Ask Ariely: On Concerning Crowds and Sensitive Stories

February 12, 2022 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,

I own a small comedy club, and we’ve struggled with ticket sales during the pandemic, even as restrictions have been eased. Last weekend, for the first time in a while, we sold out a show and had a long line out the door. I wanted to post a picture on social media, but I was worried that the image of a crowd might put off potential patrons. Is this a reasonable concern?


You are contrasting two social forces and asking which is stronger: the power of norms (everyone is going to your club!) or the fear of gathering in crowds.

A study conducted in China in 2020 sheds some light on your dilemma. The study found that 37% more people dined out when they were told that their neighbors were also doing so. The researchers noted that in an atmosphere of uncertainty, information about what other people were doing (a descriptive norm) weighed heavily. Without the uncertainty, however, the descriptive norm made little difference: The researchers told subjects that all their neighbors were doing something considered to be perfectly safe (visiting a park), to virtually no effect.

In your case, I suspect that the picture showing people lined up for your club would be appealing. You could also add reassuring information, like noting the improvements in local Covid conditions or the precautions your club is taking to protect patrons, such as mask requirements and proof of vaccination.


Dear Dan,

I’m a journalist at a small newspaper serving a community that is largely non-white and low income. I proposed doing a story about the environment, but the editorial board is concerned that this topic won’t resonate with our readers. How should I proceed?


The perception that Americans of color and those with low incomes care less about the environment than white Americans may be common, but it is both patronizing and false.
In a 2018 study, researchers asked Americans how concerned they were—and how concerned they thought a variety of other people were—about environmental issues. Most respondents thought that young people, white people and women were the most worried about the environment. But in reality, Latino, Asian, Black and low-income Americans reported being the most concerned.

Why might these communities be particularly concerned about the environment? To begin with, they are disproportionately likely to live in neighborhoods with high levels of pollution, little green space and high concentrations of waste sites. Daily exposure to environmental risks may raise awareness and concern among Americans of color and those with low incomes.

So your editorial board is most likely wrong. To help such a story resonate with your readership—and to correct misperceptions around the issue—you might consider reporting your story in a way that reflects the ethnic and economic diversity of those who are concerned about the environment.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.