Running to the subway — irrational or not?

May 14, 2008 BY danariely


My son (9 years) and I are huge fans of yours.
We have both read your book and gotten hours of pleasure discussing your experiments with friends and family.

My son came up with an interesting example of irrationality I would like to share with you: Every morning, I take him to school via subway from downtown Manhattan to the Upper Westside. We take the D train to Columbus Circle then switch to the 1 train headed uptown. He noticed that when switching, we leave the D train, walk to the 1 train platform, and then if we see that the train is there or just arriving, we immediately start running to catch the train. Well, it occurred to my son that it would be a lot more rational if, instead, we always ran from the D train to the 1 train platform and if, when we get there, we see that there is no train coming or already there, we slow down to a walk. So instead of walking then running, it would be more rational to run then walk. In the long run, we would save more time with this behavior even though it would seem counterintuitive to do it this way.

We would be curious what you think of this example.
With best regards,



Dear AW,

First I am delighted that you have been reading my book with your son. This is a true compliment. Thanks.
As for your question: Your son is right. If you want to minimize travel time you should switch your running pattern. But I suspect that your running pattern (walk first and run later) is aimed at minimizing regret and not at optimizing your time, which is very common.
Here’s one way to think about this human glitch we call regret: Consider how unhappy you would be if you missed your flight connection at O’Hare airport and had to wait five hours for the next plane home (enjoying, of course, the many amenities and wonderful atmosphere of this particular airport). Now consider two versions of this scenario. In the first, you missed your connection by two hours. In the second, you missed your connection by two minutes. Which scenario would make you more upset? My guess, as well as my personal experience, suggests that missing the connection by two minutes would annoy you much more and, in fact, would cloud your entire trip. But here is the strange thing—in both cases you would be physically stuck in the charmless airport.

The reality of the situation is not what would influence your happiness—because the reality is the same in both scenarios—instead, your happiness would be influenced by the ease of imagining another reality. A reality in which you made it to the flight.

So your son is right. If you want to minimize your travel time the best thing is to run first, but if you just care about minimizing regret keep on with your current practice.

Irrationally yours,