Ask Ariely: On Dog Droppings, Working Late, and Trying Out Girlfriends

April 27, 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,

My partner and I live in a pretty 250-townhouse condo development, but we have a problem with people who don’t clean up after their dogs. Some are residents of our condo, but others are just passing through. Our condo fees pay someone big bucks to clean up after the dogs, and there’s a $50 fine when owners fail to clean up after their dogs. But you have to know who the dog owner is, catch him in the act, and report him to the condo corporation. This policy is not working. What can we do? 


We need to consider two forces in this situation: the positive force of social norms and the negative force of deterrence.

In terms of social norms, a great deal of research shows that what people do is less a function of what’s legal than of what they find socially acceptable. So if dog owners see a lot of droppings around the condo area, they will find it perfectly acceptable to continue in this tradition, but they would feel guilty leaving some doggy souvenirs behind if the grounds were pristine. So what is the lesson from social norms? For one, it means that violators are not only acting selfishly but are also making it more likely that others will follow. It also means that you should work extra hard to establish a better social norm—because once the social norm is set to clean up after the dogs, the good behavior will maintain itself.

In terms of deterrence, you can’t do much about outsiders, but I think you should try something more exotic with your condo neighbors. The way I see it, in the current “game” the dog owners try to hide the droppings, and the managers try to catch and punish the owners. I would try to alter the game so that it’s among the condo dog owners.

What if the condo management put money in a community fund to pay for a droppings-cleaner, as needed, and used whatever was left at the end of the month for a get-together for all dog owners and their dogs? If lots of money remained each month, the party would include food, drinks and doggy treats; if there was no money, it would just be water. This way, failing to clean up after the dogs would damage the community—the personal and social cost of these actions would increase—and people would be more careful.


Dear Dan,

My friend recently started working at a consultancy. We’d both heard about the brutally long working hours, but what surprised us was how people prized the number of hours they clocked, even when this went up to a ridiculous 16 hours a day. In this age when people are almost forced to have varied interests to define themselves, why would the consultants be shouting their boring lifestyles from the rooftops?


This kind of behavior might seem odd, but there are a few ways to reason about it. First, I suspect that in the world of consulting it is hard to estimate directly how good any particular individual is. If you worked in such a place, you would want your managers to know how good you are—but if they couldn’t directly see your quality, what would you do? Working many hours and telling everyone about it might be the best way to give your employer a sense of your commitment—which they might even confuse with your quality.

This is a general tendency. Every time we can’t evaluate the real thing we are interested in, we find something easy to evaluate and make an inference based on it. I often hear people complain, for example, about the cleanliness of airplane bathrooms. The reality is that we don’t really care about the bathrooms—what we should all care about is the functioning of the engines. But engines are hard to evaluate, so we focus on the bathrooms. Maybe people reason that if the airline is taking care of the bathrooms, it is probably taking care of the engines a well.

Another possibility: Your friend could be using the long working ours to keep score in some competition with his friends at work. This may not be the smartest contest, but people are highly motivated to win in almost every aspect of life—just look at the range of dares and ridiculous competitions on TV. From this perspective, maybe this is not the worst sort of competition for your friend to get into.


Dear Dan,

In your last column you gave advice about the need to experience other people’s kids in order to decide if you should or should not have kids of your own. Does that advice hold for deciding if I should or should not marry my current girlfriend? 


In general, it is advisable to carry out experiments in a way that matches as much as possible the circumstances that you want to understand (in this case, how it would feel to be with this person for decades to come), so I would recommend spending two weeks with your girlfriend’s mother.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.