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Ask Ariely: On Perfection Premiums and Digital Devices

October 9, 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.

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Dear Dan,

Every time my sister hosts a dinner party, she insists that every last tidbit of food she serves be homemade. This high standard is wearing on her. To make her life easier, I proposed buying a few items, but she balked at the idea. Why is she so invested in making everything from scratch, despite the stress?

—Roxanne 

Your sister might be experiencing a “perfection premium,” which is the tendency to overrate something because it’s perfect—and in her case, 100% homemade.

The perfection premium was demonstrated in a study about socks. Researchers asked some people how much more they would pay for socks that were 100% Merino wool compared with socks that were 98% Merino wool. They asked others about their willingness to pay for socks that were 96% Merino wool compared with socks that were 94%Merino. In both cases, the question was about the value they placed on an additional 2% wool—but in the first case, that 2% made the socks a perfect 100% wool, while in the second case, it was just an increase of 2% more Merino wool. The participants were willing to pay much more for the 2% increase when it brought the total to a perfect 100% compared to when it was just a 2% increase.

These findings show that people place a premium on perfection, perhaps because we put things that are perfect in a different mental category than those that are near-perfect. For your sister, making 95% of a meal from scratch rather than 100% may have the benefit of saving time, but it would cost her with the loss of the perfection premium. With this in mind, Instead of interfering with her pride in a perfectly home-cooked meal, you could try to work with it—for example, by suggesting that she purchase desserts from a baker at a local farmer’s market. These items aren’t technically ‘homemade,” but you might be able to help her think about them as such.

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Dear Dan,

My teenage kids spend a lot of time on their phones, especially on social media. I’m worried about what all this screen time does to their mental health. Should I put strict limits on their screen time?

—Yasmin 

How your kids use their devices matters much more than for how long they use them —especially during times when face-to-face interactions are limited, such as school vacations or during COVID-19.

Over a period of six weeks during Peru’s most stringent COVID-19 lockdown, researchers in Peru surveyed teenagers about screen time. They asked about their subjects’ experiences online: their feelings of loneliness or of wellbeing and their sources of social support. The study found that chatting with friends and family or joining multiplayer video games had a positive effect on the teenagers and left them feeling less lonely and with higher well-being. Passive engagements, on the other hand—such as enviously scrolling through retouched Instagram selfies—took a toll on teens’ loneliness and wellbeing.

Given that forming friendships and interacting with people outside of the family is especially important to teenagers, spending more time online during COVID could be positive, provided that the time online is used to actively engage with others and not to passively engage with the digital world.

See the original article in the Wall Street Journal.