Ask Ariely: On Compliment Cultivation, Stress Spillover, and Environmental Empathy

July 31, 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,

Working remotely, not only do my employees miss out on social connections, but a lot of good work goes underappreciated as we jump from one Zoom call to the next without much time for spontaneous conversation. How can I change that?


Receiving praise has continuously been linked to improved motivation and wellbeing on one hand and reduced burnout and absenteeism on the other. These benefits extend to the person giving the compliment: Recent research found that giving accolades can actually make people happier than receiving them. On top of that, crafting a compliment requires one to think about the recipient, and this fosters social connection that leads to increased happiness.

To spontaneously meet someone and compliment them is hard during remote work. Thus, it is important to create space that allows for compliments and other small acts of kindness. Consider setting a few minutes aside during a weekly team meeting, or setting up a separate communication channel that allows employees to recognize each other and thank them.


Dear Dan,

Talking recently with my friends, we all agreed that the pandemic was a stressful time, but some people’s relationships with their spouses seemed to fare better than others. What might explain the disparity among couples?


There are most likely many reasons for this, but here is one: Stress can take a toll on a relationship. For example, after a tough day at work and a long commute, you may arrive home feeling impatient and irritable toward your partner (who then ends up feeling undeservedly blamed). Taking your stress out on someone unrelated to its source is referred to as “stress spillover.”

The pandemic has created an extraordinary amount of stress and a lot of opportunities for spillover. Those of us who are better able to compartmentalize our COVID-19 anxiety, rather than taking it out on our partners, are likely to be better at protecting our relationships during these complex times.


Dear Dan,

My aunt and uncle invited me to dinner this week. I’m very much looking forward to seeing them again, but I’m dreading the inevitable conversation about climate change (we all live in the Pacific Northwest) as my uncle is a firm believer in conspiracy theories. How can I get through to someone I deeply care about without getting into an argument?


The odds of changing your uncle’s opinions in one meeting are 0. Don’t even aim for that. You might be able to make a dent in his beliefs over time, but you will need to understand his motivations and approach the conversation calmly and with empathy.

Often people are drawn to conspiracy theories because they feel angry, powerless or disappointed about their lives and the state of the world. For example, perhaps your uncle feels anxious about the recent heat wave and his lack of control over the environment. Research shows that such feelings are common among conspiracy theorists. Concluding that climate change doesn’t exist satisfies an existential psychological need: to feel safe and in control of external events.

Listen to what your uncle has to say. When you better understand the forces underlying his beliefs, you can try to help him deal with these more directly and in this way reduce his need for conspiracy theories.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.