Ask Ariely: On Philanthropic Freebies, Missing Masks, and Behavioral Biases

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 often get mailers from environmental charities containing items such as address labels, note pads and greeting cards, along with a request for a contribution. Do these freebies actually increase contributions, or would charities do just as well with a simple request for money?

—Ted 

Charities are usually better off if they avoid offering incentives like gifts, premiums and raffles. Such rewards encourage us to think about donating as an exchange, raising the question of whether a sheet of address labels is really worth $50. The question the environmental charity should be asking is whether the future well-being of the planet is worth $50. Instead of focusing on transactions, charities do best when they connect with people on the level of identities and values.

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Hi Dan,

During a pandemic, wearing a mask in public places is an easy way to promote the common good. What makes some people so vehemently opposed to masks, despite the scientific evidence in favor of wearing them?

—Wayne 

When we justify our own behavior, we often say that it’s the result of careful deliberation about values and benefits. Opponents of wearing masks might argue that they are defending individual liberty against government power or that masks aren’t really necessary to avoid infection. In reality, however, the way we behave is usually governed by what people around us are doing, especially those we perceive as being in our own social group.

This means that if you belong to a community where the norm of mask-wearing hasn’t been established, you’re unlikely to buck the trend by wearing one yourself. But if the norm shifts and mask-wearing becomes expected, most people will change their behavior, regardless of the principled reasons they once gave for not wearing a mask.

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Dear Dan,

As a teacher in an executive education program, I give my students a lot of advice about how to avoid bad habits and biased thinking. But I find that I often fall victim to these things myself, even though I’m aware of the dangers. Do you find that being a behavioral economist makes it easier to behave rationally?

—Madison 

Behavioral biases affect everyone, including those of us who study them. Biases are like optical illusions: Even when we know what we’re seeing isn’t real, we can’t help seeing it. In my experience, the best strategy is to recognize that I will behave in predictably irrational ways unless I make it easier for myself to act the way I want to.

For example, I want to eat more vegetables, and I know that I’m more likely to actually do it if I find them ready to eat when I open the refrigerator. So I make sure to clean and prepare vegetables in advance, in order to not give myself an excuse to eat something quick and unhealthy instead. Similarly, I know that I’m more likely to go for a morning run if I make an appointment to run with a friend. Designing the right environment for ourselves is the best way to control our own bad tendencies.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.