Ask Ariely: On bag lunches, career choices, and shopping for a loved one

February 2, 2013 BY danariely

Here’s my Q&A column from the WSJ this week — and if you have any questions for me, just email them to AskAriely@wsj.com.


Dear Dan,

I’ve struggled with a few major “I wish I could change this” type behaviors for years. Back when I worked in downtown Manhattan, colleagues would religiously bring their own lunch, thermos of coffee, or whatever, and save money on eating out. I often mused that I could probably fund my retirement or at least a few good vacations with all the money I spent on decent but forgettable food.

Well, recently I started a new job at a big company where the only real food option is its own cafeteria—which serves awful food at market prices.

Lo and behold: This cafeteria so insults and annoys me that I’ve been able to fix my long-standing bad habit. Every night before bed, I simply fill up some Tupperware with dinner leftovers. Or I grab a yogurt, make a PB&J—whatever it takes. What lesson can I take from this?

P.S. I’ve been following your podcast, Arming the Donkeys, for years, but I have to tell you the sound could sometimes be better.


This is a classic case where having all the right information was simply not enough to drive your desired behavior. We know, for example, that telling people about the caloric content of fast food has almost no effect on eating, and that knowing the dangers of texting at the wheel hasn’t exactly moved the needle on safe driving.

We also know that emotions are often much more effective in getting people to behave differently. In your case, disgust and indignation—which can be extremely powerful and motivating.

The good news is that once your emotions instigated this change, you found it easy to change your behavior, and with time this change may even become a habit. At that point, even if you stop being angry at the cafeteria (or you switch jobs), the habit and joy of bringing your own lunch will persist.

P.S. With regard to my podcast, I’ve been thinking about getting a higher quality recorder for a while. Knowing that you’re motivated by anger and revenge, I will get right on it. Thank you.


Dear Dan,

As a recent college grad, I often find myself coming up with off-the-wall, out-of-the-box, borderline idiotic ideas of what to do with the rest of my life. One day I’ll be thinking of how much I enjoy my job; the next I’ll be considering dropping everything and running off to another country, starting my own business, launching a singing career or pursing higher education in something unrelated to my field, like behavioral economics. I’ll often stew on these ideas before setting them aside, only to revisit them every few months. How can I tell when my ideas are actually legitimate notions or nothing but half-baked schemes?

—Josh G.

First, I am impressed that you’re considering so many different types of jobs. (And I may be biased, but I agree that a career in behavioral economics would be pretty interesting.) In general it amazes me how few possible career paths people consider before picking one to stick to indefinitely.

As for your question: It’s useful to think about two aspects of your job choices: What will make you happy (which is the only aspect people usually consider) and what jobs will be able to teach you something important. If I were you, I would make a list of possible jobs and rate each one on both measures. Next, figure out what your goal is right now (as a recent college grad, you may want to focus more on what you can learn) and then pick the job from the list that best satisfies this goal. Finally, commit to that job for at least a year without looking back.

What you shouldn’t do is stay in one job and think about how different your life would be if you took another. This is a bit like dating one person but constantly checking Match.com to see what other options you might have. It takes away from the enjoyment of your current relationship or job and your commitment to it. So, whatever you do, sticking to your chosen path of action is key.

And if you do end up switching jobs, please don’t tell your parents that you did it on account of my advice.


Dear Dan,

As we get closer to Valentine’s Day, I am wondering, why do women like jewelry and flowers? Wouldn’t it be better if they liked the kind of things that men liked to shop for?


One way to view this discrepancy is that women like these things exactly because men hate shopping for them. If you purchased something for your loved one that you enjoyed shopping for, this would be nice, but having to overcome your aversion to shopping for these items is a much stronger signal of your love and care. So this year, when you are shopping for jewelry or flowers for your soul mate, remind her what a pain it was for you.

And Happy Valentine’s Day.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.