Ask Ariely: On Interviews, Luck, and the Canoe Test

February 16, 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 recently had a job interview on a rainy day, and it went very poorly. I made a point of getting to the interview site early, and I relaxed by buying a cup of tea and sitting down to read at a local coffee shop. The book I was reading at the time was a policy manifesto by two political theorists whose views I strongly disagree with.

Which is more likely to have contributed to my poor job-interview performance: the cold and miserable January weather or spending 20 minutes reading ideas I greatly dislike? Which is more important for job candidates before a big interview: consulting the weather forecast or spending time reading material that makes them happy?


Sorry about the outcome of the interview, but the lesson from this episode might be worthwhile in the long term. I suspect that you had some implicit emotions based on the weather and the book, but the way you experienced these emotions was more general and diffuse. In your mind, your mood was connected to everything around you, which made you uncomfortable about everything you experienced—including, unfortunately, the interview. Assuming that you don’t have a perfect poker face, your feelings must have been apparent to the interviewer, and your overall appeal went down.

Though I suspect that both the weather and the book contributed to your negative mood, if I had to guess I’d vote for the book as having the larger impact. For your next interview, take a funny book with you, and with a thick marker write on your underwear “I am the best.” Both of these methods of preparation should put you in a good mood and improve your chances. Good luck.


Dear Dan,

Are there people who are just lucky? I think so—only I’m not one of them.


I think some people are luckier, but it’s not the kind of luck that gets you more money at the roulette wheel. Luckier people tend to try more frequently, and by trying more often they also succeed more. Think about a basketball player who attempts to shoot three times in a game, compared with one who tries 30 times. Even if the first one has a better shooting percentage, in absolute numbers, you can’t compare the two.

On top of that, if you notice the successes of other people and don’t pay much attention to their failures, you will basically see the absolute number of successes and not notice the percentage of successes.

So, what’s the advice? First, life is a numbers game—so try more frequently. Second, it’s good to look at the number of things that other people attempt—not just their successes.


Dear Dan,

In one of the chapters of “The Upside of Irrationality” you suggest a canoe ride as a good indicator of the success of a future relationship, since it often gives one person plenty of opportunity to blame the other for things that go wrong. Here is the question: Would it matter that one of the participants knows it’s a test?

P.S. Before my ex-wife and I got married, we did go on a canoe ride, and it was the worst experience ever. Just to add to your statistics…


Like most tests in life, the canoe trial works best when the people in question don’t know they are taking part in a test. Tests make us feel that watchful eyes are on us, so we try to put on our best behavior. If your loved one knows about it, the test is not valid.

Now that I think about it, maybe the real trick is to try to persuade your partner that she is often in a test and being watched. I have always suspected that once people have the Nielsen ratings machines installed in their homes they start watching more PBS and fewer reality shows.

Maybe if you persuaded your significant other that you have some “Ariely Romantic Ratings Machine” installed in your house, your domestic life will improve. Perhaps you should start a company to provide such a service?

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal here.