Ask Ariely: On Arguments for the Arts and Reminders of Risk

August 14, 2021 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.


Dear Dan,

As part of my work promoting the arts, I’m sitting in on a lot of budget meetings at city hall. Securing funding for the arts has always been difficult, but after more than a year without any live theater, it is getting even harder. Basically, many committee members see the arts as mere entertainment, which they think of as unnecessary. Is there any concrete evidence I can use to convince them that the arts are important?


The arts—including the fine arts, theater and film—are important to culture not only because they are entertaining, but also because they can be vehicles for political and societal change. Artistic performances are known to heighten empathy among their audiences and even to change people’s views.

Participants in a recent study saw a play related to issues of racial discrimination, wealth distribution and income inequality. Researchers surveyed some audience members before they saw the production and others afterward, finding that viewers left the theater with a substantial increase in fellow feeling toward members of the groups the play depicted and shifts in attitude on the political issues the play explored.

Participants in the study also increased the amount of money they donated to charities after their experience at the theater, regardless of whether or not the charities were related to the topic of the play. Surely if the arts can be such an effective tool for social change, they are not “just entertainment.”


Dear Dan,

A week ago, a close friend invited me to a wedding. I really want to join the celebration, but with the Delta variant and surge in COVID cases, I’m almost certain I won’t go. I have to tell my friend that I will miss this important day, but I want to do it without seeming judgmental. I’m not sure if I should mention my COVID safety concerns. What’s the most graceful way to decline this invitation?


Saying no to social events can be tough, and people are inclined to provide all kinds of made-up excuses. Your question here is whether it is better to invent a pretext for not showing up, or rather, to explain that you will absent due to COVID concerns. The short answer is that in this case, it is better to be transparent and truthful.

In a recent study, some people were asked to imagine that they were “excuse providers,” rejecting an invitation from a friend. Others were to imagine that they were “excuse receivers” whose invitation was rejected. The “providers” were sometimes asked to decline the invitation because of Covid risks.

The researchers sought to understand how people would feel about turning down invitations, or being turned down, on Covid-related grounds. They found that those making the excuse worried about hurting their friends when they offered pandemic-related justifications. Those receiving the excuse, on the other hand, actually reported feeling closer to the friends who cited concerns about COVID. They appreciated being reminded of the risks and viewed their friends as moral and caring.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.