Ask Ariely: On Conversation Cards, Student Searches, and Home Habits

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 workplace hosts weekly virtual happy hours over Zoom. It’s a nice idea in principle, but the meetings have been dull and awkward—we usually just end up talking about the latest coronavirus news. Is there a way to encourage better, deeper conversations?

—Josh 

The problem isn’t that your co-workers are unusually boring; rather, it’s the social norms for your meetings. Research has found that people usually gravitate toward small talk even when they crave connection because sharing important things about ourselves can be socially risky. Talking about unimportant things carries zero risk, but it also doesn’t offer much personal or social benefit.

I was part of a team of researchers working on how to foster deeper connections, and we designed an experiment involving 300 people at a networking event for financial advisers. Some of the participants were asked to socialize as they usually do, while others were given conversation cards with probing questions to ask, like “If you had to change one big decision you’ve made, what would it be?” or “What don’t you tell people on a first date?”

The results showed that those who asked deeper questions had more meaningful discussions. You could try something similar in your Zoom happy hours by giving everyone a question to ask their colleagues. To get started, take a look at psychologist Arthur Aron’s list of 36 “closeness-generating” questions, such as “Would you like to be famous? In what way?” and “What would constitute a perfect day for you?”

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Dear Dan,

I’m a professor at a state university where the majority of the student body is white, even though our state is much more diverse. Does behavioral science offer any tools for increasing minority enrollment?

—Dylan 

Many institutions are trying to fight racial bias with specialized training for employees. But training in any subject seldom solves the real problem, since there’s a big gap between knowing the right thing to do and actually doing it. Instead, try looking at the problem from the point of view of prospective applicants, to help you understand what’s discouraging minority students from applying and enrolling.

This involves what my lab calls “behavioral mapping.” Imagine that you are a high-school senior and create a detailed map of every decision and task that’s involved in the application process: choosing to apply, taking tests, filling in forms, paying fees, visiting campus and so on. This process will help you identify obstacles that keep students out even before they get to the admissions committee. To achieve racial equity, removing structural barriers is just as important as fighting explicit bias.

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Dear Dan,

What is something that has surprised you as you’ve adjusted to life in the pandemic?

—Nia 

The biggest change in my routine has to do with staying home all the time. I used to travel a few times a week, and I haven’t been on a plane since early March. The isolation is challenging, but having a consistent home environment has helped me reinforce good habits, like eating better and going to bed earlier. I already knew the research about how a stable environment is good for establishing routines, but now that I’m experiencing it myself I’m surprised to see what a big difference it makes.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.