Ask Ariely: On Begging, Bad Waiters, and the Facebook Blues

March 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 was recently approached by a panhandler who asked me for 75 cents, and I gave him the money. I was late for my train, so I didn’t have time to stop and try to understand why he chose 75 cents. But I wonder: Do you think the 75-cent request could be a “market tested” amount, one that yields a higher overall level of “donations” than asking outright for a buck or more.


The panhandler could be trying to make a unique request in order to separate himself from the competition. But my guess is that you were more willing to give him money because you inferred things from the specificity of his request.

When someone tells us to meet them at 8:03, we come to a different conclusion about how seriously they mean that exact time as compared with their telling us to meet them at 8 or 8-ish. In the same way, a request for exactly 75 cents may carry a set of inferences about how seriously the person needs the money. It may lead us to think there is a specific reason for the request, like getting enough for bus fare. Plus, even if he asks for 75 cents, it’s likely that people will give $1 and not wait for change.

You could argue that the same principle would apply if he asked for $1.25, but in this case the size of the request might deter some people, and if they don’t have exact change, giving $2 might be too much. This is just speculation, though. If you are willing to volunteer as an experimenter for a few days, we can gather some real data and get to the bottom of this.

What lessons can we draw from this strategy? First, think about the inferences that people make from the exact way that we request something. Second, asking for general help is unlikely to be as effective as asking for exactly what we need.


Dear Dan,

In a restaurant where waiters pool their tips, could they actually receive more tips overall by employing a “good waiter/bad waiter” routine, where one waiter is surly and unhelpful, then another waiter steps in who is friendly and goes above and beyond in serving the client? I suspect that the scheme might cause the customer to leave a larger tip for the second waiter, which will ultimately be pooled with the tips of the “bad” waiter.


I agree with your analysis. And for it to work, you don’t even need the waiters to share their tips—they could just alternate roles.

A friend who worked for a large consumer-products company was trying to change the company’s service motto from “we do things right for our customers” to “we mess up the first time, but then we fix it.” His idea (which upper management rejected, by they way) was that when people expect and receive good customer service, it draws no attention, and they just take it for granted (you can think of parallels to romantic relationships as well). But if we give customers a contrast between good and bad service (as at a restaurant), they may start to notice and appreciate good service more.

I suspect that some industries may have already picked up on this idea, and that airport restaurants are leading the charge by providing the training grounds for delivering bad service most effectively.


Dear Dan,

I graduated from college a few years ago, and since then my social life has been limited to Facebook. And it is far from satisfying.


Facebook has many wonderful aspects, but I agree that it is no substitute for human contact. If you ever feel that nobody really cares whether you’re alive, try missing a couple of student loan payments.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.