Updates

Ask Ariely: On Beating a Breakup, The Food Fight, and Diesel Deception

October 3, 2015 BY Dan Ariely

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

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Dear Dan,

My boyfriend and I recently broke up, and the anguish and depression have been hard to bear. How can I cope with the feeling that my life has come to a halt?

—Inbal

In general, when we experience a strong emotion—whether it is anger, joy or grief—we tend to believe that it will stay with us for a very long time. In fact, time dulls the sensation far faster than we expect. The end of a relationship can be a terribly difficult life event, but studies show that people expect the pain of a broken heart to last much longer than it actually does.

One way to make things easier on yourself, while the agony subsides, is to change as many of your life patterns as possible so that you don’t constantly run into painful reminders of your ex.

Go to different restaurants and meet new people. If you can, take a trip to a place you’ve never visited before.

Breakups are one of the great universal human experiences. I wish that I had a simple silver-bullet solution for the pain they cause, but I don’t.

Personally, I think that enduring a difficult separation is an experience that we can learn from—and a way to increase our chances for doing better the next time around.

Maybe it would help to look at the pain as a byproduct of learning.

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Dear Dan,

People today are far more aware of the dangers of obesity—we even hear about a public war on it. But we keep eating and eating. I certainly do, and I don’t know how to change. What’s our problem?

—Dror 

We aren’t focusing on the right things. We’re fighting the obesity epidemic by providing people with education and nutritional information—based on the assumption that knowledge will encourage us to make better decisions. But that’s not how people behave.

In an experiment led by my former Duke University colleague Janet Schwartz, our team went to a Chinese fast-food restaurant to try to see what effect providing nutritional information and calorie counts would have on diners. Some days, we placed that information next to each dish; other days we hid it.

The effect? Nothing. The knowledge that some dishes were much less healthy than others made no difference whatsoever on customers.

The British chef Jamie Oliver recently made a similar point. He showed children all the gross bird parts used to make their beloved chicken nuggets—bones, tendons, skin and worse—then ground the disgusting mix into a paste and fried it in breadcrumbs. When he took the nuggets out of the pan, the kids still all wanted to eat them.

If we forget what we’re eating so quickly, what hope does health education have?

The upshot, I’d argue, is that if we want to change eating behavior, we need to ditch the failed educational approach.

For example, instead of allowing people to buy a 64 oz. soda while providing them with calorie information that we hope will make them decide on a healthier option, why not simply limit the size from the start?

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Dear Dan,

Volkswagen recently admitted to cheating on emissions tests in its diesel-powered cars. What’s your take?

—Maya

As the owner of a VW Golf myself (not diesel), I’m deeply offended by the company’s emissions fixing, and I haven’t been able to look at my car in the same way since. Time will tell whether we can patch up our relationship.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Seeing Solutions, Emotional Actions, and Fun Foods

August 8, 2015 BY Dan Ariely

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

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Dear Dan,

My girlfriend hates wearing contacts and has been talking about getting laser eye surgery ever since I’ve known her. But she’s never taken the first step of getting an evaluation. I had the surgery a few years ago, and it was like magic: One day I couldn’t see—and the next day I could. It took me about two years to get my act together, do the research and take off time for the procedure. How can I help my girlfriend to shorten this timeline?

—Phil 

I’d suggest various forms of encouragement. For an incentive, offer to pay half the bill. To add a deadline, say that your offer to pay only holds if she has the procedure within the next two months. And to add social pressure to the mix, ask some of her friends to chip in for the effort but ask them to condition their gifts on the same two-month timeline. That should do it.

Of course, if you do this, you should expect that at some point she will set up some incentives for things that she wants you to do. Try to accept these cheerfully in the spirit of making your relationship more exciting and productive.

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Dear Dan,

Last week, two different stories about senseless murders were all over the news. The first was about Cecil, Zimbabwe’s most famous lion, who was hunted down and killed as a trophy by a dentist from Minnesota. The second was about Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black motorist shot dead by a police officer in a routine traffic stop. Guess which story received more attention and outrage? Do we really care more about lions than people?

—Janet 

Your question hinges on what we mean when we use the term caring. When you look at the volume of public outrage and the amount of ink spilled, it can sometimes seem that the loss of an endangered animal matters more. Sadly, that’s because, at least for some of us, the news of an animal’s death can have more emotional impact than the news of a person’s death.

Of course, this isn’t true for those who were close to the deceased, have personally experienced similar tragedies or have worked to fight similar injustices. But for those who experience such tragedies only via the news, the human loss sometimes doesn’t pull as much at their emotional strings.

This tendency has limits, though. If you gave most people two buttons, told them that pressing one would kill an endangered animal and pressing the other would kill a random fellow citizen, and ordered them to push one, very few would press the kill-a-person button. In this sort of direct comparison, I’d predict, almost everyone would prefer to kill the animal. Comparing lives more directly engages our cognition, not our emotions—and so the type of caring that emerges reflects our higher empathy for human beings and their families.

In other words, when we really think about it, we care more about humans—but we are often called to act based on our emotions, where our caring works quite differently.

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Dear Dan,

How can I get my kids to eat more vegetables?

—Yael

How about trying a new version of Popeye the Sailor, who used to gulp down spinach at moments of crisis and instantly grow stronger? You could modernize the Popeye approach by changing the language at the dinner table and talking about passing the Iron Man (kale), the Green Lantern (peas), the Superman (tomatoes), the Penguin (Oreos) and the Joker (soda). (My pairing of characters and foods may reflect some of my parental biases.)

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Reading Labels, Regulating Risks, and Reproducing Compliments

July 25, 2015 BY Dan Ariely

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,

Whenever I go to the pharmacy or the supermarket, I find myself veering almost uncontrollably toward products that say “All Natural” on the label. Why?

—Avi

Some time ago, my Duke University colleagues and I carried out experiments on the appeal of natural medications. The results showed that when we see the word “natural,” we don’t necessarily think that the product works any better, but we do tend to believe that it works more harmoniously with our bodies, with fewer side effects. By contrast, when we tested this preference with other products (such as glasses, cars or desks made from natural materials), people clearly preferred the artificial versions. This suggests that our preference for the natural applies largely to things that go into our bodies, such as food and medications.

Such findings can be explained by what I call the “cave man theory,” which holds that, no matter how technologically advanced we may become, many of us still believe that our bodies were designed to function best in a long-ago era. So we try to eat what our ancestors ate and shun engineered products.

But this is just a belief, and it has little to do with reality. Some synthetic components are less harmful than their natural equivalents, and quite a few natural products (sugar, salt, cholesterol, saturated fats) are dangerous for us. Still, when we hear that a product is “natural,” we see it as part of the way that things should be.

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Dear Dan,

Why are so many people reflexively opposed to the regulation of capital markets when the government strictly regulates so many other industries?

—Doug 

Consider an industry that is subject to much closer U.S. government regulation: pharmaceuticals. Since the early 1960s, when the morning-sickness drug thalidomide caused major birth defects in thousands of babies, drug companies have been required to prove a drug’s efficacy and safety before marketing it. The following decades have brought even more federal regulation of drugs.

Pharmaceuticals and capital markets have substantial similarities. Both industries make complex products that are hard to understand, both employ aggressive sales tactics, and both let consumers bear most of the risk.

So why are many more people opposed to regulating capital markets than pharmaceuticals? I suspect it has to do with our emotional reactions when things go wrong. A calamity with a new drug can mean illness and death, and we react powerfully against the perpetrators. By contrast, blunders in the financial markets produce, at worst, bankruptcies. The blame in these cases is more diffuse and the harm less emotionally charged—which means that we tend not to feel the same anger toward those responsible for the damage.

Of course, regulations should be based on the actual potential for harm, not on our emotional reactions, which is why I think we should more strictly regulate the financial markets and give more freedom for innovation to the pharmaceuticals market. ______________________________________________________

Dear Dan,

Recently, a friend told me that she wants to have my child. She meant it as a compliment, but I’m not sure if I should take it as one. What do you think?

—Daniel 

It sounds excellent on first blush, but what she’s really telling you is that she likes your genetic makeup, which you have very little to do with. She’s also telling you that your genes are the main thing that interests her. Give this particular compliment back to her, and ask for a different one.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Fun Money, Santa, and Feeling Old

June 20, 2015 BY danariely

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

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Dear Dan,

My parents, both over 60, have retired from careers in government service, with good retirement funds plus a decent monthly pension. When they were young, they faced a lot of financial difficulties, so over the years, they have turned into misers. They don’t go on holidays, dine out or indulge in any way; they buy substandard groceries, take public transportation to save on gas and fret over even petty expenses. I want them to enjoy the rest of their lives without such worries. What should I do to change their behavior regarding money.

—Vivek

Your parents’ problem comes bundled with substantial benefits. Saving early in life and living modestly are key to a healthy retirement, and I wish that more people in the U.S. behaved this way. You probably owe much of your own financial well-being and your mind-set toward money to this exemplary behavior.

That said, now that your parents are comfortable, it would be good if they were able to enjoy life to a higher degree. If I were you, I would sit with them and go over their monthly balance sheet to try to figure out how much money is coming in every month and how much they are spending on necessities.

With these numbers in hand, I would look at how much extra income they have every month—and call these funds “fun money.” Next, I would get them two prepaid debit cards and set up an automatic monthly transfer of the fun money from their checking account to the cards. In this way, the fun money will be set aside from the beginning, with a different physical identity and declared purpose—a little like chips in a casino. If you want to further drive the point home, put large red stickers on the cards and write “Fun” on them.

Finally, for the first few months, you could go over the statements with them to make sure that they are indeed spending the money in ways that make them happy.

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Dear Dan,

Do you think it’s acceptable for parents (and society in general) to lie to young children about the existence of Santa? I don’t, but I seem to be in the minority.

—Charlotte

My research center recently completed a documentary on dishonesty in which we interviewed individuals who had committed misdeeds, from insider trading to doping to infidelity. Many people, we found, take one wrong step, then rationalize it, then take another—and soon they’re on a slippery slope.

All of which is to say: It is wrong to lie to kids about Santa. You might start with a fib about Santa, but next it could be the Tooth Fairy, and after that, maybe it’s Superman, the Avengers and who knows what else.

More seriously: Your children will find out at some point, and when they do, it could cause a loss of trust that could be very unhealthy.

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Dear Dan,

When I was a teenager and my parents were in their 40s, they seemed old to me. Now I am almost 40, and I still feel young. Is it true that we stay young for longer these days? In the 21st century, when do people start feeling old?

—Nina

Despite our amazing advances, we don’t stay young for longer. The difference is your perspective. We look at ourselves as the standard, paying less attention to differences that we consider positive and overemphasizing ones we see as negative. As for your question about when we start feeling old, that’s simple: We start feeling old when we look forward more to a good night’s sleep than to a night of passion.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Creed Fatigue, Souls for Sale, and Defying Gravitas

May 10, 2014 BY danariely

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 work for the central organization of a large church, and my job includes dealing with “crooked” priests of one form or another. For now, let’s think only of the embezzlers, of whom there are, sadly, far too many.

This got me thinking about the experiment you and some colleagues ran a few years ago, which showed that levels of cheating plummeted when participants were asked to recall the Ten Commandments right before taking a test. As you wrote, “reminders of morality—right at the point where people are making a decision—appear to have an outsize effect on behavior.” 

Your own Ten Commandments experiment suggests that a priest who, as a matter of daily or weekly ritual, recites religious teachings should be highly moral. But I see every day that this isn’t so.

What’s going on here? Can repetition cause “creed fatigue”?

—Simon

As you pointed out, our experiments show that people became more honest when we got them to think about the Ten Commandments, swear on the Bible (which, interestingly, worked for atheists too) or even just sign their name first on a document.  But our experiments were a one-shot exercise, and we don’t have data about what would happen if we repeated them over time.

Even so, I would guess that as such actions (including rituals) become routinized, we would stop thinking about their meanings, and their effect on our morality would drop. This is why I recommend that universities not only set up honor codes but have their students write down their own version of that code before writing each exam and paper—thereby minimizing the chances that these could become thoughtless habits.

Such procedures would be hard to implement in a religious setting, of course, so I’m not sure I have an easy answer for you or your church. Maybe your role should be to try to give the priests more clear-cut rules, reduce their ability to rationalize their actions and eliminate conflicts of interests.

Still, on a more optimistic note: Have you considered the possibility that these rituals are in fact having a positive effect—and that without them, these individuals would behave far worse?

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Dear Dan,

Out at a bar recently, I met someone who told me that he did not believe in the soul. I immediately asked him if he would sell his to me.  We ended up agreeing on a price of $20. I paid up, and he wrote a note on a napkin giving me his soul.

Now, I don’t believe in an afterlife, but I also can’t help but believe that there is an exceedingly small chance that a soul could have an infinite value. So $20 seemed a reasonable hedge. Did I pay too much, or did I get a good deal?

—Carey

Well haggled. Your logic here is reminiscent of what is known as Pascal’s Wager, after the philosopher who figured that if there was even a small probability that God and heaven exist (which means infinite payoff for being good), the smart move is to live your life this as it were true. But you got a good deal here for three other reasons. First, discussing this trade had to have been far more interesting than the usual bar chitchat, so if you value the quality of your time, the $20 was a good investment even if souls turn out not to exist. Second, you now have a great story to reflect on for a long time, which is also worth a lot.  And finally, you are now the proud owner of a soul.  But if all of these reasons don’t convince you, send me the soul, and I’ll pay you back for it.

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Dear Dan,

At what point do people have to “act our age”? At 73, my wife and I still enjoy our sex life, are physically active and dress the way we did when we met more than 30 years ago. But most of our contemporaries dress like old people, act with gravitas and aren’t doing well in the weight department. What to do?

—Aaron

Move to Berkeley.

 

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Late-night Raids, Home Improvement, and the Magic of Memory

March 29, 2014 BY danariely

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,

Whenever I work the night shift, I wind up raiding the fridge—and ruining my diets one after the other. During the day, I manage to resist the temptation, but at night, my self-control seems to stop working. What should I do? 

—Meni

What you describe is a well-known phenomenon called “depletion.” All day long, we face small temptations and do our best to resist them. We maintain control over ourselves so as to be productive, responsible people and stop ourselves from caving in to our urges to shop, procrastinate, watch that latest cat video on YouTube and so forth. But our ability to resist urges is like a muscle: The more we use it, the more tired we become—until at night, it just becomes too weak to stop us. (This is one reason the temptation industry—bars, strip clubs—operates mostly at night.) One way to overcome this problem is based on the story of Odysseus and the sirens. In this story Odysseus told his sailors to tie him to the mast as they sailed near the island of the sirens and not to untie the ropes under any circumstances so he couldn’t be tempted to jump into the water and swim toward the sirens’ seductive voices. The modern equivalent of this tactic? Keep all tempting things out of your house. You can hope that your future self will be able to resist temptation, buy the chocolate cake and eat just a sliver of it every other day. But the safer bet is not to keep chocolate cake in the fridge in the first place.

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Dear Dan,

At work, I have no problems giving my subordinates feedback about their performances and suggesting improvements. But it is harder for me to give feedback to the woman who cleans my home. So I’ve adopted an indirect approach: Instead of giving her pointers in person, I leave her a note. Is there a better way? 

—Galia

Leaving notes isn’t ideal. Would you leave notes for your kids on how they fell short on their chores? Would you give your husband written feedback on his performance in bed? In general, when results matter, communicating while the task is being performed (or immediately after) is the way to go, and communicating face to face makes quick communication much more natural. It may not always be fun, but it makes clear to the person performing the task what the feedback is about—and offers a greater chance for learning. The second part of your question involves the different ways you treat people at work and your cleaning lady. I suspect this difference comes from your general discomfort about having someone else cleaning your house (maybe it is something you may feel you should be doing yourself). But you’re not really helping your cleaning lady by withholding timely feedback. My suggestion: tidy the house up a bit before she shows up (as many people do), leave a generous tip but also start be more diligent about pointing out the dust bunnies she missed.

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Dear Dan,

My 10-year-old daughter wonders: If a child has been really mean to her best friend (for example, by tattling on her) and their friendship falls apart, how do they manage to become best friends again after only a couple of days? 

—Aviel

That is the wonder of bad memory. We enjoy this benefit when we’re young and then again when we’re old. In between, we’re unhappy and vengeful.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Weather Delays, Time Delays, and Garlic Cologne

March 1, 2014 BY danariely

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 stuck overnight in a strange city due to a canceled flight. Because the airline blamed the cancellation on “weather,” no one helped me find a place to stay or pay for it. Meanwhile, I saw other flights leaving the same airport. Is “weather” just a term airlines use when they try to consolidate flights, not compensate their customers and avoid blame?

—Kelly

I am sure that sometimes the weather really is at fault, but I have no idea whether the airlines use the weather excuse promiscuously when it’s to their financial advantage. It would be difficult to make such a judgment call (should we call the reason for the delay the weather or technical issues?) while completely ignoring the economic incentives involved. And blaming all kinds of things on the weather is a very useful strategy for the airlines because trapped fliers don’t directly blame the airlines for it.

But let’s be honest here: Many of us also sometimes blame our own tardiness on traffic or the weather. And I suspect many of us would blame the weather even more frequently for all sorts of lapses if we just had the opportunity.

To my mind, the weather excuse (as the airlines use it) has one major problem. The airlines’ logic is that bad weather is an act of God, which releases the airline from responsibility. But isn’t the airlines’ behavior probably the reason God is angry to begin with?

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Dear Dan,

How can I enjoy life more? Every year, time seems to go by faster; months rush by, and years just seem to disappear. Is there a reason for this, or is the memory of time passing more slowly when we were children just an illusion?

—Gal 

Time does go by (or, more accurately, it feels as if time is going by) more quickly the older we get. In the first few years of our lives, anything we sense or do is brand-new, and a lot of our experiences are unique, so they remain firmly in our memories. But as the years go by, we encounter fewer and fewer new experiences—both because we have already accomplished a lot and because we become slaves to our daily routines. For example, try to remember what happened to you every day last week. Chances are that nothing extraordinary happened, so you will be hard-pressed to recall the specific things you did on Monday, Tuesday etc.

What can we do about this? Maybe we need some new app that will encourage us to try out new experiences, point out things we’ve never done, recommend dishes we’ve never tasted and suggest places we’ve never been. Such an app could make our lives more varied, prod us to try new things, slow down the passage of time and increase our happiness. Until such an app arrives, try to do at least one new thing every week.

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Dear Dan,

My daughter recently persuaded me to start eating two cloves of garlic every day. I feel more energetic and less stressed. Is it the garlic, or is it a placebo?

—Yoram 

I am not sure, but have you considered the possibility that the reason you feel so much better is that people are now leaving you alone?

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

Ask Ariely: On Smoke Detectors and Speaking Academese

January 4, 2014 BY danariely

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

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Dear Dan,

My neighborhood recently suffered a horrible tragedy: A house fire, started by a faulty appliance, broke out in the middle of the night and killed two young children. I don’t know the parents, but their family has many parallels with mine: the parents’ jobs, the kids’ ages, the friends we have in common and, most importantly, the fact that we also don’t have smoke alarms in our house. I haven’t bought one for the usual list of reasons: I’m so busy, no one said I have to get one, I don’t know what kind to get, I never see them in shops anyway and so on. So how can I get myself—and everyone I’ve ever met—to buy a smoke detector?

—Tanya 

It would be nice to think that everyone will realize the important steps they need to take for basic safety and just take them. But it’s also extremely unlikely. For example, we already know that texting and driving is terribly dangerous and that overeating is bad for us, but we still let our eyes drift to our phones when we’re in traffic and we still order that burger with fries.

I also suspect that something as seemingly simple as installing a smoke detector is more difficult and confusing than we might think: There are many options, they need batteries, they may need to be installed in a tricky spot, we are not sure which brand will fit the bracket we have at home, and so on. And while none of these concerns are particularly substantial, they do increase our procrastination and indecision—leaving us in homes without functioning smoke alarms.

This is why I think that cases such as this call for some type of government regulation— something that will not assume that we’ll act in our best long-term interest and instead will make us do the right thing.

In the meantime, I suspect that many people reading this right now are realizing that they need to get smoke alarms of their own or change the batteries—and I also suspect that this feeling will last about 20 minutes and then be replaced by other urgent thoughts. So if you (yes, you) are one of these people, stop now (yes, now), go online, order that smoke detector, get those batteries and tell your household that you promise to install it by the end of the week.

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Dear Dan,

I recently attended a lecture by a well-known academic, and I was amazed and baffled by his inability to communicate even the most basic concepts in his field of expertise. How can experts be so bad at explaining ideas to others? Is this a requirement of academia?

—Rachel 

Here’s a game I sometimes play with my students: I ask them to think about a song, not to tell anyone what it is and tap its beat on a table. Next I ask them to predict how many other students in the room will correctly guess the song’s name. They usually think that about half will get it. Then I ask the rest of the students for their predictions—and no one ever gets it right.

The point is that when we know something and know it well, it is hard for us to appreciate what other people understand. This problem is sometimes called “the curse of knowledge.” We all suffer from this affliction, but it’s particularly severe for my fellow academics. We study things until they seem entirely natural to us and then assume that everyone else easily understands them too. So maybe the type of clumsiness you heard is indeed something of a professional requirement.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.

For This New Year's Resolution, Remove Not Just Resist Temptation

December 30, 2013 BY danariely

ResolutionsThe end of the year is a time to reflect and think—where have we been, who do we want to be, and what do we want to do differently next year? But what if all of the resolutions we’ve been making are missing an important detail? What if all these “New Year’s resolution” articles going viral online right now are all deeply flawed? Might this help explain why almost everyone fails to keep their New Year’s resolutions?

Let’s imagine two would-be-resolvers: Riss (“the resistor”) and Remmy (“the remover”). Like so many Americans, both of them are trying to eat healthier and exercise more, but they approach these goals differently.

Riss follows all the traditional New Year’s resolution strategies out there. He buys healthy foods and workout DVDs. To ramp up his confidence, he reads inspirational quotes, creates a New Year’s playlist, and vows to succeed. He has what health scientists call “high self-efficacy” and the magical “Law of Attraction” readers of The Secret always talk about.

Most importantly, Riss is defined by the passionate goal to resist temptation—he wont be lazy, eat that cookie, or stay at home instead of go to the gym. With resolve like that, it seems like Riss is bound to succeed.

But let’s look at Remmy: what does she do? She really doesn’t make any changes except for two small things: she removes the junk food from her house and the HBO subscription she loves.

Remmy is defined by her goal to remove, rather than resist, temptation. When she comes home, she won’t have any choice but to eat the healthy food in her cabinets. If she wants to see her favorite HBO shows, she won’t have any choice but to use the TV at her gym.

When Riss comes home, though, he’ll have his health food and workout DVDs, but also junk food and tempting Adam Sandler movies. His confidence and resolve will help him resist these temptations for a while, but over time, as research by NYU Professor Andrea Bonezzi and colleagues shows, that resolve will likely fade. It won’t be long till Riss finds himself covered in cookie crumbs watching The Waterboy and shedding a tear every time a character shouts “You can do it!”

Resisting temptation almost always fails, because people are bad at predicting how their future selves will act. We continually fail to realize that the tired, miserable, and aroused versions of ourselves might not make the same choices that our well-rested, happy, and focused selves would make. Over time and after many grueling workweeks, the hopeful people who made New Year’s resolutions after a winter vacation will be replaced by people who just want a few slices of cake. This is why we have to focus on controlling, rather than resisting, temptation.

If we’re smart about temptation, we can even use it to our advantage. In the Remmy example, she does this by making the gym the only place for her to watch her guilty HBO pleasures. Wharton Business School Professor Katy Milkman and colleagues found that stocking gyms with addictive guilty pleasures (like an audio copy of The Hunger Games on gym iPods) lead people to go to the gym more. These gym goers couldn’t resist the temptation to come again and again to consume their guilty media pleasures—all while exercising.

Keeping New Year’s resolutions is like playing chess with our future selves—we have to realistically anticipate what moves they will make come February.

Advice givers and columnists tend to choose to just fill readers with hope, the promise of new products, confidence, and a “you can do it” spirit. Of course it’s important to be confident in any goal pursuit and work to develop the self-control muscle, but resolve alone rarely leads to a successful resolution.

So rather than face a losing battle, we can remove temptation and create a battlefield where we can give ourselves a true fighting chance to keep our New Year’s resolutions.

~Troy Campbell~

Read Dan’s advice for New Year’s resolutions here

How we trained for the Color Run

November 25, 2013 BY danariely

At our lab, we’re interested in what kinds of tools people can use to make better decisions and reach their goals. When we decided to take part in this year’s Color Run, we tried to use some of these tools on ourselves to help us get in shape and ready for the race.

Like many people, we want to exercise more and get in better shape. Everyday temptation often gets in the way, though. To fight these temptations, we turned to one of the most prevalent behavioral tools: the “commitment contract.”

A commitment contract is an agreement your current self makes with your future self—you decide how you’re going to behave before temptations cloud your judgment.

In our lab, we had everyone agree to do some type of training three times a week in the six weeks leading up to the race. In the spirit of what we know about motivation, the focus was on concrete actions (spend a certain amount of time training) rather than vague outcomes (run a fast race).

Troy Contract
An example of our “commitment contracts”

“Some type of training” is pretty open-ended, so we each defined on our contracts what actually counted as a training session for us—this way we could all train to our own level while maintaining concrete goals. This is important because we all vary in how fit we currently are and how fit we ideally want to be. Research shows personal goals can be more success that striving after a single public standard. The standard becomes too high or too low for many people and leads to demotivation.

Commitment contracts are effective, but we decided to take the commitment up another notch by including social incentives. We each kept track of our training goals on a chart we posted in a very visible high traffic area – right by the kitchen!

Color Run Chart
Our public training chart

The chart helped us track progress from person to person and week to week. The chart made our commitment (or lack of commitment) very visible to each other and ourselves. It’s painful enough to fail privately, but it’s even worse when everyone else can see us coming short of our own standards.

So, how did it work?

For the most part it worked fantastically. However, you can see that a handful of people fell off the bandwagon and never got back on. This is what behavioral economists playfully call that the “what-the-hell” effect.

Importantly though, about one-third of the team succeeded in completing all training sessions, and others were motivated to exercise more or harder than they did before.

It’s important to note that on average, exercise in the lab shot up and as a whole we moved toward our goal. Perfection with any intervention is not expected, but, as a group, we definitely made strides forward.

To better understand what was going on, I talked with some of our lab members to get their assessment.

For some of us, this was an all or nothing endeavor:

“Just knowing that I needed three stickers each week and would be anything less than perfect if I didn’t get all three got me to put on my running shoes without fail.”

Some people used the contracts and the process of defining what “counted” as a training session to eliminate the possibility they would take too much wiggle room:

“For me I always work out but sometimes I don’t feel so good and I ‘call it early’ and stop before getting a full workout. With the pre-commitment this didn’t happen. The fixed time goal kept me from quitting early.”

Other people used the contracts to build in wiggle room, just in case.

“I made my commitment contract loose enough that I could justify yoga or sex as exercise activities, but I never took advantage of the ample wiggle room.”

group
The lab, before the race.

In the end, the training probably didn’t radically transform anyone from couch potato to athlete or yield dramatic before and after photos (nor did it exactly have randomized and controlled trials), but it seems safe to say that everyone got a little extra boost—even those who didn’t train. As one visitor to the lab remarked “You can’t look at all those smiley faces and not smile back.”

~Jamie Foehl~

Check out the photos we took from our run here, and for more research on how pre-commitment and social comparison affects goal pursuit check out these academic articles:

Setting your own deadlines.

Temptation Bundling.

Social Comparison Theory.