The Blog

Ask Ariely: On a Magnificent Milestone, Processing Pain, and Relentless Reflection

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.

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I know that you’re turning 50 this year. How are you handling the big milestone?

—Abigail 

As you can imagine, I was rather apprehensive about my 50th birthday, but I decided to embrace it and designed my year with some extra time to reflect.

In fact, I am writing to you from the sixth day of a 30-day hike along the Israel National Trail, which spans the country of my birth from Eilat to the Lebanese border. I wanted to disconnect from technology and have more time to think about what I want from life and want to do next. Six days in, checking email only late at night, I’m already in a more relaxed and contemplative mode.

I also designed the hike to help me think about earlier stages in my life. So for each day along the trail, I have invited family and old friends to join me to walk and reflect on the road behind. I’ve just finished a day of hiking with six friends from first grade, and talking about our joint history and deep friendships made me calmer than I could have imagined.

Sure, I’m a bit worried about aging. But so far, taking myself out of the usual hurly-burly and opening up space to reconnect with loved ones is proving to be an amazing antidote to the 50th blues.

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

How do people recover from horrible injuries, psychological traumas and other life-altering events? Is it character or circumstances that dictate whether people crumble or rebound?

—Lionel 

My sense, as someone who suffered very serious injuries as a teenager, is that the answer is both. Resilience is surely a function of one’s character and level of support, but it also has to do with the circumstances of the injury.

One of the most interesting lessons we have learned on this subject comes from Henry K. Beecher, the late physician and ethicist. In his 1956 study of pain in military veterans and civilians, Beecher showed how important it is to understand how people interpret the meaning of their injuries. These interpretations, he argued, can shape the way we experience trauma and pain.

Beecher found that veterans rated their pain less intensely than did civilians with comparable wounds. When 83% of civilians wanted to take a narcotic to manage their pain, he found, only 32% of veterans opted to do likewise.

These differences depended not on the severity of the wound but on how individuals experienced them. Veterans tended to wear injuries as a badge of honor and patriotism; civilians were more likely to see injuries just as unfortunate events that befell them. The more we interpret events as the outcome of something that we did, rather than something done to us, the better our attitude and recovery.

This lesson, while very important for traumatic injuries, also applies to the small bumps of daily life.

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

My relationship with my husband is going downhill, and I can’t stop thinking about it—which is putting an added strain on our marriage. What can I do?

—Rachel 

Trying not to think about something is one of the best ways to ensure that you think about it constantly. If you try not to think about polar bears for the next 10 minutes, you will think more about them in those 10 minutes than you have in the past 10 years.

The same is true for your relationship with your husband. Instead of trying not to think about your marital woes, try reflecting on the good things in your relationship—then try to find activities together that will strengthen your bond. Good luck.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Hiking the Israel National Trail

I’m just starting the second week of my month-long hike, and have been tracking some things along the way:

  • Light Happiness
  • Deep Happiness
  • Love
  • Optimism
  • Regret
  • Empathy
  • Loving Nature
  • Work Separation Anxiety
  • Communication Anxiety

So far, I appear to be pretty stable on most dimensions (light happiness has taken a few dips but deep happiness is consistently high, and love/optimism/loving nature have remained high), but I’m most noticeably experiencing a downward trend on work separation anxiety. The more time I spend hiking, the less I am worrying about the growing list of tasks that would otherwise keep me up at night. It took a few days for me to get here, but my work is now taking a back seat to the importance of this trip.

I decided to embark on this adventure as an acknowledgement of my upcoming 50th birthday, and as an opportunity to reflect on life and how I want to spend the rest of it.

You can follow my journey at http://danarielyishikingtheint.com and see how the next few weeks pan out!

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

 

Ask Ariely: On Momentary Meaning, Hurried Health, and Poetic Practice

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.

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Why is it that the things that make me happy—such as watching basketball or going drinking—don’t give me a lasting feeling of contentment, while the things that feel deeply meaningful to me—such as my career or the book I’m writing—don’t give me much daily happiness? How should I divide my time between the things that make me happy and those that give me meaning?

—Vasini 

Happiness comes in two varieties. The first is the simple type, when we get immediate pleasure from activities such as playing a sport, eating a good meal and so on. When you reflect on these things, you have no trouble telling yourself, “This was a good evening, and I’m happy.”

The second type of happiness is more complex and elusive. It comes from a feeling of fulfillment that might not be connected with daily happiness but is more lastingly gratifying. We experience it from such things as running a marathon, starting a new company, demonstrating for a righteous cause and so on.

Consider a marathon. An alien who arrived on Earth just in time to witness one might think, “These people are being tortured while everyone else watches. They must have done something terrible, and this is their punishment.” But we know better. Even if the individual moments of the race are painful, the overall experience can give people a more durable feeling of happiness, rooted in a sense of accomplishment, meaning and achievement.

The social psychologist Roy Baumeister and his colleagues distinguish between happiness and meaning. They see the first as satisfying our needs and wishes in the here-and-now, the latter as thinking beyond the present to express our deepest values and sense of self. Their research found, unsurprisingly, that pursuing meaning is often associated with increased stress and anxiety.

So be it. Simply pursuing the first type of happiness isn’t the way to live; we should aim to bring more of the second type of happiness into our lives, even if it won’t be as much fun every day.

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I recently had my annual checkup, and my doctor spent maybe three minutes total with me during the visit. I know that physicians are busy, but are these quick visits the right way to go?

—James 

Sadly, doctors increasingly feel pushed to move patients along as quickly as possible, like a production line. Research has shown that this approach hurts the doctor-patient relationship, which has important health implications.

Consider a 2014 study of patients who received electrical stimulation for chronic back pain, conducted by Jorge Fuentes of the University of Alberta and colleagues. They had medical professionals interact in one of two ways with their patients. Some were asked to keep their interactions short, while others were urged to ask deep questions, show empathy and speak supportively. Patients who received the rushed conversations reported higher levels of pain than those who got the deeper ones.

In other words, empathetic discussions are important for our health. Sadly, as physicians and other medical professionals become ever busier, we are shortchanging this vital part of healing.

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Every year, my husband gets me a nice birthday card, but he never writes a personal note inside. Why?

—Ann 

I suspect your husband overestimates the sentimental value of the words printed on the card, not realizing that they sound generic to you. Don’t judge him too harshly for this. Instead, buy one of those magnetic poetry sets and let him practice expressing himself on the fridge. Small steps.​

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ooops, emails sent by mistake

Earlier today, a number of my blog subscribers received several automated messages for “new” blog posts, which were actually previously-published posts from the Center of Advanced Hindsight (my research lab). This was an accident that came about as I was trying to integrate the two sites. (I certainly did not intend to spam you!)

My team and I temporarily shut down the site while we identified the cause of the issue and made sure the mailing server was disabled. I am happy to report that the issue has now been resolved.

Please accept my apologies for cluttering your inbox (a topic I am extremely sensitive to). We are taking steps to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

Ask Ariely: On Discussing Delays, Remembering Regret, and Valuing Veracity

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.

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I’m one of the backers on Kickstarter of the Irrational Game, the social-science-driven card game that you developed to help us improve our “ability to predict how events might unfold.” You were late to deliver, but it came out great.

Usually, when I back something on Kickstarter, I forget about it until the product is delivered. But your team sent updates about the delays in design, testing and more. I know you intended to keep your backers informed, but the reports on these hiccups left me with the impression that you had poor foresight and management skills. Are such negative updates a bad idea?

—Lucian 

You’re right on two counts. First, my planning and administrative skills need work. Second, there are real disadvantages to keeping people posted on problems with a project.

Once people decide to support a Kickstarter venture, they usually don’t think much more about it. They re-evaluate their decision only when they are reminded of it, and if the reminders are bad, they probably take an increasingly dim view of the project. So our approach turned out to be unhelpful. We often judge satisfaction by contrasting what we expect with what we get. When our backers were reminded of the game, the news was usually bad, which prompted some to sour on a pretty good project.

This would be different if the project were a big, focal undertaking for investors. In that case, they would think about it all the time anyway—which means that there would be little harm in informing them of snags that were on their minds anyway.

I must admit that, before your question, I hadn’t thought about this problem of negative reminders. I will try to be quieter next time.

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

I vividly remember thinking about buying Amazon stock when I was 12. I bought several stocks in my youth, but not Amazon—a mistake that has colored my entire financial future. I feel terrible regret. How do I get over it?

—Josh 

Regret is a powerful motivator. We experience it when we see one thing and envisage a better, alternative reality. In your case, the contrast in realities is clear, and the thought of those imagined lost riches is making you very unhappy. Unfortunately, unless you move to some island with no internet access, you will probably keep on experiencing some of this regret with each new mention of Amazon.

The only partial cure I can suggest is trying to think about your decisions in a holistic way, paying some heed to your good decisions rather than obsessing over your bad ones. Ideally, you would take one of those wise calls and condition yourself to think about it every time you are ruing your Amazon miss.

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Do ideologues, who by definition care a lot about something, lie more for their causes?

—Paula 

Absolutely. Lying is always a trade-off between different values. When ideologues face a trade-off between the truth and the focus of their political passion (the idea, say, that the U.S. is an evil imperialist power or that Obamacare is a socialist plot to destroy America), they tend to be more willing to sacrifice the truth if they think it will help them to convince the idiots on the other side to do the right thing. Unfortunately, the last election suggests that more Americans have become ideologues.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Email Notifications

How many of our emails should we know about the moment someone decides to email us?

205 billion.  That’s the number of emails we sent and received in 2015, and that number is expected to grow to 246 billion by 2019.[1]  What does this mean for most of us?  A steady stream of new messages coming into our inboxes throughout the day.  And for most of us, it seems to be a norm to keep our inboxes open throughout the work day.  We focus on the tasks we have at hand, and each “ping” from our inbox draws our attention, even if briefly, before we return back to our work.

The problem here is the high cost of interruption.  This cost includes three categories: 1) time cost 2) performance cost 3) stress/ emotional well-being.

Time Cost  In terms of time cost, researches have shown that any switching between tasks results in a loss of time.  In other words, “multi-tasking” is a misnomer – we aren’t actually doing two tasks at once.  We are doing one task, switching to the other, and then switching to the original task. One study showed that after switching tasks, it took an average of 23 minutes and 15 seconds for people to get back to their original task.[2]

Performance Cost It should be no surprise to us that distraction can cause reductions in cognitive performance.  In psychological terms, “task-irrelevant thoughts,” that is – thoughts that are unrelated to the task at hand, have indeed been shown to have deleterious effects on performance.[3]

A recent study published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology illustrates how this plays out for cell phones in particular, focusing on the distraction that cell phone notifications can create.  In this study, participants were tasked with completing a task involving seeing items and pressing a button every time the item was a digit from 1-9, unless it was the number 3.  Some were interrupted with notifications and others were not.  The study found that the notification groups were more likely to make errors than the no-interruption group.

Stress/Emotional Well-Being   A third factor to consider with interruptions is the effect they have on people’s well being.  Task switching is fatiguing for us; it depletes us.  One study showed that interruptions resulted in higher feelings of stress, pressure and effort.[4]

At this point, it should be painfully clear to us that we need to be worried about the interruptions-economy.  What value interruptions provide, under what conditions, and what are their costs?  A little ping may seem innocuous, but there is cumulating evidence that the cost of an interruption is higher than we realize, and of course given the sheer number of interruptions, their combined effect can very quickly become substantial.

If email interruptions can have all these negative effects, what can we do to reduce them?  The first thing we should question is this idea that all emails are created equal.  Should each email be able to interrupt people?  Is the email from someone’s boss as important as the weekly industry newsletter he’s signed up for?  What if we designed a different system in which emails were not treated equally?

In a previous study, we looked at how many emails truly are worthy of interruption.  We asked people to look at the last 40 emails they received and asked them how soon they really needed to have seen each email.  Immediately?  At some point today?  At some point this week?  At some point this month?  No need to see it at all?

As it turns out, very few – only 12%! – of emails need to be seen within 5 minutes of being sent.

7% of emails need to be seen within 1 hour, 4% within 4 hours, 17% by the end of the day, 10% by the end of the week, 15% at some point, and a whopping 34% fell into the “no need to see it” category.

With that initial starting point – the idea that very few emails need to be seen right away – we set out to build a tool to allow people create rules for receiving emails.   We used a very simple sorting technique: sorting emails based on the sender.  In other words, depending on the sender, emails could be set to be received at different intervals.  No complex AI or learning mechanisms.

picture1

Example of instructions users were given

 

picture2

Example of prompt to set rule by each sender

What did we find?  People proceeded to create rules based on senders.  Similar to our initial findings, only 23% of emails were set up to be in the “immediate” category.  10% were relegated to the every-4-hours category, 19% to the end of the day, 16% to the end of the week, 5% to some day and a whopping 27% to the “never” category.

picture3

We also looked at whether people who received high vs, low quantities of emails behaved differently.  While on the whole they had similar behavior, one interesting point of note is that people with 50+ emails/day put highest number of emails into “immediately bucket” (30%) vs. 10-49 emails/day (20%) and <10 emails/day (26%).

picture4

Overall, the key point and opportunity we should take away from all of this is that a very simple mechanism can have an impact, creating a significant amount of benefit for people.  If you’d like to try this app for improving your email process for yourself, you can download it here.

[1] http://www.radicati.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/Email-Statistics-Report-2015-2019-Executive-Summary.pdf

[2] Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008). The cost of interrupted work: More speed and stress. Paper presented at the 107-110. doi:10.1145/1357054.1357072

[3] Smallwood, J., & Schooler, J. W. (2006). The restless mind. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 946–958. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/0033-2909.132.6.946

[4] Mark, G., Gudith, D., & Klocke, U. (2008). The cost of interrupted work: More speed and stress. Paper presented at the 107-110. doi:10.1145/1357054.1357072

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

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

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

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

—Tom 

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

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

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

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

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

—Kevin 

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

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

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

—Tom 

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

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

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

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

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

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

—Lisa 

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

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

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

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

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

—Paul 

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

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

—Deb 

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

Love,

Dan

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

A penny for your thoughts?

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

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

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

Irrationally Yours,

Dan Ariely

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

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

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Do you have any tips to improve productivity?

—Shana 

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

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

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

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

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

—Sebastian 

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

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

___________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

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

—Amy 

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

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.