Ask Ariely: On Tasty Treats, Pandemic Protocols, and Sustained Stressors

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 manage a small company, and I want to give my employees a gift that will bring them joy during these difficult times. Any suggestions?

—Maya 

I would suggest gifts that provide a fun experience while fostering a feeling of connection, which we all need nowadays. One option would be to give people a gift card for a takeout meal from their favorite restaurant. That would give your employees a treat and allow them to support a local business they care about.

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Dear Dan,

I live in New Zealand, where we are currently almost Covid-19-free. The border is closed except for New Zealand citizens coming back home, and they have to spend two weeks in isolation in a designated quarantine hotel. Recently, there have been several big news stories about returnees who broke quarantine to go to a supermarket or a liquor store, potentially exposing dozens of people to the virus. What makes people think it’s OK to flout the rules like this?

—David 

Getting people to follow safety protocols during the pandemic is a good example of the economic problem known as the tragedy of the commons. If everyone follows the rules, the whole community benefits. But if one person starts to bend the rules for their own advantage, others will follow suit, until the system falls apart and everyone is worse off. The common danger we’re all in should be an opportunity to increase cooperation and social cohesion, not just in New Zealand but everywhere.

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Hi, Dan.

As a teacher, I’ve been closely following the debate over whether to reopen schools. My school district closed in March when there were just a handful of cases in the state. Now we have thousands of cases, but the schools are planning to reopen in the fall. Why have people’s perceptions of Covid-19 risk changed so much in the last few months?

—Ashe 

Deciding whether to reopen schools involves balancing many factors—not just the quality of remote versus in-person instruction but student’s need for school lunches and the economic burden of child care on working parents. Our perception of risk, however, has been affected over the last five months by what psychologists call habituation. When Covid-19 began to spread, the unknown nature of the virus and the rapid increase in hospitalizations and deaths created widespread fear, making people very unwilling to take risks.

That level of alarm is hard to sustain. In general, people adapt to new realities surprisingly quickly. The danger of Covid-19 hasn’t gone away—in fact, in many places it’s worse than ever—but we soon stop paying as much attention to frightening statistics and headlines. We may start lowering our guard in small ways—forgetting to wear a mask or leaving our “bubble” to visit a parent or friend. When it comes to schools, the benefits of reopening now feel bigger to many people than the dangers, simply because we’ve gotten used to living in a risky environment.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.