Ask Ariely: On Commuting, Being One’s Own Advisor, and Democracy

July 20, 2013 BY danariely

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,

We recently got married and are having a hard time deciding where to live. Should we live in the city, close to where we work? Or would we be better off finding some place cheaper, greener and farther away from the city?

—A Couple from the Center

Your decision should take a few things into account. First, most of us can get used to most things: houses of different sizes, for instance, or a neighborhood that is green or drab. And we adapt to most changes faster than we expect. Many years ago, for example, I suffered a serious injury that changed my life dramatically. But over time I got used to these changes, and now my life is much better than I would have expected.

But there are some things that we don’t get used to, at least not that easily. One of these, sadly, is commuting—that annoying daily trip from the small neighborhood where we live to our place of work in the big city. We don’t get used to such trips because we never know what’s in store for us in traffic. If we know that we can leave home each day at 7:30 a.m. and arrive at 9 a.m., we can live with that. But because of traffic and bottlenecks, we never know when we might arrive. And this uncertainty makes it difficult to get used to commuting, making each day start out so badly.

This is why I suggest that you take distance from work into account as a significant factor in deciding where to live. It will play a larger role in your life than you think.


Dear Dan,

What is the best way to inject some rationality into our decision-making?


I am not certain of the best way, but here is one approach that might help: When we face decisions, we are trapped within our own perspective—our own special motivations and emotions, our egocentric view of the world at that moment. To make decisions that are more rational, we want to eliminate those barriers and look at the situation more objectively. One way to do this is to think not of making a decision for yourself but of recommending a decision for somebody else whom you like. This lets you view the situation in a colder, more detached way, and make better decisions.

For example, in one experiment we told people, “Imagine you went to your doctor and the doctor recommended a very expensive treatment. You’ve been seeing this doctor for 10 years. Would you go for a second opinion?” Most people said “no.” We asked another group to imagine a friend in the same situation. Would they recommend that a friend seek out a second opinion? Most people said “yes.”

This suggests that when we think about other people, we take our emotions out of the picture and are able to recommend something more useful—such as going for a second opinion.

But when it’s us, and we have a longtime commitment to a particular doctor, it’s hard to ignore this relationship and our feeling of obligation. Taking the advice approach may not be the best way to inject some rationality into your decision-making (and it’s certainly not the only way), but it is useful to imagine how you would advise another person, particularly someone you care about.


Dear Dan,

What do you think about democracy, since everybody gets the same right to vote, whether they are smart or less smart? Because the number of the less smart is so large, in a democracy they end up having greater influence. Is this kind of equality in choice good for society?


Churchill answered this one: “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” (from a speech in the House of Commons, Nov. 11, 1947)

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.