestine conflict. The ad campaign was designed to try to change the opinions of right-wing Israelis who oppose peace.

The ads presented the participants with absurd claims about the benefits of the conflict—for example, that it’s good for camaraderie and morality and helps to create the unique culture of Israel. The results showed that the campaign changed minds: From what they said and how they reported voting, those with right-wing views became more conciliatory and cut back their support of aggressive policies, compared with residents of a comparable Israeli city without the ad campaign. The researchers hypothesize that the intervention succeeded because the ads caused people to more deeply consider their own beliefs.

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Hey, Dan!

Why do we believe we can learn from our own mistakes but blame other people’s failure on their personalities and/or lack of sufficient skills? Has this “one-way street” phenomenon been studied?

—Darin 

You are describing behavior that falls under the heading of what social psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error.” In general, we tend to see good things that happen to us as the product of our own doing and bad things as the result of outside circumstances. Conversely, we tend to attribute good things that happen to other people to external circumstances and bad things to their own doing.

We believe that we can learn from our own mistakes because those mistakes aren’t really about us. We think they involve external circumstances that we can learn to handle better.

Can we learn to override this type of judgment? I spent a lot of time in Silicon Valley recently, meeting with executives of startups and venture capitalists. I was struck by what often happens when a startup fails: People in Silicon Valley approach the setback much less negatively than the rest of the world does. Executives sometimes even look at their colleagues’ failure in a positive way, as a sign of experience and learning.

Can we generalize from Silicon Valley to the rest of the world? I’m not sure, but it seems to me that we can change the way we look at other people’s failures, and maybe even limit the blame we assign to them, as we would with our own failures.

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Hi, Dan.

Let’s say that your regular activities include things like playing poker with friends every week or gardening every weekend. How do you decide when to keep on going with these activities—or stop and try something new?

—Joanne 

Questioning the value of our routines is good, because it can help us to stop doing things we no longer enjoy. It’s bad, however, because such questioning gets in the way of whatever happiness the activity gives us. So I suggest that you question yourself—but only for a short time. Perhaps take the last week of December to evaluate how much pleasure you get from your leisure activities—and consider what you could do instead.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Creating Commitments, Simulating Stressors, and Tempting Turnips

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

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Dear Dan,

I was recently at a very good lecture about global warming, and by the end of the lecture I was highly motivated to make real changes in my life and have a more positive impact on the environment. Two months later, I realized that despite my good intentions, I had done very little to change anything about my behavior. Why is it so difficult for me to take any action?

—Rachel 

This is very human and common. There are many cases in which we feel we should take particular actions, but then we don’t—such as exercising, eating healthy, washing your hands, practicing safe sex or texting while driving. I think that getting people to care about the environment is perhaps one of the toughest behavioral challenges we have. In some ways, it’s as if the issue were perfectly designed to maximize human apathy: The consequences are probabilistic and somewhere in the far future, and anything we can do is just a drop in the bucket. In short, all the elements that create human apathy are rolled into one challenge.

So how can you make sure that you’re acting on your beliefs? Come up with very specific rules (change the setting of your thermostat, eat less meat, etc.), write them down, tell other people that you have committed to them, and then try to follow them.

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Dear Dan,

As an oral surgeon, I encounter patients in pain (or anxious about possible pain) every day. I have a solution for many of them: intravenous sedation! Unfortunately, the cost (about $600) deters many patients and they prefer to suffer to avoid the payment. Do you have any advice about how best to guide patients who would benefit from IV sedation to pick it instead of suffering?

—Andrew 

Helping people figure out how they’ll feel in a future state, especially one that they’ve never experienced, is tricky. I would suggest that you try to create a comparison between the pain of the surgery and another type of pain. Suggest that your patients put their hands in a bucket with ice for three minutes (which is very painful), and when they are experiencing this pain, say: “Here is what surgery would most likely feel like without the IV sedation. The only difference is that the surgery will take about an hour. Would you rather pay for the IV sedation or do the surgery without it?” Now, the patients can make a more informed decision, and my guess is that many more will pick the IV sedation.

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Dear Dan,

I notice that at farmers markets, I am generally less worried about price and tend to spend more than I do in regular grocery stores. Does the presence of the crowd make me less concerned with the way I spend my money? I wonder if the same tendency is true for visitors to county fairs, flea markets, carnivals and other outdoor venues where lots of people gather in a temporary mini-community. Or is something else entirely going on in this context?

—Paul 

My guess is that it is the result of excitement, but the excitement is not with the crowd but with scarcity—with having a small window of time to buy, say, locally grown kale or handmade stuff. The knowledge that this window of opportunity will soon close and that we will not have a way to get back to our beloved kale makes us want the product more—and get it without paying much attention to the price.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.